It is obvious to any outside observer that men in the Middle East and generally within Islamic culture have a great distrust of women. To those of us with Western sensibilities, this distrust borders on hatred and paranoia. In the strictest of these cultures, women are kept inside the home, allowed outside only after heavy veiling and with a male family member as chaperone. They are denied everyday activities like driving, shopping, getting an education, or in any way interacting with men outside the family. Girls are bound in marriage well before the age of puberty. And any Western woman who appears in public without observing these strictures risks being assaulted.
If these women were simply being relegated to the status of second-class citizens—considered men’s intellectual and physical inferiors and simply unequal to any economic or political role—then they would just be ignored and tend to become invisible. But the strictures laid upon women in the Middle East go beyond invisibility to become the gaudiest form of apartheid. Their very presence seems to be a continual, obsessive irritant to the men.
I wondered about this for a long time, until I tried to read the non-Hollywoodized, non-Disneyfied version of the stories from the Arabian Nights. You know, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor, and all the rest of the Arabian fairytales. To do this, I bought the Richard Burton translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night from 1885. This was supposed to be the original, uncensored version of the stories that Scheherazade told the Sultan in order to keep him from consummating their liaison and then, as was his habit, having her killed in the morning.
I only got about a hundred pages into the book before I had to stop reading. Maybe Aladdin, Ali Baba, and all the other familiar stores were introduced somewhere further down the road. But the initial frame tale1 that I encountered was about a king who rides out on some errand or other, and while he’s gone from his castle, his loving and devoted wife has it off with the nearest available man. And at the first castle the traveler comes to, the king there talks up the love and devotion of his own wife, only to have her betray him with the slaves the minute his back is turned. And her partners include “the Negro cook” who is grotesque in appearance, with “lips the size of pot lids.” And so it goes, at every turn, the supposedly virtuous and devoted wife of the house, married to the greatest and kindest of kings or princes, is debauching herself with the lowest and most loathsome of men. I finally gave up, because the air of casual misogyny and calculated racism became just too thick to read with pleasure any further.2
Maybe, later on, the tales get tamer and more sophisticated, more like the funny and charming stories we all know from the Disney telling … but I doubt it.
What strikes me most strongly is that the Thousand and One Nights is the Arabian equivalent of our European folk stories. The tales serve the same purpose as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in Western civilization, blended with Greek myths, the Grimm brothers’ fairytales, and the Arthurian legend. They are the stories you tell children as they are falling asleep in bed. They are the stories you grow up with and which mold the character and fire the imagination of young men—although I’m not sure the Arabic versions are also, as with the Western stories, intended to do the same for young women.
Yes, there is an element of feminine deceit in the Western canon. Helen leaves her husband Menelaus to run away with the young Paris, but then, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon are not model husbands in the Trojan epics. And Guinevere commits adultery with the noblest knight in Arthur’s court, and Arthur’s half-sister Morgan Le Fay seduces and betrays him, while the fairy Nimue seduces his counselor Merlin. But with these few cautionary figures we also get many positive stories about women, like the brave and loving Andromache bidding farewell to her husband Hector, or Penelope waiting long years for the return of Odysseus.
For the most part, the Western tradition honors women. Hansel and Gretel are a equals in adversity. Cinderella only wants equal treatment with her elder sisters and a chance at happiness. The Little Mermaid only wants to walk on the land and become a real woman. Snow White only takes refuge with the Seven Dwarves in the forest to escape from the evil queen. And Beauty in the end comes to understand and love the Beast. The women in the Western stories might not be the equal of men in strength, outlook, and prospects. After all, women from Greece’s heyday to the Renaissance have had a different place in society than today’s modern women: they were the helpmates, the stay-at-home moms and keepers of the hearth fire, the girls waiting for the prince to come and take them away. But they are not reviled for gross indelicacy and salacious appetites, as in the Arabian tales.
What does the depiction of women in the Thousand and One Nights—or at least the picture I got from those first hundred or so pages—do to a child growing up with these tales?
For a little boy, the stories tell him that all woman are naturally depraved and deceitful. That no matter how good might be the reputation and outward actions of his mother, sister, wife, or any other woman in his life, she is just waiting for him to turn his back so she can have a wild fling with the gardener or the postman. That he can’t trust woman out of his sight. That he must keep them draped and hooded to prevent them from flashing their bodies and weaving their evil spells against the nearest man. That all women are the Eve of the apple: weak willed and untrustworthy.
For a little girl, the stories tells her that she has no proper self. That she can’t trust her libido not to reach out and grab any degrading object of her appetites. That her sense of honor and her feelings of love, devotion, and faithfulness inside family relationships are a weak and changeable veneer over her baser inclinations. That she cannot trust herself to have a strong and stable intention to live a proper life, because she is a weak and broken vessel.
Little boys brought up with these stories will not trust their sisters, fiancés, or wives and will treat them as chattels to be guarded—and still despised. Little girls brought up with the stories will accept the burden of suspicion and implied rebuke.
Imagine what the Western view of women would have been if Hansel had been forced to drag Gretel out of a bordello at every turn. Or if Cinderella, while waiting for the Prince to find and fit that glass slipper, had been turning tricks in the palace guardroom. Or if the Little Mermaid had performed fellatio with every passing sailor. Or if Guinevere, rather than advancing from an innocent courtly love affair to a dangerous and forbidden lust with the champion of the Round Table, had instead been indiscriminately sharing her favors with every footman and potboy in Camelot. Why, then the chastity belt, instead of being an ironmonger’s joke and a macabre curiosity, would have been an everyday appliance in family use right up to the 19th century.
All of this analysis, of course, is based on my reading only about a hundred pages out of a work that runs to 16 volumes in the original with footnotes. But I couldn’t stomach those first stories for the reasons stated. So it’s no mystery to me why a civilization raised with them so badly mistreats its women. And it will take generations of retraining, not to mention a new set of national stories, to undo this psychological damage.
1. For those who didn’t study literature, a frame tale is the embedding of one story inside another. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a about a pilgrimage to Canterbury by a collection of people riding together, and the tales are the stories they tell to pass the time. Boccaccio’s Decameron is the stories told by people who have taken refuge in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death. The Thousand and One Nights is the stories Scheherazade told to keep the Sultan awake—except that the stories themselves involve the people in those stories telling other stories, which lead to more stories, and the whole structure becomes quite involved.
2. And I don’t believe this was any belated animus seeping through from the translator Burton. He was a colorful and controversial figure, whose works always carried a taint of pornography. But my sense of Burton was always that he remained a dedicated and truthful student of Arabic culture, and his translation would mirror what was written in the original.