The Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales published together during the Islamic Golden Age. The stories are structured around one central tale, about a powerful king named Shahryār. Prior to a visit with his brother, a neighboring king, Shahryār discovers his wife’s infidelity and kills her. On his trip following the death of his wife, Shahryār grows deeply depressed, allowing his health to visibly deteriorate. This depression fades, however, when Shahryār witnesses the infidelity of his brothers ten concubines and decides that life is simply inescapably cruel. He shares this information with his brother, and together they journey to the ocean, where the wife of a sleeping sea demon coerces them into sleeping with her, lets she wakes her husband and he kills them. After, she tells them, “When a woman desires something, no one can stop her.” Following this point Shahryār, concluding that all women are untrustworthy and driven by blind lust, decides to return home and marry a woman each night, killing her the next morning. This went on for a time until the educated daughter of Shahryār’s vizier, Scheherazade, is married to him. Scheherazade begins to tell Shahryār an enthralling tale their wedding night, leaving the story unfinished. In his eagerness to hear the tale, Shahryār forestalls her execution. She continues to tell him stories each night, always leaving them unfinished, for a thousand and one nights. By the end, Shahryār had fallen in love with Scheherazade and made her his queen.
This central narrative, though thousands of years old, still parallels a real contemporary problem, the treatment and cultural perception of women. As in The Thousand and One Nights and the in present, infidelity, particularly female infidelity, is looked down upon as an unjustifiable sin, in which the blame is purely upon the perpetrator. The immediate negative reception of infidelity in The Thousand and One Nights on the behalf of Shahryār and his brother is one which is uninformed and lacking in empathy. In the despotic empire depicted in the tale, it is highly unlikely that Shahryār’s wife chose to be married to him. It is hardly surprising that the ten concubines of his brother received or owed any emotional effort. Concubines generally are of a lower social rank than their man to who they are tied, and the relationship, which is sexual in nature, is not one of mutual ranking and respect. The wife of the demon is depicted as being kept by her husband in a chained box, which can be seen as a rather in-your-face allegory for the role of marriage in binding a woman’s freedom. The practice of leveraging the institution of marriage to bind a woman in an economically-reliant and subservient role to her husband is neither unique to The Thousand and One Nights or archaic. The regulation, objectification, and commodification of women’s bodies continues as a globalized practice today, in varying degrees. There are over 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, 75% of which are women (The International Labor Organization). Women are forced into undesirable marriages by both their families and economic necessity. And in a world in which less than 20% of landholders are women (UN Women), it is not shocking that these situations are inescapable for many. The women in The Thousand and One Nights are not demonic whores, they are exercising agency in a society in which it is completely limited. The Thousand and One Nights demonstrates how in a patriarchal society, women are commodities, to be used exclusively for the benefit of man. Shahryār only finds value in a woman as a sexual object or if she devotes her life to satisfying his emotional needs, as Scheherazade is made to. Women’s inherent value as humans are disregarded entirely. While this is thankfully not completely the case in many countries legally, culturally it remains so. It is not uncommon here in the United States, for example, to hear a man complaining about a woman ‘friend zoning’ him, i.e. denying him the fulfillment of his sexual and emotional needs on his behalf, in spite of him being kind to her. The fact that this rejection as a complaint has become so culturally pervasive that it has been given a name reflects an unspoken understanding that men believe they are entitled to a woman because of the leverage they hold over her. In The Thousand and One Nights this leverage is forced marriage, and in the instance of the ‘friend zone’ the leverage is treating a woman kindly and expecting reward for respecting her as a person.