1001 Arabian Nights and Woman-as-Intellect

This story is paired with “The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad” from 1001 Arabian Nights


or “Hey, Sultan, my eyes are up here.”

She’s a genuine hero.  After watching a thousand just like her end up beheaded, she thinks she can stop the repetitive murder of young women, but she has to step onto the killing ground in order to do it.  Believe it or not, she doesn’t have a mutant superpower, an automatic weapon, or a surreptitious dagger hidden in her clothes when she does this.  Even her sexuality is not a tool upon which she can rely; the girls already slain could attest to its ineffectiveness, had their voices not already been brutally stilled.

But she does it nonetheless, and against all advice and sense.  And, standing in the killing ground, she uses the one weapon in her arsenal to forestall the doom intended for her: her mind.

And she does it in the ninth century.  In Syria.  You know that place; it’s where women were fully empowered individuals with complete equality with their male counterparts in terms of educational opportunities, political power, and salary and job security, right?

Maybe not.

This anthology call prompted me to revisit an ‘old friend’, the classic 1001 Arabian Nights, and I am so glad that it did.  More than three decades have passed since my last encounter with these luxurious and decadently told stories in which Scheherazade managed to defer, then deflect, her scheduled appointment with death.  I’d like to think that I’ve matured some since those early exposures, and happily, as it seems, the proof of that is looking with fresh eyes at an old friend.

This happy re-acquaintance comes at an interesting time for me: I’m relatively new to immersion in social media.  When I recently created a Facebook account, my wife declared: “So, you’ve gone over to the Dark Side.”  Disappointingly, while my foray into the hinterlands of self-expression has not proved a quick route to control over the Force, I have found an amazing exposure to trending topics, by which I mean things that someone else felt was important for me to see.

But when I look at what I read with the jaundiced eye of a physician taking a patient’s pulse for the millionth time in his or her career, some interesting–and disturbing–phenomena seem to emerge.  A repost of a recent Hip-Hop XXL magazine’s article boasts “Miguel’s Nazanin Mandi is a Bombshell”, and proceeds to “honor her looks with her hottest pics on Instagram”.

In fairness, the article does credit her as “a multi-talented entertainer” and references pictures Ms. Mandi posted herself, but the reader-grabbing headline is what bothers me.  It calls attention to Ms. Mandi’s physical attributes as the reason why Miguel is “lucky”, as if that is the primary (if not sole) measure by which we should judge his good fortune.  Never mind that relationships succeed or fail based on far more important considerations than physical appearance, but the fact that this piece predicates its appeal to the modern-day reader upon the expected acceptance of this premise of objectification and sexualization is what provokes my sudden and unexpected antipathy.

I mean: really?  I’m confident that I’m a happy, healthy, heterosexual cis human male who appreciates beautiful women—and I did look at her pictures, but I swear it was in the name of research—and so I ask myself “what bothers me so much about this article”?

The answer lies, I believe, in the fact that this attitude seems not to have raised a hue and cry against it.  It’s disingenuous to promote a woman’s worth, and a man’s good fortune, based on her appearance, and undersells all the critical things which must have gone into the seemingly successful relationship of these celebrities: understanding, compassion, communication, to name just a few.  And it’s not something just isolated to any one strata of society, but the fact that we as a culture continue to value people based on appearance and not their ability is certainly one of society’s many ills: ask any woman earning 77% of her male counterpart’s dollar.

And with that brief foray into where we are today, what is it about the classic 1001 Arabian Nights that has offered a fresh, new perspective on that ‘old friend’ which I’m pleased to revisit?

Where to begin with my updated perceptions?  My first realization was that Scheherazade was an active, not passive hero; she threw herself on the grenade represented by marriage to a casually-murderous Sultan in order to save other women from having their heads chopped off like the previous thousand.  She chose that fate in defiance of fatherly objections to the contrary, and in a time and society which certainly favored a paternalistic pattern of dominance.  Scheherazade, therefore, was at least as brave as any of the Seven Samurai of Kurosawa fame; and she did it without a sword, thank you very much.

To be sure, Woman-as-Hero is not an unknown concept, but it’s only been a relatively recent phenomenon that the physically strong, expert-at-weapons, battle-ready female hero/anti-hero (Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, the recent Spartacus series, Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, and the late spate of superhero movies, among others) have entered mainstream consciousness.  Susan Walsh’s 2010 article “Female Archetypes and the Men Who Love Them” describes the most common early role for women in literature: as a prop, the recipient of a hero’s love.  She also points out the prevalence of the Woman-as-Seductress, going back to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and numerous fairy tales across the ages. The female protagonist, as a compelling and heroic figure, has certainly taken her place on stage in the more modern era, most often owing her success to tenacity and steadfastness of purpose rather than seduction or physical power.

Which brings us back to Arabian Nights, whose origin has been dated back to original Syrian manuscripts from the ninth century.  In it, Scheherazade does not choose to marry the serial-killer Sultan as an act of sacrifice, but rather as a calculated risk for a measurable goal: to stop the murder of fellow virginal girls by a sociopathic despot with an apparent permanent discount from his wedding coordinator.

Scheherazade is heroic for stepping into that life-threatening situation–talk about job insecurity due to early termination!–but what is truly remarkable is that she does it with a plan to succeed, and one which is not based on political acumen, physical power, or the seductive nature of illusory and transitory beauty.  In what should have been widely regarded as a piece of ‘dangerous literature’ by any paternalistic society, in point of fact, Scheherazade thinks her way to a solution.  She relies on her storytelling skills, and on her ability to kindle the Sultan’s curiosity rather than his lust to keep the blade from her own neck.

I wonder how 1001 Arabian Nights made it past the censors of that era and those following, when it was translated, disseminated, and ultimately became the literary phenomenon that it did.  It seems likely that steps towards equality and power were made back in the ninth century in the middle east, and yet recent years have seen the proverbial boot being lowered onto the necks of women in that region of the world.  Looking back also upon the struggle towards gender equality in the United States—which still has not reached resolution for all the strides forward which have been made—it’s clear that oppression of women (and other vulnerable, underpowered groups) becomes much more vigorous when progress is actually being made and the status quo’s power is threatened to be upended.  Maybe that’s something we should work on a bit, hmm?

1001 Arabian Nights certainly broke ground in several important ways when it was first written, presenting the woman as an active, not passive, heroic figure, and as an intelligent and resourceful character who outwits her adversary rather than using the ‘tried and true’ method of seduction.  Further, I would suggest that the Woman-as Intellect proposition which Arabian Nights presents to the world remains an apropos and significant message in this day and age.  To be certain, if the author could see the value of women beyond their procreative capabilities in ninth century Islam, shouldn’t we be farther along today?

If we’re striving to be, the message should be cried from not only the ivory towers of academia, but also the virtual towers of today’s social media.  But if we’re not there yet, then, people: we’ve got our work cut out for us.



NBR5HoenigsmallDavid is a physician for whom fiction writing is his ‘second career’. He’s finished his first novel (querying), and is working on a second. He’s published a short story with Morning Rain Publishing, “Madness is in the Eye of the Beholder”, winning 3rd place in a “Freaky Fiction” contest.