Scheherazade was a philosopher, an artist, a writer, who was trying to humanize the King and men around her through literature and therefor prove that “the word is mightier than the sword”. These are all qualities that made her stand out as a heroine of her times. I wonder whether she can therefore be considered a feminist?
It would be very difficult to define her as such. On one hand she is a progressive, heroic figure, described at length not for her beauty but for her intelligence and cosmopolitan appeal. She refuses to honor her father’s wishes and marries the King in order to save other women from being raped and killed. Moreover, she is able to do so thanks to her ability to tell stories. She saves herself and other women, one tale at a time. On the other hand, in spite of succeeding in the telling all of her tales and thus bringing about the end of the King killing women every morning, at the end the world returns to the “status quo”. Scheherazade, in the end, lives happily-ever-after in a patriarchal world wrought with misogyny, inequality: a world that condones violence against women. She does not seek to enact any permanent changes, or move towards equal rights for women, to tell stories about strong female characters, or to hold men accountable for violence against women.
Disputing that she is either a feminist or a heroine would be very difficult given the information we know about her indicates that she was actually very progressive, heroic and courageous, qualities that the common proletarians did not share in those days. In order to understand these stories, we must put our modern-day values on the shelf, understand the historical context of the time, and enjoy the tales for what they were in their time. It feels to me that, by categorizing the work absolutely, some of the nuance of Scheherazade’s actions, as well as those of her many characters, is lost in the pursuit of certainty.
I find the character of Scheherazade interesting because, while she has a humanizing effect on the King, many of her qualities are not reflected in the women in her stories. She cures the King of his brutality with her stories, and in the process she presents herself as an intelligent, wise, courageous, and gentle woman, but these are all qualities that set her apart from most of the other women described in the tales of 1001 nights: “Never trust in women; nor rely upon their vows; For their pleasure and displeasure depend upon their passions. They offer a false affection; for perfidy lurks within their clothing. By the tale of Yusuf be admonished, and guard against their stratagems. Dost thou not consider that Iblis ejected Adam by means of woman?”
On the other hand she is also cunning, because she manipulates the King with her stories, in order to prevent him from raping and killing herself and the other women. She therefor redresses the King’s false perception of women.
We should reflect upon the reasons Scheherazade becomes cunning and manipulative, as these qualities are with no doubt triggered by the misogynistic world that surrounds her. In order to save the other women and herself, she develops the qualities that are needed in order to “tame” the King. While doing so, she disguises her real intentions through storytelling. Further, Scheherazade expands her repertoire to include stories about women that are not only cunning and manipulative, but also strong and educated. If seen within the context of the time that the Arabian Nights was written, this can be considered as extremely progressive. However, I wonder how the perception of these characteristics in a female (being cunning and manipulative), changed with time. In modern times, women that are lustful, passionate, and manipulative are seen as strong, feminist figures, whereas during the time of the Arabian Nights these were probably not considered positive qualities. In fact they were probably perceived as negative characteristics. However, it seems as if there is, within the pages of the Arabian Nights, an early recognition of these qualities as strengths, because it is precisely this set of qualities which make these women stronger than men. The male characters can, in fact, seem at times quite naïve and foolish. The King has no idea that he is being manipulated with stories. The King is unaware of Scheherazade’s influence on him. This puts her in a superior position. In this sense, perhaps the King is the representation of traditional Arabian misconception of the female, and Scheherazade is a rebuttal to such.
Scheherazade is, in a sense, trapped in a vicious cycle. She needs to keep telling stories to save her life, but she also needs to use these stories to make the King a better man, in order to finally stop telling stories.
Her curse can be seen as a portrayal of the female that is trying desperately to be recognized as equal, but in order to do so, it needs to disguise itself, or else it won’t be able to get its way.
Perhaps by having the stories of 1001 nights told by a woman like Scheherazade, one can recognize an early implicit need for female guidance. Through this story we can examine the necessity to explore the possibility of a world where women find their voice and can influence men’s decisions in what was up until then a “man’s world”. If seen through the lens of the above mentioned perspectives, one can only hope for Scheherazade and for what she represents, to give up on just “telling stories” to disguise her real intentions, perhaps start daring to tell the “truth” about her condition and therefor facilitate a direct confrontation with her male counterpart, the King.