The Freer Gallery and the Sisterhood is Global Institute co-sponsored on April 15 a lively panel discussion in the Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in Washington, DC. The panelists discussed the powerful literary character Shaharazad from 1001 Nights and related her “subversive” survival plan to present-day Muslim women and subversive methods they use to improve their lives. Azar Nafisi, curator of Middle Eastern Art at the Freer Gallery, examined Shaharazad’s tales that mixed old oral traditions from India, Persia, Turkey and the Arab world. The stories survived various translations, Nafisi said, finally resulting in Sir Richard Burton’s 1001 Nights that made such a dramatic impact on the West.
Nafisi described the frame narration that is built around a king betrayed by his first wife who takes revenge by marrying a virgin each night and killing her each morning. After three years of this murderous routine, Shaharazad offered to wed the misogynist ruler. She told him a fascinating but unfinished story each night and thus survived three years and produced three children, by which time the king had decided to keep her around.
Shaharazad is a symbol of vulnerability and helplessness, while the king is the symbol of power to grant life or decree death, Nafisi said, Shaharazad deals with people peacefully and cleverly, just as Muslim women do today, Nafisi concluded.
The next speaker, Iranian Mahnaz Afkhami, director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Bethesda, MD, said that good literature has a universal message for all cultures. She said that in the first years after the Iranian revolution there was a reign of ideology in the name of religion. The victims were Muslims, Afkhami declared, because their private religion was confiscated and became part of the state’s ideology. “Polarized societies target women and minorities,” Afkhami continued. Women who dressed or acted Western became agents of Satan, because they used signs and symbols from the Great Satan, or the United States. After 150 years of fighting for progress in Iran, women lost their identity.
Afkhami said Shaharazad couldn’t fight the king in his own domain, so she took him to her own. “Her fiction showed the king a different reality and made him curious and able to empathize with the world.” Iranian women took the veil, the object of invisibility, and turned it into beauty. But they are subversive, like Shaharazad, when it comes to words, reading works by Jane Austin and Emily Bronte and printing stories in newspapers published by women which subtly challenge the status quo. In Iran, Algeria and Afghanistan women are realizing that it isn’t Muslim to be flogged or killed or legally worth half of a man, Afkhami concluded.
Fatima Mernissi, a sociologist who teaches at University Mohammad V in Rabat, Morocco, is the author of Beyond the Veil, Islam and Democracy, and The Veil and the Male Elite (all available from the AET Book Club). She began by saying humorously that now that the best shariah scholars are her ex-students, she can concentrate on writing fiction. Using Shaharazad’s uniquely Eastern personality as an introduction, she warmed to her subject with pithy generalities and aphorisms.
“The images of women in Islam and in the West are totally different,” she said. “In Islam beauty is intelligence. In the West a woman must choose between beauty and intelligence: If she chooses intelligence she chooses masculinity. If she exhibits brains, she wipes out her charm.” Christians separate body and mind, Mernissi continued, while Islam integrates the body and mind.
Turning her focus to the Muslim world, she said men have the public space now and prefer that women be excluded. Mernissi said that men may fear that if women invade that space, the patriarchy is finished. Nevertheless, she continued, times are changing. In Iran, she pointed out, women have the vote and receive a state-paid education.
New communications technology has brought satellite dishes, computers, telephones and faxes to destroy the monopoly of interpreting information. Politicians may be allergic to women but sciences and technologies love women, Mernissi laughed. “Scientific manpower is women.” She concluded that women are stronger now than in Shaharazad’s day, for their dialogue can be in public places, not just in the bedroom. “Sexual apartheid will be erased.”