Muslim Women Hear The Call Of A Storyteller

Sat, Feb 6, 1999


The New York Times / By Barbara Crossette

She was only a creation of the imagination, a young woman of Baghdad who told 1,001 spellbinding stories to an Arab king hundreds of years ago. Her name was Scheherazade and her marvelous tales, a collection known by Western readers as ”The Arabian Nights,” have been a part of life in the Islamic world for centuries.

But now Scheherazade herself is getting a powerful new image as a feminist icon, a provocative role model and an inspiration for Muslim women who are seeking to take a stronger role in Islamic society without abandoning their religion or their culture.

”I became obsessed with Scheherazade,” Azar Nafisi, a former university professor in Teheran, said of the fictional heroine, who used her courage, erudition and wit to face down her own likely death and in the process, transformed a kingdom and a king.

Ms. Nafisi has been teaching since last year at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. ”In Iran,” she said, ”I was trying to teach and write literature and be the kind of woman I wanted to be without compromising.” Driven from two teaching jobs because of her independence and her refusal to wear an all-enveloping head scarf, Ms. Nafisi collected six of her brightest female students in Teheran and began an intensive extracurricular study of a multivolume version of Scheherazade’s stories, which Iranians, who are not Arabs, prefer to call ”One Thousand and One Nights.”

Many thousands of Islamic women from North Africa to Southeast Asia — writers, lawyers, leaders of self-help health organizations, teachers and professors, even those working clandestinely in home schools in Afghanistan — have had to react to two seemingly competing phenomena in recent decades: Western feminism and the Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to set back decades of modernizing trends in a number of Muslim countries.

In that context, the story of Scheherazade (or Shahrazad, as she is also known) fills two needs. It demonstrates that women need not ”Westernize” to expand their rights and roles within their societies, and that Islamic history and literature may provide the most effective tools against today’s Muslim zealots.

Scheherazade, always a popular literary figure, has therefore become a powerful symbol, too.

In April, Ms. Nafisi will join two other Muslim women — Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan scholar, and Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian-American who founded an international Muslim women’s organization, Sisterhood Is Global — in a program titled ”Shahrazad Then and Now” at the Freer Gallery in Washington. The three will talk and lead a discussion in the gallery. They are billing the program as a discussion of how powerful literary, artistic and historical figures relate to ”the present-day reality of Muslim women and their continuing use of subversive methods to affect their lives.”

To look at Scheherazade anew is to see a Muslim woman’s life before the accretions of male-centered customs and interpretations of the Koran consigned girls and women to invisible, second-class citizenship. Listen to how Scheherazade is described in ”The Arabian Nights,” as translated by Husain Haddawy from a 14th-century Syrian manuscript (W.W. Norton, 1990):

”Shahrazad had read the books of literature, philosophy and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, and studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined.”

Scheherazade was not only a fictional character, but also a literary device invented to fill the role of narrator of the ”frame” story around the tales, which include raucous, bawdy adventures as well as morality lessons and stories loved by children, like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor. In the frame story, Scheherazade was the daughter of the Vizier, or chief minister, to a king, Shahrayar, who had been betrayed by his queen and turned violently against all women. Every night he would summon a new young virgin to his bed for sex, and every morning he would ask his Vizier to have her put to death.

One day, Scheherazade told her father she wanted to volunteer to go to the king. The Vizier was distressed, but could not stop her. Scheherazade contrived with her sister, Dinarzad, to start a storytelling session in the king’s chamber before the first night ended. With her encyclopedic knowledge and narrative skills, Scheherazade established a pattern of spinning out an exciting tale, but stopping before it reached an end, sparking the imagination of Shahrayar. He decided to let her live another day to hear what happened next — and then another day, and another and another. At the end of three years, Scheherazade had borne the king several children and had taught him through her stories not only to trust her but also to understand that there were good and bad people everywhere. She had, moreover, saved the rest of the kingdom’s young women from slaughter.

While the glorification of such a character might strike some Western feminists as less than stunning progress in asserting women’s rights, Islamic women say that within their culture it’s a good starting point.

In Syria, Bouthaina Shaaban, a professor of English at Damascus University, said in a telephone interview that while recently completing a book on female Arab novelists who wrote from 1899 to 1990 she found that many drew on Scheherazade.

”I speak about Scheherazade from the point of view of language: that a woman used language to deter physical violence,” Ms. Shaaban said. ”Arab women in particular have resorted to the use of language as a way of fighting their battles, whether these are social or educational or political battles.”

In Morocco, Ms. Mernissi, a research scholar at Rabat’s Mohammed VI University, said in a telephone interview that this was not the first time Scheherazade had inspired a generation.

”In the 1920’s,” as a number of Muslim countries began to modernize and secularize, she said, ”big names in the Arab world spoke of Scheherazade as an example for intellectuals fighting for their rights. She was a fighter for the right of free expression. Someone once made a list of theater plays inspired by Scheherazade. It was enormous.

”I’m starting to use her as a way to build self-confidence,” said Ms. Mernissi, who lectures and leads group discussions among students, many of whom face unemployment or generally bleak economic prospects when they graduate. ”O.K., if I’m faced with a killer, I will use all my means, I say. I ask them: Where did this woman get this self-confidence?

”This woman gained the right to live by using the right words. It’s fantastic material for talking about the extremely tragic problems society has. And it teaches how to fight violence with words.”

Muslim feminists — and not all accept that label, even when it seems to fit — invariably tell a Westerner asking about Scheherazade that the Islamic world has always had strong women, and still does. In Damascus, Ms. Shaaban dismissed contemporary Western views of Islamic women as ”absolute nonsense” and ”irrelevant to us.”

Ms. Afkhami, who was Minister for Women’s Affairs in the Government of the last Shah of Iran, concurs. ”The Occident’s view of the Orient has always been based on very submissive and quiet women in the background or the voluptuous, sexual occupants of the harem,” she said. ”Islamic women looking at their own history see women in a range of very visible and active roles. Muslim women today are very much hampered by a lot of traditions and a lot of cultural impediments, but in fact they are living their lives in a very decisive and articulate way.”

”Muslim women have largely stopped being reactive to Western feminism,” she said. ”It releases a whole lot of positive energy for us not to have to say what we’re not.”

”I see that the salvation of our part of the world lies in our being able to recreate our culture and our beliefs in ways that are conducive to the life we must live,” Ms. Afkhami continued. ”Muslim women are not giving up their faith; they’re not giving up their traditions or their culture, but they are re-imagining them in ways that let them build on that and get strength and nourishment from it.”

”The prototype is Scheherazade,” she said, ”who made her world as she talked about it.”

Photo: Above, an engraving in which Scheherazade prolongs her life by captivating the sultan. Below, an illustration for one of her stories. (Photographs from the Granger Collection)(pg. B9)

Correction: February 13, 1999, Saturday An article on Feb. 6 about Scheherazade as a feminist icon for Muslim women misstated the role of Mahnaz Afkhami in founding the Sisterhood Is Global Institute and misstated its mission. Ms. Afkhami, its executive director, was one of more than two dozen founders of the organization, not the sole one. The group addresses women’s issues in all cultures and regions, not just concerns of Muslim women.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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