A word not unlike nigger

As a student of linguistics I know the immense weight that language carries beyond just a means of communication. And nothing reflects that in Saudi Arabia as does the use of the word hurma (singular) and hareem (plural) to refer to women. Before the ultra-conservative fundamentalist direction that many people of the GCC countries have taken, women were not referred to this way. At the time of the Prophet (PBUH) and in standard and classic Arabic, the words muraa and nissa were used. However in the past century, as more and more things were deemed prohibited concerning women, the word haram (prohibit) was slightly altered to refer to women. Yes, you read right, women are referred to in GCC dialects as “the prohibited”. This has been so ingrained into the language that women themselves use it. A Saudi woman speaking naturally and casually will say “Ana hurma(I am a prohibition)”.   Even I unthinkingly use it.

26 Comments

Filed under Culture, Gender Apartheid

26 responses to “A word not unlike nigger

  1. I guess many women here do feel like “a prohibition” since so many freedoms and opportunities are prohibited to them. Changing the mentality of this requires a major shift in one’s own vision of self-worth. When I was a young woman, Helen Reddy’s hit song “I Am Woman” always made me feel strong and empowered! Interesting post, Eman – I had no idea.

  2. hi, thats fascinating…but can you tell me more in what contexts it might be used and with what connotations? i really enjoy your blog

    • saudiwoman

      It is used in every context that woman and women is used in spoken speech. And it has been used for so long that the connotations of prohibition have become blunted. Like I wrote in the post, even though I oppose it’s use, I catch myself saying it.

  3. Women in our family always had scolded us for using this word. I wish all women do so too.

    we use Sitt, Sittat and nissa instead ..

  4. Hello SaudiWoman, I like your blog.

    Let me however shed some light on the origin of the word “hurma” in the Arabic language. I do not claim to be a historian, however I do I know that the use of the word was not initiated in the conservative GCC countries and has nothing to do with their mentality.

    Let’s go further back in time before the GCC folks, and trace the origin of the association of the word with women.
    The word was used as far back as the Ottoman Empire, the word “AL Haramlak” was used to refer to an area in their palaces that was prohibited for outsiders to access or get into as it was the place where the women of the palace e.g. the Sultan’s wives and maybe mother and female relatives would live and go about their daily activities, and that may explain the close association of the word with women in later times; It was the “place” that was prohibited or “haram” because the women were there.

    Going further back in history, as a linguistic you may also know that the origin of the
    word “haram” حرام in Arabic language is used to refer to one’s “hurma” حرمة not woman , English is not my mother tongue so I cannot really give an exact English word for it, but let me try, one’s “hurma” means something is so sacred that it is considered an ultimate sin to disturb it, or touch it, or exploit its sacredness by others. There is a Hadeeth “prophet’s saying” which you may know that demonstrates the use of the word:
    إن أموالكم ودماءكم و أعراضكم حرام عليكم…كحرمة يومكم هذا في بلدكم تكملة الحديث…
    I leave the translation to you since you are the linguistic ;-)
    and you see how the word is used to refer to many things other than women ( a sacred time, one’s land, and one’s wealth, among others) and means not the “thing” or “person” itself but its “status” …. it is so sacred and precious that it becomes prohibited to others to exploit without one’s consent.

    In this sense, one’s land for example is one’s “haram” it carries a “hurma” it is prohibited that others steal it or take it from him.

    In recent times when the focus is all on the women and how to disturb their lives as much as possible the word “hurma” when mentioned it means one and only one thing!

    Hope this help shed some light on the word’s origin and its association with women.

    sorry for the ling comment!

    • saudiwoman

      You are referring to harem in the West’s oriental sense and not Arabic. The very same Hadeeth that you used has both words, the first prohibition and the second sacredness, i.e. they are homonyms and both are equally bad when referring to a woman. I believe as a native speaker that it is used in the prohibition sense but even if it were used in the sense of sacredness then that objectifies women and turns them into property.

      • Thanks for the reply!

        Actually the word came to the west from the Ottomans.

        I am not arguing that the word in its current use is not as bad, I just wanted to bring to the attention that the word’s origin is not as bad as you describe it and that its history goes beyond the GCC.
        It is NOT a Bedouin culture invention; however is is this culture that wrapped it up with cultural layers that gave it this demeaning feel today.

        Linguistically speaking the word is innocent :-)

        and excuse my typo in the previous comment, I mean to write “you are the linguist” not you are the linguistic.

      • saudiwoman

        @Entropy
        No the word was inspired by the Ottomans but actually used by western orientalists whose studies were all built on the assumption that Humanity in the East is inferior. I have never come across the word harem in Arabic as it is used in English. You address another misconception that GCC natives are all bedouins or nomads. It is actually half settlers hather (settlers) and nomads. My whole tribe are hather, they have never wandered deserts but always lived in towns and cities.

  5. What a way to think of yourself! Even if not consciously, the association with “prohibited” has to impact women’s psyche. I can’t imagine, and I’m so glad I can’t imagine! (I enjoy your blog, although I don’t think I’ve ever commented before.)

  6. The use of those particular words should be prohibited!
    I agree fully with you: such linguistics have an insidious effect on the psyge.

  7. What about the use of the word “Al-ahl” never my wife or my mother… just the word “Family” even if they were newly wed… I’ve hated that word, and the word Hurma…

    However, it is sometimes how you say the word that counts more than the word itself.

    • saudiwoman

      Yes I was going to add that to the post but then I thought a more focused and shorter post would be better. What I find really offensive and alhamdlAllah has practically died out is the use of the word tikrum when you mention a woman in polite society just as you would when you mention the bathroom. My father once told me that he and some other officers actually walked out on another officer when he used the word after mentioning his wife.

      • Not to belittle wives, but I had a coworker that told me that he and his friends used to say tikram and aazakAllah when mentioning their mothers in front of each other… they were kids and he regretted that, now that he got older.

        This is of course not the same as being embarrassed to be seen with a parent during the early teenage years… if you know what I mean :)

  8. Salaams Saudiwoman:

    I must say that I was taken aback by the post title; really, I don’t see the association with the “n” word … that aside,

    in the Spanish language, the word for “wife” and “handcuffs” is the same – esposa

    • Chiara

      The Spanish for husband is esposo, and French and Italian have cognate pairings, as does English (spouse for both), all from the latin. Except in English the verb to marry is the same derivation esposar, etc. In the best sense the meaning is to join together, as handcuffs join the 2 hands. Then again, sometimes the meaning is more “these chains that bind”. LOL :)

  9. Salam alaikum sis,

    I am confused by this, although I get what you are saying. But why compare it to the “N” word to make your point?

    Your blog is very interesting, glad I found it.

  10. oh i have used it so many times, i think it cursed me indeed :)
    Thanks Eman for such insights needed in our culture

  11. Hurma is the turkish word for dates.

    So can you picture the face of a vendor in Mekkah when an old turkish Haji is asking for Hurma?

    And Harem comes from haram… In turkish a lot of the letter ‘a’ is replaced with ‘e’.

    i.e. Kamal – Kemal ; alif – elif; Muhammad – Muhammed…

    Yet, the west gave the word Harem o totally new meaning ;)

    • Chiara

      Thanks for the explanation and comical image. It makes sense that the Western Orientalist “harem” is not a “haram”, as Orientalism as currently configured is a 19thC phenomenon, when the Ottoman Empire met the European ones, and those Orientalist “travel writers” who actually took a voyage would not have to go far (only as far as Tunisia) to encounter the Ottoman Empire.

  12. My oldest daughter was a handful when she was young. One day, a friend gave me a copy of a book called the Strong-Willed Child. The premise of the book was an old one – but it literally changed the way I interacted wit my daughter: I’d gotten into the habit of thinking of her as “stubborn” and “difficult” and a whole host of other negative emotion words. The book allowed me to see the other side of “stubborn” as “strong-willed” and reminded me just how powerful our internal language – and our external language – can be.

    Which gets me to this wonderful post, Eman. Allowing women to be called “prohibited” or other similar words impacts how women are seen by others and by themselves. It colors everything – and frankly, it explains so much!

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  13. Chiara

    Great topic and post! I wish I had sufficient Arabic to appreciate the nuances of the discussion, particularly between yourself and Qusay, although I followed some of it.

    Up until now I was only aware of the Moroccan (and North African?) use of the word “dar” ie home or house to mean “woman” or “wife”. That I found offensive enough, but haram and hurma take it to a whole new level. Rather like the Christian term “the curse” to refer to menstruation. Women, thanks to Eve, are the accursed who must bleed for their sins. Hmmm.

    These words, like nigger as well (and thank you for using it in full) should not be prohibited but exposed for their meanings, and used judiciously to create knowledge and insight. They have become “dead metaphors” in the sense that Paul Ricoeur uses the term, ie cliches so common in the language that they transmit the fundamental beliefs of the society without anyone noticing the metaphor anymore. Rather like Lakoff and Johnson’s “metaphors we live by”. Discussing them and writing about them consciously are important to the linguistic and intellectual “archeology” (a la Foucault) of the society and culture.

    Orientalism, as Edward Said elaborated, was not just European projections of inferiority on the East, but “orientalists” reading other orientalists and adopting their views without having visited the East themselves. In literature this resulted in a set of fixed tropes including the harem, and the lotus flower with no real knowledge of either, reality not being so much the point (especially for 19th century Romanticism) as the usefulness of the image for the literary work. Thus have many waxed lyrical about the lotus flower while never having seen one except in a drawing, or perhaps only read someone else’s fanciful description, and a “knowledge base” built on such weak foundations.

    The harem similarly has its fanciful “truths”. One that some feminist Arab writers and cineastes seem to flirt with as well, eg Fatima Mernissi in her memoir, and a Moroccan woman in a film about her grandmother’s life in the harem (sorry title gone from brain but beautiful images and moral of the story–get out and get an education–live on).

    Thanks for such a great post and discussion!

  14. Salam
    nice blog ,glad I stumbled up on it. 
    I really find this post surprising as I always been surrounded by strong and high spirited women. I too was sculded by my prents if I usede that words even In a Joke because many people will take it very wrong  But as I heard and saw many woman using very normally .Any how I’m  native Saudi my tribe originated from Madina and I was born and raised in Makkah i know that in Arabic language they call those things which are so precious and should be kept  sacred and guarded like their house, kids money and jwelary  a word hurma used  that’s why  the women use that words as it is culturally not really considered offensive except for few women  these days who do not accept it any more and it is their right off course . 
    As you know with time and people changes a word get used for it’s new meaning despite it’s origin as the word nice in English it used to mean stupid or foolish  now it means pleasant they even did not change the word spelling or pronounceation  
    MEN also call themself Mahram when they present them self as a guadian to their ladies . I know that traditionally from middle estern point of view it mean a privilige to be hurma and not an easily violated human being but in westernized mentality  the who concept is different and they might not get the local traditions .

    Thanks and Happy Eid  to everyone

    • Also the most sacred place on Earth In Makkah that all Muslim pray toward it 5 times aday and go to hajj to is called Haram Taken from the meaning of sacred to the word Haraam
      (sorry had to add that …. Very slow internt connection on my iPhone may be due to the Eid)

  15. Asalaam aleikum and thank you for this post. I’m not a Saudi (I grew up as an expat in Dhahran and learnt Arabic as a second language) and I have always used the word ‘hurma’ without giving a second thought to its origins. I’ve even seen it in some dictionaries and phrasebooks. When I was a teenager, someone did gently tell me that they would prefer me not to say ‘hurma’ and suggested muraa as an alternative, but I objected to that because hurma is the easier of the two for me to pronounce.

    I wish somebody had told me about the etymology of the word sooner. I must have offended a lot of people without meaning to. Perhaps they didn’t correct me because they felt they ought to make allowances for my lack of fluency? Either way, I wish they had.

  16. quite interesting, I’ve started using hurma to denote women due to my MIL who used the term. Until than I used the word nisa.

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