Just sharing my most hated cliché, narrowing as it does women’s myriad innovative roles over the millennia in hundreds of civilisations to the least interesting and freely-chosen job on the list. To prove my point, I’ve written a little scene set in the city-state of Zabala in the Sumer Civilisation in 3,500 BC. Call it anti-cliché fiction.
“I like the dress,” Namini said, reaching to feel a corner of the red and gold cloth, before embracing her friend with the Sumer evening greeting of three kisses.
“Thanks, I got it from a neighbour. She sells her own stuff and it’s not expensive,” Sulah answered, sitting down on a mat by the window.
“Not Fatiza?” Namini called from behind the bar where she was loading her tray with fresh drinks.
“Yes, that’s her name. Her mother and sister are weavers too.”
“I know the family. Lovely people. What can I get you?”
“Just a tea thanks, I’m exhausted. I’ve been transcribing a massive contract all day. Look at the blisters on my hands.”
Namini came over with the tea and inspected Sulah’s hands gently.
“They are working you too hard there. I don’t know how you put up with it.”
Sulah shrugged. “They pay well and I can live at home. It’s hard to find a job like that. You know my cousin Lamila, plays the lyre? She has to stay at the temple seven days a week. The ceremonies are endless, she says.”
“I know. Who’d be a musician? The only job to have in a temple is priestess. People waiting on you day and night, listening to your every word, I wouldn’t mind that.”
A group of customers came in and Namini’s smile brightened artificially as she sailed over to them. While she was getting their drinks, more people began to arrive, in pairs. The busy part of the day was beginning for Namini, just as Sulah could go home and relax.
Sulah saw a young girl with elaborately-braided hair come in and sit alone, her dress draped low over one shoulder. When Sulah looked again the girl had pulled her dress up over the knee to reveal strong brown thighs, the legs of a country girl. A man from the first group crossed the small room to join her, placing a coin in front of the girl before he sat down.
Trying not to stare, Sulah gathered up her things to leave. She slipped into the back room where Namini was filling bowls of dates and olives.
“Namini, is it possible there’s a woman selling her body in your tavern? I just saw a man offer money before he sat down with her.”
“Don’t worry Sulah, I know her. It’s a new thing some women are doing. You know it’s been a bad year for farmers in the west. She needs the money, has some debts to pay off for her parents. Better here than down by the city walls.”
Sulah frowned. “As long as you know what you’re doing. I’m off. See you soon.”
“See you pet.” Namini paused to unwind and repin her hair. “And by the way, you should speak to Mazana the midwife about your hands. She has a good selection of creams as well.”
“Where is she based?”
“Well, she moves around a lot, from baby to baby. Ask one of the women selling spices at the market, they’ll know where she is.”
“Thanks Namini. Have a good night … .”
On her way out Sulah cast one more glance at the girl with the braided hair who, realising she was being noticed, turned her head to the side, resting her elegant fingers under her chin in the classic pose of Tanta, the Goddess of Courage, but also, as every child in Zabala knew, the Goddess of Fear.
It was while I was researching an article recently for swissinfo.ch about prostitution and human trafficking in Switzerland that I realised how often this offensive cliché is still being used by fellow journalists. Can we move on please?