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What Do Humans Share? From the local to the global, and back again by Mineke Schipper

What Do Humans Share?

From the local to the global, and back again


Us and them


Since time immemorial human beings have created binaries, devising images of themselves as against those of others. They have embed­ded these images in their myths, stories, songs, proverbs, and other forms of artis­tic expres­sion. It is crucial for us as humans – living (so far) on our one and only planet earth – to become aware of the how and the why of similarities in our tradi­tions, literary themes, genres, and so forth. Our striking commonalities as human beings have to do with the shape and functions of the human body and its basic needs, such as food, shelter, safety and procreation. And with emotions such as fear, longing, joy and sorrow that we all experience as humans living on planet earth. We always have two options: to insist on differences or to look for what we share. In daily life people seem inclined to blow up differences.

Us and them, Self and Other, the dra­wing of demarca­tion lines has separated people in an ongoing history of inclusion and exclusion, often with devastating consequences. Cultural differences have rarely been acknowledged as self-evi­dent and the definition of what is human often extends no further than the borders of one’s own group, country, religion, race or sex – the borders of one’s own language, continent and culture. The barbarians are always the others. Thus the ancient Greeks viewed Romans as barbarians. Romans did the same with the peoples they subjugated. Aryans looked down on Jews and Jews on Palestinians. Euro­peans felt they were more civi­lized than Indians and Africans, but did not realize that to these peoples, Western savagery had become prover­bial. In Chi­na, the Wall was the dividing line between culture and barbarism. The philosopher Shao Yong (1011-1077) expressed his ethnocen­tric mentality quite clearly when he stated: ‘I am happy becau­se I am a human being and not an animal, a man and not a woman, a Chinese and not a barbarian, and because I live in Luoyang, the most beautiful city in the world’. The tendency to judge others as being inferior to one’s own group is widespread, for the truthful­ness of world views is often less valued than our own prevailing inte­rests. Ideally, we should be able to consider oursel­ves agai­nst the background of others, in just the same way as we put others against our own background. It takes tremendous efforts to switch off one’s own traditional perspective.


Origin stories, proverbs and gendered hierarchies

Over the centuries differences between the sexes became one of the most blown up differences worldwide, as reflected in literary genres shared globally, such as origin stories and proverbs. Origin stories present a desired hierarchical sexual order, while proverbs reflect a precarious gendered power balance. First some examples from creation stories:


The Lord of Heaven decided to fashion first ten men and then ten women out of the flesh and bones of fowl. As soon as he began working on the women he ran out of material, and had to take clay instead. As a result the women created had no strength and were too weak to labour. The Lord of Heaven then infused strength into their bodies. However, the women now became so powerful that the men were no match for them. Considering this to be unsuitable, the Lord took back half of their strength. (Oroqen, China)


Hinegba took some earth and made man out of it. He then took some more earth and made woman out of it. Man is physically stronger than woman because he was created first, that is before the strength of the earth had been sapped by the creation of an earlier human being out of it. (Kwotto, Nigeria)


Aware of Adam’s loneliness God created the first woman out of dust. Her name was Lilith. However, he had not used pure dust but filth and sediment instead. (Jewish)


The Kwotto and the Oroquen live far away from each other, without cultural contact when the above stories came into being, but in both examples a male creator makes man first, using top quality material. The Jewish apocryphal story about Adam and Lilith originates from still another area. Instead of the pure carefully chosen dust God had used for Adam’s creation, He used dirty material for the first woman, without explanation. In all three, when it comes to the making of woman, something goes wrong. Is this just accidental?

Moreover, in all three myths, God creates woman later than man, and in most other myths (in my collection of more than 500) the answer to the question ‘Who comes first?’ is also: man. The second human is then usually a woman. Is this sheer coincidence? There are myths in which God creates a complete first man and then goes on to shape the first woman from a small part taken from the male body: rib or big toe, or a piece of flesh from the first man’s thigh; or from the first man’s shadow. Or the creator only shapes the first man with his own divine hands, and orders him to model the first woman for a wife with his own male hands. Looking into that question one finds lots of coincidences.

Why would a creator make the first man from material he holds in his right hand and the first woman from material he holds in his left hand, as happens in a Bashkir story? What to think if the first woman is being created from the leftovers of the first created man (e.g. Karanga or Greek)? Or if the first female has been made from the dead body of one of the first two created human males (Samoa)? Why did so many origin myths need to diminish woman vis-à-vis man?

In reality pregnancy, childbirth and nursing are undeniably women’s business, and the preceding physical processes of fertilisation, conception, and the growth of the embryo take place in the dark room of the womb. These mysteries have led to guesswork of all kinds. And the traditional reactions reflect a deep male need for compensation since times immemorial. Myths and proverbs provide amazing insight into this desperate need and its consequences in world history.

In most cultures men’s names, words, roles and activities have been much more prominently represented than those of women – and this is still the case. The same priority holds for most stories about humanity’s beginning. Much of human history has been structured by religions suggesting that heaven required women to submit to men. Arguing that women were less godlike, less spiritual and ‘more impure’ than men, men invented religious sanctions to control women’s sexuality in ways ranging from menstrual and other taboos to prescriptions (or rather restrictions) regarding female roles, behaviour, dress, work etc. In many ways, and until quite recently, such restrictive rules efficiently segregated most women from public life and intellectual culture. Why was there a need to take such measures on such a worldwide scale?

Obviously stories of humanity’s origin make up for women’s formidable procreativity by inventing comparable or even more prestigious male achievements. This holds for divine male creators and for human male characters alike. Who holds the key to the mystery of humanity’s origin? It looks as if this unanswerable question resulted in a regrettable competitiveness. In the course of history women’s leading position as the spectacular birth-giver resulted in a dramatically disadvantageous position in most other domains of life. Similar messages belittling women and their roles in society are confirmed in the proverb, another powerful popular genre insisting on sexual hierarchy. Insisting on the importance of having sons meant belittling baby girls even at birth:

A whole night of labour, and then only a daughter. (Spanish)

Many sons, many blessings of God; many daughters, many calamities. (German)

When a girl is born, even the roofs are crying. (Bulgarian)

Let’s pray to the Prophet until the boy comes. (Arabic)

Proverbs from China could not agree more:

Ten fine girls are not equal to one cripple boy.

A stupid son is better than a crafty daughter.

It is a blessing to bear a son, a calamity to bear a daughter.

Over the centuries such messages were often taken for granted, at least publicly. In the twentieth century tremendous changes (especially birth control) have transformed millions of women’s lives. For the first time in history, men and women are being equally educated and doing the same jobs, at least this holds for the happy few – in spite of all the impediments invented all over the world, to prevent this from happening. Proverbs sketch equal access to education and public roles as a most unwelcome or even nightmarish scenario. Consciously or subconsciously, cross-cultural traditional legacies mirrored in humanity’s myths and proverbs have visibly left their marks all over the planet.

Proverbs are a telling part of a serial narrative, and, amazingly, people easily understand proverbs about men and women from cultures they have never heard of. The world’s smallest literary genre is an excellent help in building cross-cultural bridges. In my growing collection of over 15.000 proverbs (, I discovered significant messages: an ideal wife is younger, smaller, and less talented than her husband, because easier to mould into the desired shape. Talented, and especially learned, women are warned that success in the public arena will bring them nothing but bad luck. Metaphorically women’s small feet, then, indicate ‘the right measure’ in marital relationships, but this proverbial ‘right measure’ equates with a relationship on an unequal footing. ‘Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own’, the Sena people (Malawi and Mozambique) say: a man must choose a wife over whom he can exercise authority.

A few years ago I discussed this African proverb, which inspired the title of my book on this topic, with proverb expert Liu Xiaolu at the Chinese Academy (CASS) in Beijing. He smiled and immediately quoted a similar Chinese proverb: ‘A woman with long feet ends up alone in a room.’ Ending up alone is considered to be the tragic fate of a talented woman, as no man will dare marry her. Dr Liu added another popular Chinese saying: ‘When a woman has no talents, she is already doing very well.’ In Chinese culture long female feet have not only been pejorative figuratively; in the past women’s feet have also been shortened physically for beautifying reasons. References to the size of feet or shoes also exist in an Indian Telegu saying, warning girls not to develop their feet spectacularly: ‘If a girl gets long feet, she will be in trouble after marriage.’ And in Hebrew: ‘No one desires a shoe that is larger than my foot.’ Women’s metaphorical big feet spectacularly reflect male fear of losing control. Given the fact that, usually, women have shorter feet than men, proverbs have aptly selected this traditional message as a convincing metaphor for ideal gender relationships.

Over the years I have talked about this research in many places – and not only in acade­mic cir­cles or the European Parliament, but also to large audiences of rural women, in a Kenyan mosque, a Dutch synago­gue, in churches, and schools. The proverbs themselves provoke all sorts of lively reactions, from amazed amusement to indignation, and hilarious recognition. Does this worldwide ancestral legacy still make sense in this our 21st century? My answer is yes.

Literary genres that we share as humans present a fascinating mirror of mainly male perspectives on ‘ideal’ and ‘deviant’ womanhood, and on ‘ideal’ and ‘deviant’ norms of manhood. This global mirror shows that times and images are changing, but also reminds us that, because of these legacies, even today, innumerable women still enjoy (or allow themselves) considerably less freedom than men. In order to define where we want to go, and where we do not want to go, as men and women today, we first of all need to know where we come from.




Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World.


Animals walk, run, creep, fly or swim dressed in their own skin, hair, feathers or scales, but our human ancestors gradually covered and adorned their bodies with materials other than those Mother Nature gave them. They did so in order to look more attractive or more powerful, to camouflage defects, to protect themselves against cold, heat and injury, or to cover their shame. And we still do that for the very same reasons.

Naked or covered, the body brings about emotions. Our appearance in the public space has become a business card that others read at first glance as a text about gender, race, profession, religion, attractiveness, eating disorders, drinking habits, coquetry, self-restraint – to mention just a few aspects. A judgement is quickly passed.

Who are we and who are we forced to be on behalf of others? People meet and greet or pass each other by – indifferently or critically, or even openly appreciating what they see. It is nice to be complimented, but what to do with an unambiguous show of disapproval? In the dying light of a late afternoon, I was travelling from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam. On the afterdeck of a ferry I was standing next to three women wearing long black abayas, as many women do on the East African coast. The weather was windy and one of the women was seasick. ‘Are you all right now?’, I asked her after a while, and we began a conversation. It didn’t take long before she and her two friends began to admonish me because of my dress. I was wearing a T-shirt and long trousers and also a jacket – but no, this was not enough. I should start wearing an abaya as they did, a dress that would also cover my naked head: ‘If you don’t, you will burn in the eternal fire in the afterlife.’ They were sure about that.

I tried to object that Allah would want to know whether we had been good people rather than what kind of clothes we had been wearing during our lives. In vain. They strongly maintained that paradise would only be accessible for women who had covered themselves completely and modestly: ‘Please, look at the way we are dressed. No, wait, you’d better take photographs of us to show to female friends in your part of the world. If they don’t follow our example, they will also burn in hell.’

I made photographs. Their wide black garments concealed their bodies, but their faces were uncovered – until they noticed the mistake: ‘Just a moment, one more photograph, please.’ With a quick arm gesture each of them pulled a piece of cloth from behind to cover their faces. Only their eyes and their hands were left visible. ‘You see, this is the way every woman should dress if she wants to have any chance to enter paradise after death. This is the photograph you must show to women in your country.’ No doubt they wanted the best for me and for all other women in the world, but how many of my countrywomen would be ready to believe that such an all-covering black dress would save them from hell?

Back in Amsterdam. ‘Dress less to impress’ is the message to passers-by in streets and metro stations that posters shout out from huge billboards on which a thin woman dressed in scanty underwear is lying in suggestive poses. No doubt the message ‘Dress less to impress’ does have little appeal to Western men. The only garment many Western men have abolished is the tie, but in the office rarely more than two shirt buttons are undone. In contemporary Western society uncovering more than usual might be felt as detrimental to one’s image of manliness.

Since humans began meeting other humans with different ideas about nakedness, the world has become much more complicated. We know what we have difficulty with in others, but usually we don’t have the slightest notion of how others see us. In the Western world each individual has, within the limits of the law, a lot of freedom, and that freedom may be confusing to newcomers. Those who have been brought up with the idea that only completely covered women are modest, need to unlearn that ‘nakedness’ and chastity are mutually exclusive.

The naked body continues to preoccupy people. Every day the media bring news about nakedness, protest against nakedness and nakedness as protest. In some places uncovered parts of the body have caused fatwas resulting in people being molested or murdered, whereas elsewhere the naked body is eagerly exposed to whoever wants to see it. The dictatorship of creative advertisers makes women unpack their bodies and no less creative religious authorities make women do the reverse. In both cases the majority complies with the rules. People hold widely diverging ideas about ‘nakedness’. An outfit appreciated by one person can be experienced as shocking by his neighbour, and the tendency to judge others as being inferior is widespread.

Each human comes naked into the world and our earliest ancestors, though much hairier than we are now, went about without a stitch on. Most people show their hands, noses, mouths, cheeks and eyes to others without much embarrassment, but are usually inclined to hide their genitals and buttocks. Why did humanity gradually get caught up in such a complicated moral web of clothing rules?

Shame is not only due to matters or situations relating to sex or visible body parts. The idea that shame goes away as soon as our pubic region is covered appears to be as serious an error as believing that shame did not exist before people ever covered their bodies. Shame pops up in people as soon as they deviate from required social behaviour and leads to feelings of disapproval, ridicule or rejection. As none of us want to make a fool of ourselves, we tend to adapt to our own group, especially in societies where survival depends on the support of fellow clan members. It is an illusion to think that completely covering all humans belonging to one sex would prevent the other sex’s excitement. Covered bodies may be more exciting than naked ones. The ways of shame and excitement are surprisingly unpredictable and we are all confronted with both throughout our lives.