Shahrazad and the Empowerment of Women in The Thousand and One Nights

963 words | 4 page(s)

On the surface, the Arabian text, The Thousand and One Nights, is a deeply misogynistic work whose negative portrayal of women as the root of all human sin mirrors that found in the Christian orthodoxy with the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s temptation and Original Sin. Just as Eve, corrupted by Satan, tempts Adam to eat of the Tree of Forbidden fruit and thereby falls out of the grace of God, so do the women in The Thousand and One Nights tempt men to commit vile acts of adultery against their “pious” husbands, and they pay the ultimate price for their transgressions—death. However, unlike the biblical Christian fable of Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden, and the portrayal of women in biblical canon as a whole, the women in The Thousand and One Nights tend to be more empowered than their feminine Christian counterparts. One character specifically, Shahrazad (Scheherazade), is revealed to be an early feminist figure, since her portrayal in the text and her virtues—intelligence, wit, selfless heroism—make her an enigmatic character that defies typical gender norms and certainly proves different than many of the other feminine stock “Eve” characters in the text. Overall, with the patriarchal and misogynistic themes so prevalent in the text, it is difficult to say that women are truly empowered in text; however, Shahrazad’s character—as an almost Christ-like figure of self-sacrifice—and ultimate triumph in the power struggle in the end shows the early reckonings of a feminine heroine, whose virtues somewhat redeem the negative stereotypes found in the text.

The Thousand and One Nights follows the story of King Shahrayar, who is betrayed by his wife’s infidelity and condemns her to death. Shahrayar also hears his brother recount a similar infidelity with his own wife, and has a sexual encounter with the concubine of a demon, a woman who professed to have slept with one-hundred men. These experiences shape Shahrayar’s views on the evils of women, and Shahrayar vows never to trust a woman again, remarking to his brother, “let us go back to our kingdoms and our cities, never to marry a woman again. As for myself, I shall show you what I will do” (1778). Shahrayar vows to take a new woman every night, only to kill that woman in the morning. This continues for some time, until the townspeople lament and curse the king for his cruelty and heavy-handed and corrupt sense of justice. This brutal misogyny is startling in its intensity, and the punishment of all women for the perceived flaws of one or two seems vastly stereotypical, illogical, and harsh. However, luckily Shahrazad, our female heroine, steps in to provide a solution, selflessly offering up her own life as a sacrifice for all the women who would be killed by the king. This Christ-like gesture is empowering for women in the tale, since Shahrazad, well-aware of the consequences, shows admirable heroism and courage in the face of sure death. Shahrazad even goes against the standard gender norms within the family to accomplish her goals, defying her own father’s refusal to give her away to the king: “Father, you must give me to him. This is absolute and final” (1779). Here, Shahrazad defies the typical familial gender norms where the father typically has the last word with regard to his daughter. Paradoxically, Shahrazad needs her father to give her away to the king (i.e., she cannot do this of her own volition), but in this power struggle, she appears to have all the control. Shahrazad’s strategy to stay alive comes in the form of narrative and storytelling. She uses her wit and cunning to plot a strategy where she will keep the king occupied every night by telling him a grand story, one that will have to be continued the next day. “Tomorrow night,” she promises the king, “I shall tell something even stranger and more wonderful than this” (1785). Thus, she stays alive night after night, keeping the king awaiting another story, and saves not only herself but other of the king’s potential victims.

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Some of the stories Shahrazad tells the king mirror the themes of gender empowerment shown by Shahrazad and her virtues. These themes—women as worldly seekers and keepers of knowledge, women as rulers, and women as warriors—are found in stories such as “The Slave Girl Tawaddud,” where a slave girl counters the typical gender and societal norms of her position by evincing an amazing array of worldly knowledge and thus providing her master with additional income; “The Story of King Shahriman and His Son, Qamar a-Zaman,” where a princess dresses up as a man in order to rule the Ebony Isles; and “Nur al-Din and Miriam the Sash-maker,” where Miriam becomes a heroic warrior and bests many men in combat (cited in Blythe). These stories add to the theme of female empowerment shown by Shahrazad.

Ultimately, as Shahrazad gains the most power in the end by outsmarting King Shahrayar and saving her own life and the lives of the king’s would-be victims, the text can be seen as largely empowering for women, despite the misogyny and repressive gender norms levelled at females in the text. The Thousand and One Nights is an interesting take on the classic woman-as- sinful-corruptor archetype, with a twist that allows for its female protagonist to triumph over the sadistic and cruel male through her intelligence, wit, wisdom, and self-sacrifice.

  • Blythe, Andrea. “Beyond Shahrazad: Feminist Portrayals of Women in The Arabian Nights.” Nonbinary Review, 2016, http://nonbinaryreview.com/archive-2/issue-6-1001-arabian-nights/beyond-shahrazad-feminist-portrayals-of-women-in-the-arabian-nights/. Accessed 21 March 2017.
  • “The Thousand and One Nights.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, vol. 1, 9th Edition. Sarah Lawall et. al. eds. W.W. Norton & Co., 2006: 1769-1821.

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