She was only a creation of the imagination, a young woman of Baghdad whotold 1,001 spellbinding stories to an Arab king hundreds of years ago. Hername was Scheherazade and her marvelous tales, a collection known by Westernreaders as "The Arabian Nights," have been a part of life in the Islamicworld for centuries.
But now Scheherazade herself is getting a powerful new image as a feministicon, a provocative role model and an inspiration for Muslim women who areseeking to take a stronger role in Islamic society without abandoning theirreligion or their culture.
"I became obsessed with Scheherazade," Azar Nafisi, a former universityprofessor in Tehran, Iran, said of the fictional heroine, who used hercourage, erudition and wit to face down her own likely death and, in theprocess, transformed a kingdom and a king.
Nafisi has been teaching since last year at the Johns Hopkins School ofAdvanced International Studies in Washington. "In Iran," she said, "I wastrying to teach and write literature and be the kind of woman I wanted to bewithout compromising."
Driven from two teaching jobs because of her independence and her refusal towear an enveloping head scarf, Nafisi collected six of her brightest femalestudents in Tehran and began study of a multivolume version ofScheherazade's stories, which Iranians, who are not Arabs, prefer to call"One Thousand and One Nights."
Many thousands of Islamic women from North Africa to Southeast Asia --writers, lawyers, leaders of self-help health organizations, teachers andprofessors, even those working clandestinely in home schools inAfghanistan -- have had to react to [clashing world views] in recentdecades: Western feminism and the Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to setback decades of modernizing trends in a number of Muslim countries.
In that context, the story of Scheherazade fills two needs. It demonstratesthat women need not "Westernize" to expand their rights and roles withintheir societies, and that Islamic history and literature may provide themost effective tools against Muslim zealots.
Scheherazade, always a popular literary figure, has therefore become apowerful symbol, too.
To look at Scheherazade anew is to see a Muslim woman's life beforemale-centered customs and interpretations of the Koran consigned girls andwomen to second-class citizenship. Listen to how Scheherazade is describedin "The Arabian Nights," as translated by Husain Haddawy from a 14th-centurySyrian manuscript (W.W. Norton, 1990):
"Shahrazad had read the books of literature, philosophy and medicine. Sheknew poetry by heart, and studied historical reports, and was acquaintedwith the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She wasintelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined."
Scheherazade was not only a fictional character but also a literary deviceinvented to fill the role of narrator of the "frame" story around the tales,which include raucous, bawdy adventures as well as morality lessons andstories loved by children, like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor.
In the frame story, Scheherazade was the daughter of chief minister to aking, Shahrayar, who had been betrayed by his queen and turned violentlyagainst all women. Every night he would summon a new young virgin to his bedfor sex, and every morning he would ask [the minister] to have her put todeath.
One day, Scheherazade told her father she wanted to volunteer to go to theking. [He] was distressed, but could not stop her.
At the end of three years, Scheherazade had borne the king several childrenand had taught him through her stories not only to trust her but also tounderstand that there were good and bad people everywhere. She had,moreover, saved the rest of the kingdom's young women from slaughter.
While the glorification of such a character might strike some Westernfeminists as less than stunning progress in asserting women's rights,Islamic women say that within their culture it's a good starting point.
In Syria, Bouthaina Shaaban, a professor of English at Damascus University,said in a telephone interview that while recently completing a book onfemale Arab novelists who wrote from 1899 to 1990 she found that many drewon Scheherazade.
Muslim feminists -- and not all accept that label, even when it seems tofit -- invariably tell a Westerner asking about Scheherazade that theIslamic world has always had strong women, and still does. In Damascus,Shaaban dismissed contemporary Western views of Islamic women as "absolutenonsense" and "irrelevant to us."
Mahnaz Afkhami, who was minister for women's affairs in the government ofthe last shah of Iran, agrees. "The Occident's view of the Orient has alwaysbeen based on very submissive and quiet women in the background or thevoluptuous, sexual occupants of the harem," she said.
"Islamic women looking at their own history see women in a range of veryvisible and active roles. Muslim women today are very much hampered by a lotof traditions and a lot of cultural impediments, but in fact they are livingtheir lives in a very decisive and articulate way."
"The prototype is Scheherazade," she said, "who made her world as she talkedabout it."