Thousand and One Nights

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Is the Thousand and One Nights sexist?

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The Thousand and One Nights can be considered sexist in its presentation of the sultan and his violence toward his wives, the apparent social acceptance of his behavior, and overall emphasis on male control and authoritarian attitudes. However, the stories also present admirable female characters who resist male dominance.

The frame for the collection of stories is the sultan’s tyrannical hold over his realm, which is expressed through his treatment of women as disposable. He does not trust women and demonstrates his attitude by executing every wife that he believes has betrayed him. Despite his cruelty, the rest of the society apparently acquiesces to his capricious behavior. The vizier who is complicit in supplying new victims to the sultan is a noteworthy representative of this complacency. The broad-based acceptance supports the view that the whole society is deeply sexist. In many individual stories as well, men exhibit intolerance and cruelty toward women, especially their wives.

One can argue, however, that the anonymous authors and compilers of the tales also express admiration for women. The character of Shahrazad (commonly rendered as Scheherazade) cleverly distracts and manipulates the sultan as well as creatively composes many tales that feature smart, brave female characters.

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