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Introduction: Gender, Language, and the Obituaries One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. —Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex I felt the dead more steadfast in seeking their rights than the living. The departed want us to take every opportunity we have to carry out the sacred mission they have placed on our shoulder. —Huda Shaarawi, 19371 People’s initial responses to hearing that I work with obituaries fall into one of two categories: “How macabre! Why not do something with the living?” or “How interesting! I love reading the obituaries.” Both are almost always followed by requests for further information: “What made you think of that?” or “What are you doing with them?” Both are a reflection of our attitudes toward death and dying: fear or resentment, as in the first reaction, acknowledgment or acceptance, as in the second. By way of introducing the research and the volume as a whole, I start by answering these questions. I have had a lifelong fascination with obituaries. As a young adult in Cairo, Egypt, I would turn to the obituary pages first before reading other sections of the newspaper. A wealth of information appeared to be included in these pages about people and their families—who they are, what they do, and where they live. I recall doing the same thing with English newspapers later on, but I also recall thinking English newspaper obituaries were very different from their Arabic counterparts. Part of my motivation for undertaking this research has been to identify these differences and to understand their significance and cross-cultural implications. My study of the obituaries, however, has been primarily motivated by gender-related issues and has been inspired by a class I taught in 1987 at the University of Utah on language and gender in cross-cultural perspective. 13 14 Introduction The topics included sexism in language and other gender inequities expressed through language. Since newspaper obituaries constitute a linguistic form in which both women and men are represented, they emerged as possible candidates for the study of gender-related differences in language, both crossculturally and historically.2 I also recall in the context of debates on gender equity an eye-opening statement I had at some point heard or read, which I have later come to associatewithSimonedeBeauvoirandisquotedabove.Contrarytotraditional wisdom, one is not born a woman; it is something one becomes. If so, how does one become a woman (or a man for that matter), and what does it mean to be one? What does this mean in the world of the obituaries and perceptions of gender constructed therein? As I began this research, I asked myself: What makes one a woman, rather than a female, in the obituaries? What makes one a man, rather than a male? Can such questions be asked to begin with in the context of obituaries? As a result I found myself asking questions about equity, about the construction of gender, about public versus private space and the sharing of that space by the sexes both physically and linguistically, about visibility, and about power relations in both private and public domains. These questions led me along different paths and opened up various avenues of research. I found myself looking at literary texts, research on language and gender, debates over representations of women and men in textbooks, fairy tales, television shows and advertisements, and a host of other areas. I finally had the courage to ask myself: why not the obituaries? After all, they can be viewed as a genre of a sort. They are texts written by individuals within a certain cultural context for a certain purpose. As such they conform to a certain format and reflect aspects of the social context within which they are written—its values and perhaps its attitudes toward death, its people and perhaps how they view themselves and, by implication, their perception of gender. But is that all they can be? Can obituaries, for example, have their own conventions? Can they create a world of their own relatively independent of the social reality beyond them? What sort of world would that be? Who populates it? How does it differ from the social reality outside it? I found myself engaged in a debate reminiscent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about language: Does it reflect or create (perceptions of) social reality? Although I do not intend to engage in that debate, I believe language does both. I raise this question in relation...


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