Final Word

Is the Police Commissioner a whistling woman?

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South Africa’s National Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has to explain why she is fit to hold office. Is this just because she is a woman?

Her deputy, Nobulele Mbekela, who is also female, seems to think that it is the case and says her support for Phiyega is “unconditional”, even if it is found that Phiyega is unfit for office.

Mbekela claims most of the people who have criticised Phiyega are men and that men in South Africa have a track record of attacking women in leadership.

This situation reminded me of the almost forgotten phrase “A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men”.

As I dug around to try and establish the origin and full meaning of the phrase, I not only discovered a number of variants of it – like the one that goes “a whistling girl and a crowing hen, never came to any good end” – but that it also has equivalents in just about every language and culture on earth.

The earliest recorded version of the phrase is said to date back to the early 18th century, coming from a Scottish proverb that went: “A crooning cow, a crowing hen and a whistling maid boded never luck to a house.”

According to researchers the phrase became commonly used in English during the course of the 18th century when woman increasingly started performing tasks and activities traditionally reserved for men.

In nature there are instances where hens would crow like roosters, producing a sound that is shrill and by some described as “uncomfortable”. Traditionally it was considered not only as unnatural, but also as a bad omen.

According to an article on The Phrase Finder, likewise, it was considered that females who perform these ‘manly’ activities were unnatural and ill-omened.

One has to admit that the wish of many, probably most, males in most cultures over the ages has been for women to be quiet for the most part and to stay in the background. Their verbal expressions of thought were not valued.

There is, for instance, the old African adage that “if a woman speaks two words, take the one and leave the other”. And there is an Eastern phrase that holds that “a woman’s talk heat from grass”, in other words is worthless.

There is also the old saying that “silence is a fine jewel for a woman, but is little worn”, sometimes also expressed as “silence is the best ornament of a woman”.

Maybe this stems from an element of truth in the popular Chinese proverb that “a woman’s tongue is her sword, and she does not let it rust”. In Wales, they will say, “be she old, be she young, a woman’s strength is her tongue”.

And the Germans have a saying that “when a woman has no answer, the sea is empty of water”.

Final word

The age-old prejudice against women in leadership positions is probably best illustrated by the ancient Portuguese proverb that proclaims “it is a silly flock where the ewe bears the bell”.

There may be an element of truth in Mbekela’s assessment that underlying the views of some of Phiyega’s critics is that they have a problem with the fact that the person calling the proverbial shots at Marikana was female.

But the Farlam Commission’s assessment of what happened at Marikana was about very real shots that left 35 people dead. To declare support for the person who held the final responsibility for police conduct at Marikana as “unconditional” and to reduce the matter to a mere “gender battle” does the cause of gender equality, in every respect, no good.


by Piet Coetzer

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