Beyond Shahrazad: Feminist Portrayals of Women in The Arabian Nights

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

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Shahrazad, the intelligent and cunning heroine of The Arabian Nights, has been recognized in recent years as a feminist literary figure, a woman who uses her abilities to save not just her own life, but the lives of other women.

In the frame story that anchors The Arabian Nights, King Shahriyar discovers his wife in the act of adultery and cuts off her head. Every night for three years, he would take a virgin girl to his bed and then kill her in the morning. Learning of this violence, Shahrazad marries the king despite the objections of her father and with a complete understanding of the dangers to herself.

Her plan is simple and eloquent—use stories of adventure and wonder to keep herself alive long enough to humanize the king and save the women of the city from his wrath. Every night she begins a tale but does not finish it, so that King Shahriyar must allow her to live another night in order to learn the ending. These tales are first a form of entertainment, but are also carefully crafted to engender underlining messages about morality and justice. Shahrazad is well educated and prepared for the task, having “read books and histories, accounts of past kings and stories of earlier peoples, having collected, it was said, a thousand volumes of these, covering peoples, kings and poets.” It is this accumulated intelligence, along with her courage that enables her to save both herself and the women of her kingdom.

“Scheherazade has always been one of my favourite literary characters. I’ve always seen her as a literary feminist icon,” said Sameena Mughal, author of Scheherazade’s Daughters. “By this I mean that she is a woman who is empowered within her own context” [Cordes].

Beyond Shahrazad, however, it has generally been believed that the stories of The Arabian Nights are misogynistic, featuring adulteresses and women who cause the downfall of men. And it is true that many stories in The Arabian Nights present women as the root of all evil, with a large concentration of such stories found during Shahrazad’s first nights with the king.

Shahrazad’s choice to open with tales of female adultery and male retribution may seem a giant leap away from the feminism she is supposed to represent. However, it’s important to remember that Shahrazad has placed herself in the hands of a king who distrusts all women. King Shahriyar would not likely be open to hearing tales of the good to be found in women and for Shahrazad to begin with such tales would put her life at greater risk. Therefore, she makes the strategic decision to begin with adultery tales because they are the most likely ones to catch King Shahriyar’s interest and sympathy.

After these opening adultery stories, Shahrazad expands her retinue to include tales of humor, adventure, war, morality, and love. As her stories build one upon the other, the portrait she presents of women becomes much more varied and diverse, revealing a complex assortment of women who are strong, intelligent, and decisive. These women are mothers, noble virgins, aged tricksters, and honest lovers, as well as being adulteresses, damsels in distress, concubines, and slaves. Some of these women are even merchants, travelers, sorceresses, kings, and swordfighters. Women in The Arabian Nights outwit scholars and kings, go on pilgrimages, have passionate and pleasurable sex with their husbands and lovers, demand specific and proper behavior from their men, and make choices to determine (to an extent) their own destinies.

Hanan al-Shaykh read three editions of The Arabian Nights in Arabic in her preparations for writing One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling and found herself surprised by the wit, humor, and strength of the women in these tales. “I was really astonished when I was reading all these stories because the women were so strong. I never knew that,” she said. “I never knew they were that strong in the One Thousand and One Nights, because you only heard about the framework, which is about Scheherazade and her sister, but they were strong, cunning, and very intelligent. Even the concubines and the slaves were very choosy” [Wagner].

There are a multitude of stories that feature strong women, too many to list here. Therefore, this essay will present a select few of particularly strong representations. My analysis is based on The Arabian Nights: Tales of the 1001 Nights, Volumes 1-3, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons (2008). Quotes, spellings of names. and titles of stories are based on this translation.

Highly Educated Women

As with Shahrazad, many of the women are well studied and educated. In several stories, they are asked to display their education through recitals or the answering of questions. The most notable of these tales is “The slave girl Tawaddud,” in which a wealthy and respected man in Baghdad spends his money in food, drink, and entertainment to such a degree that he becomes impoverished with nothing left to him but a slave girl named Tawaddud. In order to rescue him from these straits, she instructs her master to present her to the caliph (a local ruler) for sale. Standing before the caliph, Tawaddud declares that she knows grammar, poetry, jurisprudence, the precepts of Islam, philosophy, ancient legends, arithmetic, medicine, and logic, as well as music, dance, chess, and backgammon. Astonished by these claims, the caliph calls on the most respected and learned men of the age to examine and test her. One by one, these experts in their respective fields question and challenge Tawaddud, each trying to gain the upper hand over her. However, her knowledge and understanding in each subject is so thorough that she is able to challenge each of these experts in return and prove herself superior. In the end, the caliph is so impressed with her skill that he grants her wish to be returned to her master and bequests a monthly allowance so that Tawaddud and her master can enjoy a life of plenty. Shahrazad concludes the story with a rare personal message for King Shahriyar, instructing him to both admire Tawaddud for her eloquence and learning and to consider the generosity of caliph, asking “Where is such generosity to be found now?”

Cunning Old Women

The cunning old woman is a common figure in many of these stories. She is often described as hideously ugly with grey hair, a large nose, wrinkled cheeks, broken teeth, and a slobbering mouth—or some variation thereof. The cunning old woman sometimes works for good, sometimes for evil, and sometimes alternates between both, with it being almost impossible to tell at first glance which way her acts will lead. These women are often the greatest tricksters in the stories, drawing lovers together or tearing them apart, performing subversive acts against kings and armies, and generally making some sort of mischief.

A humorous example of this archetype is found in “Dalila the Wiley.” Dalila is described as “a mistress of wiles, deception and subterfuge,” able to “trick a snake out of its hole and tutor Iblis [the devil] in double-dealing.” When Ahmad al-Danaf and Hassan Shuman are appointed joint commanders of the city watch by the caliph, Dalila recognizes Hassan and remembers that he was thrown out of Cairo for his past dealings. Because Dalila’s late husband used to be the commander of the city watch, she sees it as unfair that these men have schemed their way into this post by ingratiating themselves to the caliph. So, she decides use trickery in order to alter the two men’s reputation in Baghdad. Dalila begins with a long series of tricks that don’t at first seem connected to her ultimate goal, including tricking a young wife into believing she can help her get pregnant, then convince a young merchant that the same young woman is her daughter who would like to marry him, then a dyer who she convinces that the woman and merchant are her children looking for a room to rent, and finally a donkey man into lending her his donkey so she can carry home all the goods she stripped from the others.

Her tricks continue growing in audacity and she is caught multiple times by the local government, only to escape their clutches each time. Once she is taken to a river and strung up by her hair, but she convinces a passing Bedouin that she is being punished by a baker who will come in the morning and force her to eat honey doughnuts. He agrees to be hung by his hair in her place and in the morning, when the guards return, he calls out, “So have you brought the honey doughnuts?”

When at last Delila is brought before the caliph, she returns the stolen goods and announces that she did not perform her tricks for money but to prove she could as crafty and scheming as Ahmad al-Danaf and Hassan Shuman have been known to be. Hearing this, the caliph then grants her request to take up her late husband’s former post as city captain, as well as the additional role as doorkeeper of a kahn (inn or tavern).

Women Who Become Kings

The Arabian Nights contains three tales of women who become kings. Each of these stories follows the same formula. The young woman is traveling with her husband or lover and the pair meets with a mishap that separates them. Alone and afraid for her own safety, she dresses in a man’s clothing and disguises herself in order to continue the journey. The woman stumbles across a strange kingdom, where she is welcomed and accepted by the local people, who, believing her be a handsome and well-spoken man, place her on the throne. As king, she makes proclamations and rules with wisdom and logic while waiting for her husband to return. When he arrives, her husband does not recognize her, so she plays a joke on him. She grants him favors and draws him into what he believes is an unwanted seduction with a powerful man whom he cannot disobey. It is through this seduction that she reveals herself to her husband’s relief and joy. The couple than reveals the truth to the kingdom and all are amazed by the story.

Of the three, the story of Princess Budur is of particular interest (“The story of King Shahriman and his son, Qamar a-Zaman”). After the disappearance of her husband, Budur’s traveling leads her to the Ebony Isles, where she meets King Armanus. Believing her to be a man, he welcomes her, shows her hospitality, and insists that she marry his daughter, Hayat al-Nufus. Unsure of how to avoid the marriage without giving offense to the king, Budur agrees. On the wedding night, Budur tries to appease Hayat al-Nufus by stroking her back and kissing her forehead before falling to her knees in prayer for so long that Hayat falls asleep. She is able to maintain this for two nights, but on the third night, Hayat stops Budur from her prayers and warns her that unless the marriage is consummated, King Armanus will have Budur exiled from the kingdom. Budur then confesses the truth and tells her whole story from beginning to end. Hayat is astounded by the tale and promises to never reveal her secret. After which, “the two played with each other exchanging embraces and kisses” until they fell asleep. Hayat uses pigeon blood to convince everyone that the marriage had been consummated. Budur spends her days as ruler of the Ebony Isles and her nights with Hayat al-Nufus. When her husband finally appears months later, Budur asks that he take Hayat al-Nufus as a wife due the many kindnesses she showed her.

Women Warriors

Several tales feature women warrior who are the equals of men in battle. Both “King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu‘man and his family” and “Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith” feature women swordfighters backed by armies of virgin girls. However, “Nur al-Din and Miriam the sash-maker” is one of the best examples with Miriam taking front stage at the true hero of the story.

Nur al-Din is a handsome young man and the son of a merchant. When he comes home drunk, his father attempts to punish him but Nur al-Din strikes his father knocking out his eye, which forces him to flee the city to escape his father’s anger.

Nur al-Din travels to Alexandria with what money he has left and visits the market, where he witnesses a beautiful slave girl being put up for auction. Miriam, as this slave girl is called, has been granted control of the sale and the right to choose her next master. She rejects the first buyer for being a decrepit old man, the second for having a dyed beard, the third for having a long nose and being too short, the fourth for being bleary eyed, and so on. Until at last, she notices Nur al-Din and falls instantly in love with him because of his beauty, grace, elegance, and amorous disposition. She offers herself in sale to Nur al-Din who spends every last cent he has in her purchase. Miriam is able to save him from destitution, however, through the crafting of beautiful sashes, which she gives to Nur al-Din for sale in the market.

All is well until one day, Nur al-Din meets a one-eyed Frank with a limp who uses wine to trick him into selling Miriam. When the Frank comes to collect her, it is revealed that she is the daughter of the king of Ifranja, who had been kidnapped while on a pilgrimage and sold as a slave; the Frank is her father’s vizier who has come to return her to her father’s kingdom.

When Miriam is escorted away, Nur al-Din attempts to pursue her, but his ship is attacked and he is made a prisoner in Ifranja, where he is appointed to help maintain a local Christian church. It is in the church where the two lovers find each other again and Miriam comes up with a plan to make their escape. That night Nur al-Din slips out of the church and down to a boat in the harbor, as he was instructed. Once Nur al-Din is on board, the long-bearded captain slays each of the ten sailors one-by-one and lets them fall into the sea. The captain then orders Nur al-Din to make sail. Once they are out to sea, the captain tugs off his beard revealing himself to be Miriam in disguise. Miriam is a “stout-hearted and skilled sailor on the open sea, knowing all the wind shifts and what course to steer.” They reach Alexandria, where Nur al-Din enters the city alone in order to obtain a shawl for Miriam so she can enter the city properly covered.

While waiting on the ship, Miriam is again captured by her father’s men and taken back to Ifranja, who is enraged that she has turned away from Christianity to Islam and marries her off to the one-eyed vizier. As before, Nur al-Din follows Miriam only to be captured. This time he is put to work in the vizier’s stable, where Miriam overhears Nur al-Din singing a lament for his misfortunes from her window. She responds with her own verses and passes a letter through the window with a new plan for escape. According to her instructions, Nur al-Din takes the vizier’s two finest stallions and leads them down to wait near the city gate. Meanwhile, Miriam tricks her husband the vizier by slipping a powerful drug into his wine, arms herself as a warrior, and goes to seek Nur al-Din.

Learning that Miriam had escaped, the king of Ifranja calls on his three sons, each brave warriors, and leads and army of knights and officers in pursuit. The army quickly catches up to the escaped lovers. Seeing this, Miriam whirls her horse around to face them and draws her weapons. She is known to be “the bravest warrior of her age and unique in her time, for ever since she was a little girl her father had taught her how to ride and plunge into the waves of battle even in the darkest of night.” The king sends his oldest son out to face her first, with the aim of turning her back to Christianity or defeating her. After a vicious struggle, Miriam defeats and kills him. She stands astride the stallion and calls out to the army, “Let no one ride out today who is sluggish or weak; I only want heroes from among the enemies of religion so that I may pour them a drink of ignominious punishment.” Both of the remaining brothers are sent out to face her and both fall in battle, leaving the army filled with fear and awe. The king in shame turns away and returns to his kingdom. Nur al-Din is reunited with his family, and he and Miriam live happily ever after.

Although it is Miriam who is captured and Nur al-Din who plays the hero seeking to rescue her, she consistently resists the role of damsel in distress. Each escape is enacted both through her own plan and through her own fighting prowess with Nur al-Din switching places to take on the role of helpless companion to Miriam’s heroism.

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Over the course of three years Shahrazad tells a diverse assemblage of stories and a wider reading reveals that women represent a range of qualities—from good to evil. Shahrazad makes this message clear at the end of the story “Qaman al-Zamar,” when she states, “Whoever thinks that all women are alike is suffering from a disease of madness for which there is no cure.” The women in The Arabian Nights play an active and subversive role against the tyranny of fathers, husbands, and kings, most often using words and cunning to convince men of the wrongs they are committing just as Sharazad’s stories teach King Shahriyar to repent of killing the daughters of his subjects. The women of The Arabian Nights reach far beyond the images of wicked adulteresses and nubile harem girls to include an assortment of strong and intelligent women, who seem to have mostly gone unnoticed by modern readers.

Sources

Cordes, Susann, “Scheherazade’s daughters are doing things their own way,” KV Info, October 9, 2014.
Lyons, Malcom C. (translator), The Arabian Nights: Tales of the 1001 Nights, Volumes 1-3, Penguin Classics, 2008.
Martin, Rachel, “Scheherazade: From Storytelling ‘Slave’ To ‘First Feminist’,” Interview with Hanan al-Shaykh,” NPR, June 9, 2013.
Wagner, Erica, “Cunning and Guile: Erica Wagner interviews Marina Warner and Hanan al-Shaykh,” Guernica, October 1, 2012.


NBR4BlythesmallAndrea Blythe lives in the Bay Area of Northern California, where she writes poetry and fiction. Her poetry has appeared in several publications, including Nonbinary Review, Linden Avenue, Chiaroscuro (ChiZine), Strange Horizons, and Perigee. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling Award.