Arabian Nights and the Scheherazad-ization of Women

By: Alexandra Kinias

Scheherazade, the glamorous beauty and the heroine of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ became famous as the woman who captured Shahrayar’s imagination by her seductive nature and captivating tales. This psychotic dude, who at best would have been admitted in a mental asylum, married a new virgin everyday and sent yesterday’s wife to be beheaded to avenge his first wife’s betrayal. In this process of soul searching while recuperating from an injured pride, three thousand women were sacrificed by the time he was introduced to our fame fatal, Scheherazade.

It took Shahrayar one thousand and one nights of bedtime’s stories to fall in love with the mysterious, seductive and exotic lady, who meanwhile also gave birth, nursed, and changed the diapers of their three sons while going through postpartum depression. At the end of these one thousand and one nights, Shahrayar spared her life and made her a Queen. And they lived happily ever after. So, why am I not happy?

Scheherazade who had been in the limelight for over a thousand years as the woman who enchanted Shehrayar became the image of a new art of seduction. As a woman I despise this analysis, and discredit the rationality of this story, even though we are talking here about a fairytale.

It is pathetic that facts were distorted to glorify the abuse she had gone through.  Her story was a classical case of submission. She didn’t create the art of seduction, but rather the art of manipulation. Nobody could blame her for that as she was kept hostage and tyrannized by a blood-thirsty pervert king. How could she have refused his marriage proposal with a sword pointing at her neck? In today’s world of psychology she would have been diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome as she fell in love with her captor.

This brutal story came to my mind while I was browsing the UN website:  UNITE To Stop Violence Against Women. The international organization is engaging forces to adopt and enforce national laws to address and punish all forms of violence against women and girls; which its secretary general refers to as a pandemic that has to be eradicated.

Violence against women is indeed a pandemic and a global curse where no country and no creed are spared. However, geographic locations can sometimes dictate the fate of the abuser. In the West there are strict punishments against men who abuse women physically. In other countries, where violence against women is sometimes licensed by religious scholars, women’s abusers walk freely in the streets, often hailed for their testosteronal bursts of manhood by their fellows, who share the belief that violence against women is part of their creed. The blame goes to the culture and tradition of these societies as well as to the clerics who promote the abuse of women.

The net result is that as violence against women is culturally  accepted and traditionally embedded in some societies, the UN’s journey to eradicate such brutal acts against women is going to be a long and challenging one. But none the less, it is time to set such a global movement in motion before the day of reckoning comes where we shall be haunted by the ghosts of Sharhayar’s three thousand beheaded wives.

5 thoughts on “Arabian Nights and the Scheherazad-ization of Women

  1. A lovely and well balanced article. Your analysis of the 1001 nights story is quite new, though 🙂

    Unfortunately violence against women is a big problem in Muslim countries. I do not personally know any men who beat their wives, but it exists.

    I wish religious scholars could do something useful and speak out against wife beating and bribery and corruption instead of busying themselves with the dos and don’ts of sex and masturbation.

    One major problem is womens’ attitudes. Many women believe violence against them if they “misbehave” is justified. This must change. If all women spoke up and said it was unacceptable, things could change.

    I have seen a lot of the videos you refer to in your article. They are sickening. What saddens me, though, (as a Muslim, that is) is that these videos are not used for the noble purpose of bettering womens’ rights but for demonising and stereotyping 1.2 billion Muslims. I’m not particularly religious but I hate unfair generalizations.

    But that’s just my opinion. We have to speak up against this and ignore the bigots.

    Keep it up

  2. Thank you Alexandra for your poignant and truthful account. I remember hearing stories last summer of how women are been mistreated in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. How women are harassed and assaulted on the streets, on crowded buses, abused by their husbands, almost with impunity and with the police force watching in support. And in Egypt, there is no explicit law criminizing sexual harassment. Maybe this performance will help bring awareness and quell the social injustice that is indigenous to this beautiful, exotic locale.


  3. Hi Alexandra,

    Your article draws attention to a prevalent issue, that of violence against women, even in today’s world. However, I have a few problems with the misguided assumptions and generalizations you make in this article.

    For one, your claim ‘How could she have refused his marriage proposal with a sword pointing at her neck?’, is wrong. The reason Sheherezade is seen as an emblem of power, is because she CHOOSES to marry the king in order to stop him from killing more women. This choice, though discouraged and disapproved by her father, signifies her bravery to battle the king’s violence with words. So, the narrative is, in effect, a call to peace with storytelling, because ultimately, she is successful.

    Secondly, you seem to blur the boundaries between religion and culture, without offering an explanation. It is easy to sometimes confuse religious teachings with how they have been interpreted and practiced, however, at the same time it is important to remember that these are two separate things, and to blur the boundaries is dangerous.

    And finally, you discuss very vaguely these other countries, whose cultures allow a violence against women. While you may have a point, it is invalidated by its generalization. You should offer specific details to support your claim, and not just generalized comments that could be true of any society, at any time.

    Thank you,

  4. As it was pointed, Sheherazade marries with the king on her own accord. She had to blackmail her father for this and the king even question her father about the decision of offering her as a wife. This changes all perspective of her acts.

    But there are other points, which are not so literal as this part of the plot, that changes the perspective. One is that the final with the 3 sons is not cannonical – in fact, very few we can claim to be cannonical about the night – as the oldest scrolls end in the 228 (if recall well) night in the middle of a story. It was not supposed to have an end and I suppose Borges was correct when he says the title 1001 nights is a poetic allusion to infinite. Of course, the whole idea of her having 3 children and the king never noticing it, specially considering his paranoia towards women is only acceptable with a good dosage of suspesion of disbelief (which is not hard, considering how the reader’s perpection is already moved towards by the fantatistic stories).

    Another point is meta-linguistic. Sheherazade position as a challenging woman is also matched by her position as a challenging storyteller. Fables were considered a minor genre (even then) because of the fantasy, material for kids and women (in the court). It was not something a king was supposed to care about – he should dedicate to poetry, philosophy, religious stories and at much, more realistic exemplary stories. Sheherazade mix the genres, fables and exemplary stories, just like her position as a woman is changed. There is a lot of irony on this textual construction which we must understand combine with the irony of her – a manipulative (the word is not bad) woman of virtue – telling stories of manipulative women of no virtue who abuse/tricky men often. The idea is the contrast, because the 1001 Nights wasnt originally written for the “intelectual elite” and eventually, women of virtue (like the wife of Haroon Al-Rashid or the elder sister in the 3 sister stories) and less violent stories are told.

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