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Development of Feminism in the Arabian Nights

Feminism in a general sense, is a motion promoting equality for women in all aspects of life. In the Islamic faith, feminism has a slightly different modified meaning. Islamic feminism supports the same attitude, basing it on slightly different beliefs, causing the outcome to be somewhat different. The Arabian Nights, particularly in the frame story, One Thousand and One Nights, expresses an overall message of feminism. The book leads with an arguably misogynistic viewpoint, holding a prejudice against women, so the message of feminism can be hard to grasp. Although misogyny is prevalent in the early stories, it serves a crucial role in expressing the feminist viewpoints portrayed throughout the book. Shahrazade tells many tales throughout the book which, all together, promote this feminist theme. Another tale that portrays ideals of Islamic feminism is the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Although Morgiana, a slave girl, is the heroine of the story, she is not given the credit of being identified as the protagonist of the piece. Early tales in both the frame story as well as the story of Ali Baba are told through a bit of a misogynistic lens, but the progression of the tales leads to an overall picture of the feminist ideas portrayed through the actions of both Shahrazade and Morgiana.

The Frame story, One Thousand and One Nights, is significant in expressing this feminist viewpoint of women throughout the book, although this is certainly not clear toward the beginning of the story.The frame story opens with two brothers, rulers of their respective lands, who have both been cuckolded. After Shahrayar, one of the brothers who has been cuckolded, finds out his queen has cheated on him, he says “‘take that wife of mine and put her to death’” (Arabian Nights 12), ordering the vizier to kill her. With this, he makes the decision to then marry a new wife every day, with the intention of killing her the morning after. “Shahrayar sat on his throne and ordered the vizier… to find him a wife from among the prince’s daughters.” (Arabian Nights 12) Such an absurd and unnecessary violation of respect for females clearly portrays the misogynistic sense near the beginning of the book. This will change as the book progresses and will actually play a role in the final feminist portrayal of women. Sharyar goes on with this horrific practice for some time until his vizier’s daughter Shahrazade decides to step up and at least make an attempt at stopping him. Shahrazade is said to be an “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined” individual, who has “read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine” and “knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings.” (Arabian Nights 13) Although her father held a strong objection, Shahrazade thought she could be the one to stop it so she stepped in and volunteered to be the next wife. Shahrazade’s plan was genius, she would tell a story every night, leaving off just at the king’s peak of curiosity, so the king would let her live just one more day, so she could continue with her stories. The morning after the first night, Shahrazade “lapsed into silence, leaving King Shahrayar burning with curiosity to hear the rest of the story.” (Arabian Nights 19) Night after night, Shahrayar lets Shahrazade off the hook for just one more night. This is a huge element in expressing the feminist perspective of the stories. Although Shahrazade’s early stories show women in a bad light, it is only for the purpose of manipulating the king. Shahrazade shows that, even as a woman in a tough position, she is able to outsmart the powerful King Shahrayar. The fact that Shahrazade is considered a learned, intelligent individual, as well as being able to outsmart and manipulate the king, plays an important role in creating the base for an overall positive perspective on women depicted by the book.

The initial impression of the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, suggests that Ali Baba will be the character of the greatest significance, due to his name being in the title of the story. He is credited with being associated with the forty thieves although the thieves are out to destroy his life and wealth, while Morgiana ends up saving Ali Baba by manipulating the robbers and taking matters into her own hands by creating oil jars, and then being able to make the whole situation have no greater negative consequences on their town. Morgiana is characterized as being a slave before her talents and intelligence are introduced in the piece. This is seen in Kasim having a “…clever slave girl, Morgiana” (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves 775). Unlike the male characters in the story, Morgiana is clever. This is seen in Morgiana’s plan to confuse the thieves on which doors they did and did not mark as already robbed, “Morgiana, however, saw the sign, suspected danger and marked all the other doors in the neighborhood, so that when the forty arrived they were at a loss” (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves 775). Her ability to manipulate and confuse men is seen in her being the character that ends up being the one who saves Ali Baba’s life as well as the wealth of others in the town. Morgiana is not seen as the protagonist or the hero figure of the story; Ali Baba is, although he is the one being saved, not doing the saving. Traditional Islamic values can be seen in the display of feminism in this story because, although Morgiana has her moments of being the hero, this is lost toward the end of the story, where the reward she is given is the “reward” of becoming a wife. This is seen in the mention of “…when she revealed the guest’s dagger he thanked her; the nephew married her…” (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves 780). Although she is not given the complete respect and acknowledgement for the things that she did to save the town from robbers and Ali Baba from his death, the character of Morgiana is painted in positive way, just like Shahrazade is painted in a positive way in the frame story of the Arabian Nights.

The portrayal of Shahrazade as female figure of influence, knowledge and successful delivery of stories, allows the reader to connect her presence to an overarching presence of feminism in The Arabian Nights; a theme also prevalent in the characterization of Morgiana in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves as a female figure portraying a hero. Both Shahrazade and Morgiana are not the primary figures of their tales, which supports the idea that in Islamic feminism, women are still subject to being seen as submissive, seen as second to the men they are associated with. Both Shahrazade and Morgiana manage to show the readers of their stories that although they are women, they can overcome the stereotype of needing a man to help them achieve the level of becoming heroines of some sort. Shahrazade can be seen as a heroine in her successful delivery of the frame story of the Arabian Nights due to her ability of being able to have Shahrayar keep delaying the murder of yet another woman (herself), giving her empowerment. Morgiana can also be seen as an empowered figure due to Ali Baba’s survival and the town’s ability to escape further robbery, all of which would not have been possible without her idea to mark all of the doors in the neighborhood to confuse the robbers. A major thing that Morgiana and Shahrazade have in common is their successful ability to confuse men and therefore appear more intelligent and capable of achieving what they want. Shahrazade escaped murder by Shahrayar by having him captivated by her stories and therefore keeping her alive, as well as Morgiana’s ability to think of a plan that ended up saving lives, saving the town, and resulted in her marrying rich and no longer having to be a slave. The ability for Morgiana to rise in society by showing the readers that she is just as capable of achieving success and becoming the heroine of a story, as well as Shahrazade’s ability to prolong the king Shahrayar from killing her for so long by having captivating stories, shows that both of their stories are examples of literature that reflect feminist viewpoints.

Feminism, defined previously as promoting equality between men and women, in multiple aspects of life, is seen by the character of Morgiana in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, as well as in the character of Shahrazade in the frame story of the Arabian Nights. It is apparent that both Morgiana and Shahrazade are not the protagonists of their stories due to the fact that they are women, although they are the heroines of their stories, who end up using their intelligence and their ability to think about what would be the best action to save or better the lives of others (prolonging the murder of other women in the frame story as well as saving the town and Ali Baba from murder and robbery). This is due to traditional Islamic values and the society’s ability to make men think that women should be submissive to them, reflected in the stories as women are depicted as evil for a majority of the frame story. Although both stories involve the characters of Morgiana and Shahrazade to be subjected to discrimination and prejudice just because they are females, these characters are able to overcome the stereotypes and show the readers of their stories that although they may be wives, mothers, slaves, or daughters, they are also heroes, without whom, the societies around them would not exist. This shows that pieces like the frame story of The Arabian Nights as well as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves may not seem like feminist literature at first, but through the analysis of characters like Morgiana and Shahrazade, it can be concluded that their actions do cause these works of literature to have aspects of feminism hidden in their themes.

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