What stereotypes or power fantasies does Shahrazad express in The Arabian Nights, and what does the work suggest about female power?

The allure and continued relevance of The Arabian Nights as an academic text resides in the way the stories provide a nuanced critical perspective on historic gender relations and structural power dynamics. In contrast to the men, who are selfish, lustful, and feckless, the woman are intelligent, resourceful, and honorable. Stories like "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" challenge historic stereotypes by portraying women as independent centers of morality and willful empowerment.

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The book's main narrative establishes from the beginning the hypocrisy of gender-based power dynamics in the world of the tales. In the backstory, King Shahryar’s first wife has just been executed for her infidelity. While cultural tradition allowed for any man of means to have multiple wives, women were denied...

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The book's main narrative establishes from the beginning the hypocrisy of gender-based power dynamics in the world of the tales. In the backstory, King Shahryar’s first wife has just been executed for her infidelity. While cultural tradition allowed for any man of means to have multiple wives, women were denied the privilege of taking responsibility for their own happiness and fulfillment.

Accordingly, the story tells us nothing about the conditions of the wife’s marriage to the king, nor of her feelings about the unfair arrangement. This wife, like the king’s brother’s and all their others except Scheherazade, is unnamed and warrants no sympathy or mourning. Instead, the king and his brother care only about their wounded egos, learning nothing about themselves or their roles in the relationship and condemning womanhood as inherently unfaithful and scheming.

These are eternal examples of the kind of stereotypes that pervade the book’s underlying assumptions, as they have pervaded throughout history. In Scheherazade's world, female humanity, like female empowerment and sexuality, is understood and governed by male attitudes about pride, property and privilege that her “tales” will subvert.

In the Aladdin tale, one of the collection’s best known, the very foundation of the stereotypical “patriarchal”, or male-dominated, structure is turned on its head. Aladdin’s inability to support his widowed mother demonstrates his worthlessness and weakness by the expected standards of manhood. By working to provide for her lazy son, old enough himself to at least contribute, Aladdin’s mother is taking on both the traditional male and female roles of provider and caregiver.

In this example, suiting Scheherazade's overarching purpose, we see the presentation of the woman/wife/mother character as the embodiment of strength and virtue. Even among the lower-classes represented by Aladdin’s family, boys like him still have the privilege of loafing about while his mother and so many like her have no such selfish choices.

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There are several different ways that The Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights, explores, plays off of, and subverts women's roles and stereotypes. One of the main ways that this collection of stories explores power is through the book's frame narrative. The king is angry at women because he discovers his wife having an affair. He has his first wife executed and decides that he will now marry virgins, have sex with them, and then kill them the following morning before they have the chance to be unfaithful to him or hurt him in other ways. This storyline is already one example of a stereotype of masculinity — that of a violent, power-hungry king who uses his power to hurt women.

When he marries Shahrazad, however, she tells him stories each night to keep him interested, prevent him from killing her, and thus save other women in the kingdom from his wrath. This frame narrative suggests the ways in which, in a violent patriarchal world where men seemingly have all the power, women can use language and stories to reclaim power, to survive, to express themselves even when they are silenced, and to create new worlds through these stories where women perhaps have more freedom.

Many of the stories Shahrazad tells feature women who fall into the stereotype of being powerless objects, merely existing for men's pleasure. For example, in the story "The Merchant and His Wife," the merchant beats his wife in order to control her and to keep her from disobeying him. While at first this story seems violent and misogynistic, the context in which this story is told is everything. Shahrazad's father tells her this story towards the beginning of the book in order to try to force her to not marry the king. After listening to this story, Shahrazad disobeys her father and marries the king anyway. Thus, this story exemplifies one of the ways in which this book presents a stereotype of power dynamics between men and women, and then subverts this stereotype by showing us how a woman rebels and refuses to fit in with this particular idea of womanhood.

Many of the stories in this book also explore the stereotype/power dynamic of women as slaves. However, once again, this stereotype is often turned on its head in a way that empowers women. In the story "The Tale of Sympathy the Learned," a young slave girl is extremely intelligent and well-educated and uses this intelligence to empower herself. We could view this story as one that represents Shahrazad's power fantasies and hopes for herself, as the slave girl's use of intelligence to gain power mirrors Shahrazad's storyline with the king.

There are certainly many different stories in Arabian Nights that seem to feature women as powerless individuals subjected to male violence. However, again, it's crucial to look at all of these stories in the context of Shahrazad's frame narrative, in which she is a powerful woman who disobeys her father, seduces/tricks/influences the king, and helps both herself and all the other women in the kingdom survive. Using only her intelligence, persistence, and creativity, Shaharazad ends up influencing the most powerful man in a patriarchal society. Thus, the book's ending suggests that this story is ultimately a story of women's survival, and perhaps even liberation.

 

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