Scheherazade’s daughters are doing things their own wayIn her debut work Scheherazade’s Daughters, writer Sameena Mughal retells ten stories from the classic 1001 Arabian Nights. Through the transformative magic of narrative, she has turned the gender stereotypes of the historic tales around, making the women the lead characters in their own stories. For Sameena Mughal, Scheherazade is a feminist icon, and she believes that modern Islam has shifted too far away from its original foundations.
In the 1001 Arabian Nights collection of tales, Queen Scheherazade used the power and transformative potential of storytelling to save her own life. The Sultan, who had taken her as his wife, was known for his habit of decapitating his new wives after the wedding night as a way of taking revenge against the female sex. But Scheherazade came up with a new story every night, and the Sultan’s desire to hear more of her tales ensured that she avoided being beheaded, ultimately saving her life.
The American writer Sameena Mughal has used the original themes and the power of storytelling to create new versions of ten of the original 1001 Arabian Nights stories. Through the transformative stories in her debut work Scheherazade’s Daughters, gender stereotypes are challenged, and the passive and often negatively portrayed women in the original stories are empowered and given control of their own destinies.
Whereas Tahira, Anisa, Fatima, Zainab, Layla, Aisha, Zubeida, Salma, Aafren, Datma, Shabina, Akheena, Morgiana, Nur and Ezania are (or could have been) minor characters in the original 1001 Arabian Nights, Sameena Mughal’s modern interpretation places them in the driving seat as strong, inquisitive and courageous protagonists. Not only are they princesses lusted after by others, but they are also full-blooded women who themselves lust after power, knowledge and sex. Along the way, they blossom into bloodthirsty warriors, learned scholars and shrewd sultanas.
“Scheherazade has always been one of my favourite literary characters. I’ve always seen her as a literary feminist icon. By this I mean that she is a woman who is empowered within her own context, and a woman who possesses a transformative potential. She understood the constraints that were holding her back, but within these confines, she used her abilities to save her own life. And not least, she was incredibly intelligent. It’s because of this that the female protagonists in my book stand on her shoulders; they carry her legacy forward,” tells Sameena Mughal from Pennsylvania.
Sameena Mughal, who has Pakistani-Ugandan roots, grew up in the USA. She mostly sees herself as a ‘hybrid’, and she is used to constantly having to deal with the identity issues that naturally arise in the clash between different cultures. This particular characteristic is one that Sameena Mughal has passed on to her fictive alter egos, all of whom are fighting or searching to find their place in a world full of social pitfalls. She also defines herself as a Muslim feminist.
“Many people might regard the term ‘Muslim feminist’ as a contradiction, but it doesn’t need to be,” tells Sameena Mughal.
In her eyes, Islam, as it is practiced many places in the world today, has shifted away from its original premise. In her blog, Behind and Beyond the Veil, Sameena Mughal writes about the gender-based injustice affecting many women in the Muslim world today. Historically, Islam is based upon a balance of the two sexes, she explains. “What would the prophet say?” she asks rhetorically in her blog, “he supported women’s rights even before the word ‘feminism’ existed”.
And it is this same desire to return to the original Islamic values that is behind the book Scheherazade’s Daughters.
The Women and Memory Forum
“I had a grander objective with writing the book, even though it may seem to be a more subtle one. 1001 Arabian Nights is a product of in the golden age of Islam. One of the most prestigious centres of knowledge at that time (9th and 10th centuries, ed.) was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and this was a time where knowledge and learning was developing across the Muslim world. Today – and I say this as a Muslim woman – I feel that the Muslim world is going through a form of ‘Dark Age’. There are many people in the world, including many Muslims, who don’t know about the Islamic Golden Age. So my primary objective has been to inform the world that a completely different form of Islam exists – and that there has existed another completely form of Islam in the past. But I want to do this in an accessible and straightforward way,” explains Sameena Mughal.
In several of the short stories in Scheherazade’s Daughters, the female protagonists pass by The House of Wisdom. One such example is the short story Ezania’s Adventures in The House of Wisdom. Here, The House of Wisdom is portrayed as a place where the scholar and scientist Ezania works alongside her male colleague Jabir in the hunt to find a cure for tuberculosis. As if in an egalitarian utopia, the two find an equal balance in both their working and their love lives.
Redress for a minor female character
Within Sameena Mughal’s reworking of historic stories, women are allowed to retake power. The silent background characters are given their own voices.
Even though tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights are originally told through the narrative of Scheherazade, there is no doubt that this was not originally a woman’s story. Many of the stories existed as Arab and Asian folk tales prior to being written down, and they all followed the tradition of reflecting cultural and social conventions and sanctions in a form designed to entertain.
Here, as Sameena Mughal puts it, it was the women who most often drew the short straw.
There was one story in that she found particularly offensive when reading through the original tales. In this story, a young girl is kidnapped on her wedding night by a possessive and evil spirit who keeps her prisoner as his ‘wife’. She takes her revenge by having sex with all the men that come her way and is consequently branded as promiscuous and unfaithful.
In Scheherazade’s Daughters, not only does Sameena Mughal give this woman a name, Alheena, but she also gives her the opportunity to tell her side of the story.
“It was obvious to me that this story had been written by a man. There isn’t the slightest hint of empathy towards the fact that the character has been kidnapped. I felt compelled to give her redress. I wanted to give her a background story and give her more dimensions – put a bit of meat on her character. After all, the kidnapping in reality meant that her life and her future were ruined. Even if the spirit were to set her free, she would still never be able to marry (because she was no longer a virgin ed.). I can’t see how a woman storyteller could ever write in such a demeaning way about another woman who is already a victim,” tells Sameena Mughal.
In Sameena Mughal’s version, Alheena becomes a woman who is not broken by her fate. Sex becomes her subversive strategy. The only way she can avoid becoming the property of the spirit is to sleep with other men when the spirit himself is asleep. By doing so, she is able to survive. But she also loses herself – something that she first realises when she sees a couple having sex together out of their love for each other. It is this realisation that spurs her to find the strength to stand up to the spirit and demand her freedom, despite the consequences this may have.
Women must find their inner strength
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A characteristic common among Sameena Mughal’s characters is the fact that they feel uncomfortable living their lives within a framework of set social conventions. They are eager to break out from their constraints. They want to marry whom they wish, not whom the family has chosen for them. They do not want to sit still, if that is what is expected of them; they want to travel to Baghdad and study at the House of Wisdom. Although they take on sultans and viziers, numerous restrictions hold them back – restriction that Sameena Mughal claims reflect the restrictions that continue to hold women back today.
“We often do that which is expected of us. We stay stuck in the boxes that others have put us in. We suffocate ourselves because we don’t know how to break out of these boxes, or we feel that we’re not allowed to break out of them. This is particularly true when it comes to women who have a south-Asian background. We’re expected to be a certain way. Personally, it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t actually need to fit in to that template, and this is something I want to pass on to other women, After all, this isn’t something that’s limited to a specific culture – it’s a pattern that exists all over the world,” concludes Sameena Mughal.