I’m currently in my second year of Arabic, which has been an entirely fascinating and enjoyable endeavor, but which has made certain kinds of racism absolutely jump out at me in ways I’d never experienced before. There was my awkward experience getting my hair cut, for one, but most of it has to do with words.
For example, one of the very first words I learned in Arabic was “bint.” It just means daughter, or, by extension, girl. It’s a wholly unremarkable word. However, I hear it used as an insult, and whereas before I’m not sure I would even have noticed, I find it almost painful now.
The origin of the word as an English derogatory term apparently comes from the British occupation of Egypt. That is to say, English-speakers interacting with Arabic-speakers. Who took an Arabic word unchanged and applied it as an insult, despite the fact that there’s nothing derogatory about being a “bint,” except that it probably means one speaks Arabic. Because of this, I posit that “bint” as a derogatory is an inherently racist usage.
I have also heard it suggested that the word is really a portmanteu of “bitch” and “cunt.” I’m not totally convinced that’s a lot better, but regardless, I think it’s a sort of “folk etymology,” which often happens when a word is in use but no one remembers the original origin; people make up a new one, and pass that along. (A little like a backronym.) The historical usage of the word, according to my research, points much more strongly to an Arabic origin.
So, this is actually a pretty simple example, for me: when I see someone using “bint” in a derogatory manner, I alert them to its origin and racist connotations and ask they they refrain from using it. But it’s not the only use of Arabic that I find problematic.
My big question right now surrounds the word “madrasa.” It means a place for things that are studied, just like “maktaba” means a place for things that are written. All words in Arabic are created by putting three root letters into patterns to create words. The root K-T-B has to do with writing, so kitab means “book” (thing that is written), katabtu means “I wrote” and maktaba means “library” or “bookstore” (place for things that are written). The root D-R-S refers to studying and learning, so that dirasa means “studies” (thing that is studied, like “women’s studies”), darastu means “I studied,” and madrasa means, well, “place for things that are studied.” My translations are loose and my transliterations looser, but the point should be clear: “madrasa” really just means “school.”
So why does, for example, this story still say madrasa instead of translating it to school?
They gathered in front of the School of the Last Prophet, a madrasa run by Ayatollah Asif Mohsini, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric.
I really don’t know. They translate it when they say the name, “School of the Last Prophet,” but not elsewhere in the story. News stories do this all the time. It stands out to me as weirdly inconsistent. It seems especially unnecessary in this particular sentence. Even if the reporter was unaware that madrasa has no religious connotations in Arabic (which is quite possible!), and therefore chose the word in an attempt to convey that this school did have religious ties (the way we might refer to a “parochial school” in the U.S.), the rest of the sentence already tells us the school’s religious affiliations.
The charitable interpretation is that the reporter believed (erroneously, but in good faith) that a madrasa was, somehow, a kind of school, and was simply trying to be as accurate as possible.
The less charitable interpretation chalks it up to good ol’ racism, conscious or (more likely) subconscious. I think that in English, “madrasa” carries connotations not just of “school” but specifically of “schools where those scary extremist Arabs learn their scary extremist Islam.” A reporter choosing “madrasa” over “school” emphasizes that aspect of the story. It’s an Othering technique, and, I think, almost something of a dog whistle.
But how racist is it? Should I be calling people out on it, explaining that the word really doesn’t mean anything but “school”? For example, in this post at Shakesville, Liss calls the school a madrasa (probably taking her cue from the article.) I’m pretty sure in her case it stems entirely from unawareness that the word doesn’t mean anything special, but I still hesitate to say anything. I’m not Muslim or an Arab; I haven’t even been studying Arabic for so long. Who am I to go on a crusade here? Is the offense really large enough that it needs calling out at every appearance?
With “bint,” the answer is easily yes. With “madrasa,” I’m not so sure. It’s more of a dogwhistle than an actual racial epithet. But it still has unfortunate connotations.
Any readers more qualified than myself have an opinion? I’d love some insight from someone whom this affects more directly.