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“Silence is a sign of contentment”. When will this problematic proverb come to an end?

* Trigger warning: mentions rape and sexual assault

I was born and raised in Morocco where I grew up hearing this proverb on so many occasions, especially when women were involved. Traditionally, in my culture, when a man asks for another man’s blessing to marry his daughter, the father then asks her "do you want to marry this man?" On occasion, the woman will stay silent, which is when the infamous proverb “silence is a sign of contentment” comes into effect. This is then followed by congratulations and a celebratory handshake between the two men, who have just decided the fate of a woman without even hearing a yes from her.

This behaviour does not only show the complete disregard for women's views, but it also teaches young girls that they shouldn't even bother to voice their discontent, because it would not change anything. In fact, some women are silent not because they are following the social standards of muted consent, but in fear of what could happen if they express their disagreement. They feel as if they do not have a choice.

Silence is golden

When I openly questioned this proverb, the answers that I received were usually along the lines of ‘women should be timid’ or ‘saying yes makes women look too eager’. In other words, staying silent is indicative of contentment and of good manners and a good upbringing. Why are women shamed for saying exactly what they want? Why is it dishonourable for a woman to express herself? These women have been taught since an early age that being silent when they want something is graceful and feminine. Yet, while silence might be used to express consent, in many situations it is a basic human reaction that indicates not wanting to engage in something. Thus, a grey area is created where silence can mean yes and no, potentially leading to some very dangerous and difficult consequences for women.

I used to think that this proverb is only used in the marital context, but this questionable proverb is also used in a sexual context too. It is often used to justify rape and is generally accepted as a viable excuse. Most people who have been victims of rape and sexual harassment know that words do not always come out.

This has become a cultural norm that prescribes women to not show that they are sexual beings or express enjoying sex (especially the first time), and should instead let the man "get his way". This again brings us back to the grey area that rapists can use their advantage.

According to an annual report issued in 2017 by the former King's Attorney General, Mohamed Abdel Nabawi, rape cases had doubled that year, revealing over 1,600 reported cases. Statistics have fluctuated substantially since. While considering these statistics, one should keep in mind that a huge majority of rape incidents in Morocco are not reported as victims are usually blamed, shamed and punished by society for what happened to them.

So what would it take for this grey area to disappear?

I believe that it is very complicated to destroy this grey area in a country where premarital sex is illegal and, as a result there is a dire lack of sexual education. My arguments might seem too idealistic, but I will state them anyway:

In my opinion, the first steps that should be taken are: legalising premarital sex, normalising sex in general, and implementing sex education curriculums in schools. This would help alleviate the massive sexual repression that both young people and adults suffer from. Normalising sex could also reduce the amount of sexual aggression, due to the fact that sexual repression can result in perversion, thus leading to rape and sexual harassment.

The natural thing to then follow would be the deconstruction of the idea that women should not express their wants and desires and that they should stay silent. Expressing sexual desires is both empowering and emancipating for women. Teaching young men and women the importance of consent is very important to reach this step, and a crucial part of sex education.

I believe that in order to completely abolish this toxic grey area, consent should be clearly defined in strict terms: consent should always be explicitly expressed through either verbal and/or non-verbal communication: a sentence, a “yes”, sign language, a nod of the head... But never silence!

Meryem is a Master's student at the University of Lorraine, in France, completing an MA in Teaching and Education. In 2020, she obtained a postgraduate degree in Literature, Civilisations and Cultures, and she also specialised in research. She is now pursuing a career in teaching and research as well as in writing, and is interested in cultural studies, art and music. Her Instagram handle is @callme_medusa_.

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