Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Cows, owls, dogs and cultural context matters


So this make cycle of clmooc is about creating memes. I hadn’t really heard of the term before, but they explained it pretty well and linked to this cool infographic that explains what it is pretty well.

My good friend & colleague Shyam Sharma (and co-founder of EdConteXts) wrote a brilliant blogpost highlighting, among other things, how using the “owl” as a symbol in a meme can be problematic. It has the cultural connotation of wisdom in North America, but symbolized evil and even death in other cultures.

No one ever claimed that memes are not culturally specific. In fact, they make very little sense outside their cultural context.

But I thought I’d take Shyam’s lead and talk about different cultural connotations of animals. He already talked about owls. I’ll talk about cows, dogs, pigs, pigeons, and spiders! Oh, and I’ll put in a good word for the non-animal, rhizome 🙂

We all know cows have a special (sacred?) place in India (I do not presume to know the details of this) while they are raised for food in other countries. In both Arabic and English, calling a woman a “cow” is an insult. In Arabic it has connotations of overweight and stupid, in English I think it’s more than that. Funny enough, the English expression “holy cow” revokes in me a story in the Quran (which may have a biblical equivalent since it involves the Jewish people). The story is told in the longest chapter in the Quran which is actually named “The Cow”. It is of a special cow that the Jews were told to find and slaughter, in order to use its tail (or some such), which awakened a young boy from the dead in order for him to say who murdered him (or some such thing). Eerie stuff. Anyway, this story does not make Muslims respect cows in any special way or anything…

Dog is man’s best friend, right? Loyal, loving, intelligent… I loooove dogs. I fail to understand why, then, the female dog, the b$@ch is a swear word. Ok, i do understand, sort of, in terms of behavior, but really, a female dog is as loyal as a male dog to her human owner, right? Lots of folks have usernames with the word dog (as i have been noticing recently), each with a different story. But of course no serious woman would name herself a b$@ch as a username. Hmm. No fair.
Of course, in the Muslim world, dogs are less highly placed. People still own dogs and many people love dogs. However, there is this thing about having to wash well after touching a dog or coming in contact with its saliva, that its saliva makes one unclean to pray. It’s not a big deal for the most part (I mean, it’s more hygienic to wash your hands after touching any animal, right?), but some people take it to the extreme of not allowing dogs into any place they are (not just places of prayer) and never touching them whatsoever. Many people are afraid of dogs without ever having been bitten by them or anything.
Then there are people who eat dogs. And that’s revolting to those of us who love them as pets.

People eat pigeon in Egypt. I know they do elsewhere, too, but I was in France once and a Frenchwoman told me they considered them unclean (unsure how widespread that sentiment is). I, for one, love my pigeons alive and cannot eat them because I like them alive 🙂

This is an obvious one, since most people know Muslims (and Orthodox Jews) do not eat pork and consider them unclean. I remember as a child growing up in a British school in Kuwait that the word ‘pig’ was blacked out from all our library books. I always thought this was ridiculous, because, you know, just because we aren’t gonna eat it, does not mean it does not exist! It’s not like reading the word is a sin or anything. This means, though, that I missed on some really cute nursery rhymes like “This little piggy” which my daughter loves. She also loves her “piglet” stuffed toy. Egypt is much less silly about these things, and we have enough of a Christian population and enough tourists that this is not even an issue.

There’s another nursery rhyme, “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, and I wrote a few weeks ago about how the English seem to not consider spiders unclean. Then again, there are negative connotations associated with the black widow spider. But interestingly, though we hate spiders where I come from, there is a chapter in the Quran named “the Spider” (which refers to a female spider’s home being the weakest, most vulnerable of all homes, and uses it as a metaphor). There is also a story of a spider that built a web in a way that ended up protecting the prophet Muhammad. You’d think Muslims would be nicer to spiders, but no takers 🙂

ANa, this one’s too easy. Most garden rhizomes are, apparently, annoyingly unkillable and pop up again to spoil your garden. On the other hand, when we talk about rhizomes as in rhizomatic learning, we mean it in the best way possible (to us anyway!). Ok, i cheated on this one 🙂

[i know, this was a blogpost screaming to have images on it, but no time to find images, must do some work; have posted some meme images on twitter though].

Added later (I finally got around to creating a graphic for this post using PiktoChart  see below)

Animals in Context


  1. After reading your post, I quickly created an image that shows the all-knowing owl who tries to teach “universally” relevant ideas, skills, perspectives in the context-free zone of xMOOCs. This time the owl is also taking the Socratic approach of teaching the world of animals by pretending not to know the answers so that his students will explore possible answers to the question/subject at hand through discussion 😉 I will leave you to predict what might happen — but I’ve added some possible responses from the animal students (plus the rhizome), from my all-knowing PhD perspective, that is. 😉

  2. Thought-provoking as ever, Maha. The word ‘cow’ as an insult has lost most of its impact these days. When I was growing up it was quite a strong insult, most often (as you say) towards a woman. “Lazy cow.” “Stupid cow.” It was on television comedies like “On the Buses” and it was fairly daring to use it. “Cow” as an insult towards a man is more problematic, in the sense that I only know of one small area of the UK where it was ever used (and continues to be used). As far as I know — and I’m happy to be proved wrong — the area was mainly East London. The phrase was “Gertchoo cow san”… or rather that’s how it would come out 🙂 Or “gertcha cowson”. It’s a bit like calling someone a son of a bitch (because the latter has never caught on over here… in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard “son of a bitch” over here). It’s basically “Get out of here, you unpleasant sausage”… just to keep this message polite. 🙂

    When Chas & Dave recorded “Gertcha” in the 70s, it was actually quite provocative in some circles. (For the benefit of anyone reading this outside Europe, Chas & Dave are musical geniuses and I’ve seen them play live many times. They always play “Gertcha” — it was one of their biggest hits.)

    I remember eating pigeons in Cairo. Delicious! We have pigeon pie here, and just pigeon on its own. It’s quite normal. Over recent years we’ve had food trends for things like kangaroo meat but that seems to have gone out of fashion. The strangest thing I ate in Cairo was testicles and cow brains (not together but on the same evening). It was the night before I was due to leave Cairo for the final time. The contract had ended. My flatmates and I decided that we could put it off no longer. We had to face eating the testicles and the brains. We actually had to go to two separate restaurants. The called it the Three Bs Night: Beer, Bollocks and Brains. (Sorry if this is offensive, but it’s true!)

    Happy days.

    • Gross, but fun to read that, thanks Dave! I’ve eaten cow brains before, but somehow lost my taste for it (needs to be done really well to taste good and not slimy). There was a cooking show in the Food Network that had people cook with some animal’s testicles, can’t remember which.
      On another note, never noticed that English people didn’t use the term “bitch” in that way.
      Calling a man a cow, though, would be weird, given cows are always female? Or a double insult maybe (embarrassed to recognize that calling a man a female of any sort is considered insulting to their manhood)

  3. The cow’s brains were actually fairly nondescript; they weren’t much of anything really, I could only taste the batter. The testicles were actually quite nice…

    Yes, the use of ‘cow’ for a man is really restricted to the East End; I’ve never heard it anywhere else. But!!! You’ve just reminded me that I was called a bitch the other day!!! By a man!!! I honked my horn because he drove dangerously and nearly crashed into me (it was my right of way) and he got out and screamed, “I was there first, bitch!!” First time that’s ever happened.

    My own term for him shall go unrecorded on this occasion. 🙂

  4. What an interesting exploration on the animal line. I, of course, am in the Dog Camp (along with Alan Levine).

  5. Are memes just a special case of metaphor? I only ask because everyone seems to feel the need to pin the slippery rascal down.

  6. Pingback: Make Cycle #2: Reflections and Connections — #clmooc

  7. Love it Maha! I saw your animal meme image before I read this post, and really thought it stood on its own as a really great piece of communication with a powerful message. Although as you later reflected in your edcontexts post w/ Shyam – even the symbols that you’ve used to represent food (burger, hot dog etc) are culturally specific and not universal or comprehensible to all cultures. (Although I reckon it might come fairly close to being universal in our globalised society—> but that’s clearly a western biased assumption…!).

    Whilst the image was for me, a great piece of comms, I certainly appreciated reading the expanded explanations of the way these animals are perceived across cultures. Am learning SO much from you, Shayam and the whole EdConteXts crew + contributors about how critical culture and context is as a filter colouring our perceptions of things – thank you.

    • Tanya, I am deeply inspired by u time and time again, you’re a wonderful combo of mindfulness and enthusiasm!
      Re: image vs blogpost, i wrote the post first 😉 i am not a naturally visual person, but really enjoyed making it into a graphic which passes the message on in a much faster way… Thanks for still reading the post itself 😉

      • Aww thanks Maha for the lovely comment – the inspiration goes both ways. I am still to this day amazed at how prolific you are on the web& in writing – you seem to be here, there & everywhere + maintain a demanding academic career + a toddler!! There have been times I’ve wondered whether you have managed to clone yourself… ; ) hats off to you.

  8. Never eat cow brains, Creutzfeld-Jacob is a serious desease.

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