Of “bint” and “madrasa”

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.


12 Responses to Of “bint” and “madrasa”

  1. Dori says:

    There is actually an alternative interpretation of the use of the word “madrasa” in this context. ::waves at a fellow Arabic student::
    In non-Arab countries, especially countries which are predominantly Muslim, a madrasa is a religious school, most likely carried over from a direct application of words in Arabic from the Qur’an.

    There is a nasty Islamophobic/racist undertone when it is used by a Western news outlet regardless, and they are probably not aware of either of these sets of facts re: madrasas.

    As far as the use of the word “bint,” yes. There seems to be a heavy racist/imperialist edge when it is used as an insult.

  2. Dalal N says:

    I’m “pure-bred” Arabic (as I like to remind people to get them stfu about how Italian/Irish/Hispanic/wtfever I look), born and raised in Jersey. My parents are Palestinian refugees who grew up in Lebanon until they were just after college or so, then moved here (Jersey), met, and married.

    So, I’m pretty Arab. *shrug* But as for bint (or binit as I think it goes in the Lebanese dialect), I’ve never heard it used as an insult…in and among my family and the couple of American spouses and children and friends and so on. I, myself, have felt offended at it as a child when I was called a binit (written phonetically, ’cause I can’t write Arabic for shit.), but I think that was more because I’ve always been the kid who’ll go, “‘EY, I do have a name, you know!”

    Speaking as only one person, I haven’t had the experience of hearing either as racist, but I’ve only heard it used within family and this group is tight-knit.

    Thinking on it…I think it is ignorance, but the kind of ignorance that leads to thinking that all Arabs are crazy Muslim extremists who hate America (I cannot tell you how many eyebrows have been raised when I say that my parents are Greek Orthodox Melkite and I’m ATHIEST). Like… possibly these people think that everything said in Arabic is a curse word? At least, for bint.

    For madrasa, I think that could be more like…how my bro and I refer to stuff from Japan. Manga is a comic, but we still call it manga to distinguish it from American comics. They both have completely different styles and–

    …oh. Snap. I see what you’re saying now. (Note to self, check privilege at door, or at least try not to trip all over it like a fool.)

    ….I think I’m just going to say that I don’t feel like it’s going either way at the moment. Every time I try to type out some other thought, I just keep running myself around in circles.

    I’ll end with a question, ’cause I can’t seem to stfu (sorry), what exactly has been happening in these situations where the word “bint” is used? The idea of someone who isn’t Arabic using Arabic words is just foriegn to me and I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about.

    (Btw, as far as I can tell, your translations are solid. *thumbs up!*)

  3. It’s more of a dogwhistle than an actual racial epithet.
    I have no background in Arabic, but I’d say definitely call it out. It’s the dogwhistle-type things that are more insidious and hard to spot, particularly for those of us that have no background in the language. But madrasa does connote things that school wouldn’t – and most of the connotations don’t benefit the school.

    (BTW, your “backronym” link goes nowhere)

  4. dirtyrose says:

    I’ve always heard the British-English slang meaning of “bint” to be a silly, uptight, or otherwise annoying woman. No racial connotation in the meaning, just in the origin of the word, but I could be wrong, since I’m not a student the language.

  5. dirtyrose says:

    student of the language, obviously.

    And I have the feeling that I AM wrong, just unenlightened. 🙂

  6. Alice says:

    I didn’t know that about bint, so thank you. I don’t use the word myselfd, but I’ve heard family and friends use, so I shall make an effort to inform them.

  7. eloriane says:

    Oh man, I’m glad to hear from so many people! It’s great to have your opinions!

    With “bint,” the insult itself is generally just misogynistic. I see it mostly online, exclusively in English-dominated places. It’s used for sentences like, “That stupid bint doesn’t know her place!” and “Get me my beer already, you stupid bint!” (for whatever reason, I almost always see it with the word “stupid” as well.) It could be replaced with any other insult that means “woman.”

    But that’s not the only thing going on with this word. The Brits were hanging out in Egypt, and they wanted to insult some women. They chose the word “bint.” Why? Because it is Arabic. So even though the word itself is “only” sexist, the origin of the word is heavily influenced by race, and that’s why I feel like even though it means “woman” rather than “woman of colour,” it’s still a usage to be avoided.

    Among people who are actually Arab or Arabic-speaking themselves, it loses that imperialist connotation, so in your story, Dalal, it really does feel like just the “girl” meaning is coming through (although calling someone “girl” can be annoying on its own!) because the context is so different, especially within a family group.

    As for madrasa, it’s the same question but on a smaller scale. We’re speaking in English, but we want to talk about an Arab school. We use the word “madrasa.” Why? Because it is Arabic. Since we are actually talking about a school that calls itself a madrasa (as opposed to insulting women who would never otherwise be called “bint”) it feels more justifiable, but I want to question that impulse– why do we need to make it clear that this is some special kind of Arab school? Why can’t we just say that (if it’s relevant at all) in English?

    Dalal, your manga example is a good one here. I do use the word “manga” because it has a different connotation than “comics,” but I feel like the difference between the two is both more notable and less fraught with racism. Manga really isn’t the same as “typical” superhero comics, and the way it differs has less to do with “those foreign Japanese types” and more to do with artistic style. (Like distinguishing between cubism and impressionism.)

    But distinguishing between a “madrasa” and a “school” feels to me like distinguishing between “kitaab” (“book”) and, well, “book.” One is in Arabic and the other is not, but the Arabic version isn’t any more different from the English version than a Chinese version would be. Schools in China are not just like schools in the U.S., but we still call them “schools” when we talk about them.

    I guess my argument changes if, in some places, “madrasa” did had a special religious connotation; I am learning Standard Formal Arabic, in Arkansas, leaving me woefully unfamiliar with idiomatic and day-to-day usage, so it’s entirely possible. But I’m not sure that interpretation is necessarily embedded in the word? Like, in English, saying “private school” can often mean a religious school, but it doesn’t mean “a religious school.” If that makes sense.

    I’m not sure. I just think that, in the context of English news articles, it’s not really necessary to use “madrasa.” It’s very simple to inform readers that a school is religious in nature without using a “scary foreign word” to do so, and I worry that using “madrasa” can serve to reinforce very unfortunate misconceptions about the Arab world. So I worry.

  8. Dalal N says:

    Wait, the English “word” bint came from the Arabic one?? That completely throws me off balance. I didn’t even think of that! Dang, in that case, I wholeheartedly support you calling it out. Cause, if I didn’t even know that (and I’ve been speaking Arabic for a while now, even if I’ve forgotten most of it), I doubt that others who don’t speak Arabic will.

    Manga and comics, yeah, they’re different. The stories follow a different “this, this, then that” plot than superhero comics do, so on and so forth. The reason I suddenly cut myself off was that I realized that I was thinking to myself “this one is different than that”, and separate isn’t usually equal.
    (No idea about the manga/comics usage, though. I think there’s more a mockery of Americans who read manga {weeaboos, the term goes} than the origins of it, so I’m not sure)

    I just asked my mom about madrasa, and she said that it just means school, though she scoffed at the idea that Americans using it could be racist, so…*shrug*

  9. eloriane says:

    Yeah! The English insult “bint” comes FROM the Arabic word! From British colonials hanging out in Egypt, insulting women! Then they came back to Britain, and it spread. So, yes. I call people out on it.

    I think with manga/comics, the key thing is the fact that they’re both different kinds of graphic novels. When I’m talking generally, I can use the phrase “graphic novel,” and when I’m talking about specifically comics or manga I can make those distinctions, and it’s equivalent between distinguishing between science fiction and biographies. There might be stereotypes associated with the consumers for each kind of book, but the genre name is neutral.

    However, “madrasa” isn’t a genre of school. It’s just… a school. It’s neutral to distingish between elementary school, high school, college, and so on, because there are actually differences between those. But there’s no need to distinguish between schools in general and “madrasa”s.

    Thanks for asking your mom about the meaning of madrasa, by the way! Looking more closely at Dori’s original comment, it seems to suggest that the usage of a madrasa as a religious (Muslim) school is specific to non-Arab countries, which makes sense– if Arabic isn’t the usual language, but some schools use it, most schools will be called something else but the Arabic schools will be called by the Arabic name for “school.” So I’m increasingly convinced that in Arabic-speaking countries, it really is a neutral word, and that therefore its English usage is often problematic. I can see how your mom might not think so– it’s really subtle!– and, unlike bint, I don’t think it needs constant battling, but I do think it’s worth talking about and I plan to let more people know that, actually, “madrasa” doesn’t mean anything “scary.”

  10. Dalal N says:

    We seem to be thinking along the same lines. 🙂

    I’ll join in with educating people with you!

  11. 19thandfolsom says:

    Interesting – I was under the impression that a madrasa was specifically a religious school, sort of like CCD for Catholics or the Sunday school I went to when I was Baptist. If the use of the word is out of ignorance, then I think it’s worth politely pointing out that a madrasa is a school. If the use of the word is out of dogwhistle racism, it’s definitely worth calling out, because it plays into exoticising people.

    It reminds me a lot of the reporting of the VA Tech shooter: every single article I saw referred to the shooter by his Korean name. However, he had, and most likely went by, an English name: Adam. The use of his Korean name rather than the one he went by seemed to unconsciously emphasize his foreign-ness, e.g. “Look at these crazy foreign murderers!”

  12. eloriane says:

    Yeah, I’m planning to at least educate those who seem likely to be receptive, since it does give the impression that a madrasa is somehow some kind of special religious school. Which, you know, if wouldn’t be a big deal if it was, but some people make it a big deal. Like with the freak-out over Obama attending, OMG, a MADRASA!!! at one point. Which never earned anything but eye-rolls from me.

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