She was only a creation of the imagination, a young woman of Baghdad who told 1,001 spellbinding stories to an Arab king hundreds of years ago. Her name was Scheherazade and her marvelous tales, a collection known by Western readers as "The Arabian Nights," have been a part of life in the Islamic world for centuries.
But now Scheherazade herself is getting a powerful new image as a feminist icon, a provocative role model and an inspiration for Muslim women who are seeking to take a stronger role in Islamic society without abandoning their religion or their culture.
"I became obsessed with Scheherazade," Azar Nafisi, a former university professor in Tehran, Iran, said of the fictional heroine, who used her courage, erudition and wit to face down her own likely death and, in the process, transformed a kingdom and a king.
Nafisi has been teaching since last year at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "In Iran," she said, "I was trying to teach and write literature and be the kind of woman I wanted to be without compromising."
Driven from two teaching jobs because of her independence and her refusal to wear an enveloping head scarf, Nafisi collected six of her brightest female students in Tehran and began study of a multivolume version of Scheherazade'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 and professors, even those working clandestinely in home schools in Afghanistan -- have had to react to [clashing world views] in recent decades: Western feminism and the Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to set back decades of modernizing trends in a number of Muslim countries.
In that context, the story of Scheherazade fills two needs. It demonstrates that women need not "Westernize" to expand their rights and roles within their societies, and that Islamic history and literature may provide the most effective tools against Muslim zealots.
Scheherazade, always a popular literary figure, has therefore become a powerful symbol, too.
To look at Scheherazade anew is to see a Muslim woman's life before male-centered customs and interpretations of the Koran consigned girls and women to second-class citizenship. Listen to how Scheherazade is described in "The Arabian Nights," as translated by Husain Haddawy from a 14th-century Syrian manuscript (W.W. Norton, 1990):
"Shahrazad had read the books of literature, philosophy and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, and studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined."
Scheherazade was not only a fictional character but also a literary device invented to fill the role of narrator of the "frame" story around the tales, which include raucous, bawdy adventures as well as morality lessons and stories loved by children, like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor.
In the frame story, Scheherazade was the daughter of chief minister to a king, Shahrayar, who had been betrayed by his queen and turned violently against all women. Every night he would summon a new young virgin to his bed for sex, and every morning he would ask [the minister] to have her put to death.
One day, Scheherazade told her father she wanted to volunteer to go to the king. [He] was distressed, but could not stop her.
At the end of three years, Scheherazade had borne the king several children and had taught him through her stories not only to trust her but also to understand 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 Western feminists 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 on female Arab novelists who wrote from 1899 to 1990 she found that many drew on Scheherazade.
Muslim feminists -- and not all accept that label, even when it seems to fit -- 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 "absolute nonsense" and "irrelevant to us."
Mahnaz Afkhami, who was minister for women's affairs in the government of the last shah of Iran, agrees. "The Occident's view of the Orient has always been based on very submissive and quiet women in the background or the voluptuous, sexual occupants of the harem," she said.
"Islamic women looking at their own history see women in a range of very visible and active roles. Muslim women today are very much hampered by a lot of traditions and a lot of cultural impediments, but in fact they are living their lives in a very decisive and articulate way."
"The prototype is Scheherazade," she said, "who made her world as she talked about it."