Thousand and One Nights

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What do we learn about women and the roles they played in Arabian society based on One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights)?

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In One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights or Thousand and One Nights), Scheherazade is clever in managing to survive in a society where women were not valued. The structure or framework of the story (that which brings all the stories together) relies on Scheherazade's bravery and cleverness. 

As seen in the introduction of the story, women were treated badly. The Sultan loves his wife, but finding that she has been unfaithful, he executes her. Sure that no female can be trusted, he marries a new woman each day, spends the night with her, and kills her in the morning.

The Sultan's actions show us that (at least in his case) women were seen as deceitful. The life of a woman is meaningless—seen in how many were killed day after day.

The grand-vizier is responsible for choosing these girls and it breaks his heart to do so. One day, his courageous daughter volunteers to marry the Sultan, hoping to change the fate of women in their kingdom. On her wedding night, she asks her sister...

When his Highness receives me, I shall beg him…to let you sleep in our chamber, so that I may have your company during the last night I am alive. …be sure that you wake me an hour before the dawn, and speak to me in these words: "My sister, if you are not asleep, I beg you, before the sun rises, to tell me one of your charming stories."

Scheherazade ends the story at the climax, and the Sultan allows her to live another day to hear the end. She repeats the process, he falls in love over time, and they marry.

This collection became very popular and spread throughout many cultures—it shows that Scheherazade is resourceful. It is hard to say if she was admired or the wonderful stories were. She might have been simply because she was a gifted storyteller—a valuable trait in cultures where stories and histories were passed through the oral tradition.

In "The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad," three beautiful women welcome several men into their home for shelter. Each must promise not to ask what does not concern him. The men are...

...a porter, three one-eyed Kalandars, and three merchants—who turn out to be the Caliph and his companions in disguise...

They are cared for, but the men are curious seeing the scars on one of the women—perhaps believing the older woman (who whipped two dogs) hurt the other. Asking for an explanation, they break their oath and are tied up: they must tell a tale "in exchange for your lives."

In the tales of the Kalandars, the women die. In two tales there are Princesses who are killed. In the second tale, there is a third princess who fights to save the second Kalandar—she, too, is killed in the battle.

In "The Eldest Lady's Tale," the woman's sisters are jealous and murderous. They try to kill their sister, but the woman escapes. A Jinniya (genie) turns the sisters into dogs; she must beat them or be punished herself.

In "The Tale of the Portress," the woman marries a man who says she must never look at another man. On a shopping trip, a young man asks for a kiss as payment for her purchase. The old woman encourages her, but then the youth bites the wife's cheek, and her husband, as punishment, plans to kill her. The old woman stops him, so he makes his wife leave.

The women telling the stories seem strong, but they are victims. The Caliph fixes all of their lives. The women's happiness depends upon the men—a reflection, perhaps, of Arabian social norms.

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