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One Thousand and One Nights: Shahrazad, the Traditional Feminist

posted on: Nov 1, 2017

By: Meriam Helal/Arab America Contributing Writer

The Arabian Nights is one of the most influential stories that have captured the culture of an era and have influenced traditions of many societies for generations to come.

The story was told during the 12th century and it gives the reader an insight into the culture of that period and the Islamic Golden Age. The stories were originally told and passed down to generations orally, mainly in Asian and Arab origins until they moved on to the Western world. These stories have set the foundation of many books, shows, and movies that are still watched today.

Arabian Nights highlights the power of storytelling during that time. The concept of storytelling portrays how lessons were taught as well as a portrayal of how entertainment and passing time were practiced. The stories give a glimpse of the way of life, including gender roles, societal expectations, education, and economic classes.

The portrayal of women in the stories might be shocking to modern readers, and especially, western readers because of the cultural and time differences on how women were treated during that time.  It also shows how Sharia law was the foundation of these cultures that enabled men to practice polygamy and be the head of the family.

Yet, Shahrazad portrays women as good and bad, humanizing them and giving them the power to be both, but to the modern reader, such achievements were too insignificant to be celebrated. But during that time and in those cultures, the stories were groundbreaking stories where women lead main roles that got them the center of attention.

Furthermore, baby steps in women rights were achieved throughout the centuries, and more recently, is the case of Saudi Arabia, which gave women the right to operate motor vehicles. While it is a small achievement to western countries who have granted women the right to drive for decades, it is revolutionary in Saudi Arabia.  In fact this new Saudi law is still not accepted by some of the Saudi population there which became outraged with the change of the law. This only shows how laws cannot drastically change the hearts and minds of the public. Only through empathy and understanding will social change come and that is what Shahrazad did with the King.

Shahrazad tells the King stories every night about kings, demons, witches, and genies. Each night she leaves him with a cliffhanger and entices him to let her live another day so he can hear the rest of the story the next night.

To prolong her survival, Shahrazad’s stories have stories within them. The characters tell other characters stories so they would teach them a lesson and subtly persuade them to do something much like what Shahrazade is doing to the king. Through the art of storytelling, Shahrazad is able to take control of her destiny and that of other women. Her ability to save herself and many women indicates a very rare heroine, a woman who proves to be her own savior and does not wait for prince charming to save her from harm’s way.

Interestingly, Shahrazad’s method isn’t to escape or to break free, instead it is to change the heart and soul of her oppressor through storytelling. Her method of storytelling highlights how powerful it is to use art and stories to teach lessons, change beliefs, and implant morals.

It highlights that while she might not be able to change society as a whole, she is able to change one man, a very powerful man, through storytelling. It changed how the listener perceives and views himself and the world. It teaches the listener how to live in a society that has both good and bad factors, which are reflected through different characters in the stories, such as demons and witches.

While Shahrazad’s stories might be intriguing and entertaining, they might also be perceived as groundbreaking during that time because it’s not about changing the mind of one powerful man, but it’s about changes in the minds of hundreds of men under him. Therefore, Scheherazade might not be categorized as the orthodox feminist, yet she is the first feminist at that time who addressed her goal of saving many women and her own life, as well, teaching the King a lesson about relating to others and understanding their perspectives, including women.

Women now around the world who face similar injustices are also prevailing, such as the woman who escaped from Saudi Arabia and requested asylum from the U.S., saving herself and bringing international attention to the discrimination against women. This reveals that the stories in Thousand and One Nights are not far off from today’s society in some cultures.