“Crazy” women, “crazy” men

The last post got me thinking about the word “crazy.” It was applied to women and to men, especially in my ex’s ethnic community, but it meant different things. It was a very gendered idea.

A “crazy” woman was a woman who supposedly acted strangely (meaning, not in accordance with community norms). Or, she was unduly upset by things that no woman in her right mind would be upset about. She was “nervous” (anxious and/or quick-tempered).

Once a woman had been labeled as “crazy,” it meant that her perceptions, her opinions, her wishes could be completely discounted by everyone.

It didn’t mean that she should be helped or given medical treatment. It meant that she was falling down on the job. She wasn’t acting the way she should be. How embarrassing  for her, her husband and her family. They had better rein her in.


I was afraid of the “crazy” label. It was belittling, it was insulting, and it was threatening. What it meant was “Get in line! Behave properly, or you will be taken even less seriously than you are now.” It was used to control women.

Men could also be labeled “crazy.” But that didn’t mean that people discounted them, or tried to control them even more closely “for their own good.” No, what it meant was that there was no point in trying to rein them in. A man who treated his family harshly who was said to be “crazy”? It wouldn’t do any good for anyone to try to talk sense into him, or to intervene. Because he was “crazy.” He was just going to do things his way, no matter what. So hands off, just let him be. (And too bad about his wife and kids; they were just going to have to deal.)

Looking back, I think about some of the women who were labeled “crazy.” Some of them had been through wartime experiences that would have traumatized anyone. Some had definitely been abused in various ways. But this community didn’t believe that mental illness exists—or that if it did, it would only affect those who didn’t have strong enough faith. There was tremendous stigma attached to seeking any kind of psychiatric help.

In my ex’s family, the “appropriate” way to deal with horrifying memories of abuse or cruelty or war or torture was either to never speak of them at all (particularly in the case of, say, rape) or (in the case of most other types of abuse, trauma or tragedy) to laugh and joke about it.

In such a context, the crazy ones are those who can’t remain silent, and who can’t laugh.

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  1. #1 by MK on October 14, 2012 - 9:07 am

    “There was tremendous stigma attached to seeking any kind of psychiatric help”. That pretty much says it all. This is the situation in many Middle Eastern, South Asian and Central Asian countries. Though I have never heard of a person who experienced a traumatic incident–being labelled crazy. People are sympathetic but there is a definite tendency toward maintaining a stoic front and not displaying too many emotions.
    I think in part its because life is much tougher and harsher for many (depending on one’s social strata and country) that wallowing in emotions and self pity is seen as a luxury that simply cannot be afforded. When every day is a huge struggle for many–people cope by being tougher and more stoic in the face of hardship.
    In rural areas there is almost no understanding of mental illness: the person is either a bit simple minded, or has a melancholic disposition or worst of all assumed to be possessed by malevolent jinns or spirits.
    Mental illness is difficult to understand in just about any society and generally those who do not have a tendency towards depression find it difficult to understand why some people are unable to regulate negative emotions or find it harder to over come trauma and problems in their lives.

  2. #2 by rootedinbeing on October 14, 2012 - 4:37 pm

    What a POWERFUL memory of systemic abuse and retraumatization of women through gender norms and religious indoctrination. I am always saddened when the very things that can help to heal someone from trauma are the very things a community shuns. Anxiety/nerves, being “crazy” are all PTSD symptoms that many women (especially in war zones) initially present with.

  3. #3 by Saliha on October 14, 2012 - 5:44 pm

    In these situations “crazy” isn’t necessarily related to mental illness. As you pointed out, “Crazy” is a way to keep women in line and excuse male abusiveness. This particular manifestation of misogyny is common in wider American culture too, and probably seen throughout the world.

    One of the ways this excuse manifests in the Muslim community, though, is the idea that the men will get what’s coming to them in the akhira. A “crazy” man who insists on making the lives of those close to and/or dependent on him hell might see hell in the akhira. Somehow that’s supposed to comfort the women and children who must spend decades living in hell with him on this earth. It eases the community’s guilt over not taking any action to stop the abuse. Of course labeling a woman as “crazy” often serves the same purpose. She’s crazy so her husband must mistreat her in order to deal with her craziness. I’ve seen that happen often.

    Every time I read one of your posts, it inspires me to write something. I need more time!

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