The Portrayal of Women In The Arabian Nights

The women in Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights are portrayed as lesser beings on one hand but as princesses on another. Much in the same way as women are treated in the modern day Islamic world.

Women are treated as second-class citizens by most of the men in the stories, whereas; if the women do not act according to the men’s wishes they are killed, transformed into other beings or just discarded. In the story of King Shahrayar and Shahzaman, when Shahzaman while preparing to leave his country to visit his brother, finds that his wife “lying in the arms of one of the kitchen boys…his world turned black”. (Haddawy 6) He at once confronts his wife and states, “No. Women are not to be trusted” (6) at which time he pulls out his sword and kills both his wife and her lover. “Then he dragged them by the heels and threw them from the top of the palace to the trench below” (6), as if they were trash. Once Shahzaman arrived at his brother’s palace, King Shahrayar welcomed him with open arms and set him up in the guesthouse.

Shahrazah was quite embarrassed by what had happened with his wife’s infidelity and felt that he could not express what had happened to him to his brother because he was the King and should not have been betrayed in such a manner. One day while Shahzaman was left behind at the palace he noticed his brother’s wife and his concubines in the garden having sex with slaves. Shahzaman is relieved that this betrayal has not only happened to him but to his brother, the King. Shahzaman, is troubled with what he has seen and under orders from his brother reveals to him what has happened with his wife. King Shahrayar is bothered by the actions of his brother’s wife and praises his brother for killing her, “Brother, you were fortunate in killing your wife and her lover, who gave you good reason to feel troubled, careworn, and ill” (9). He then goes on to say that if that were to happen to him, “I would have killed at least a hundred or even a thousand women” (9). But the King was not satisfied with the confession from his brother and demands to know what has changed Shahzaman’s demeanor since the King’s return. Shahzaman is forced to tell his brother, the King what he has witnessed with the King’s own wife and concubines. The form a plot to make the King’s wife believe that they will be leaving the palace for a few days, so that the King can witness this betrayal with his own eyes. Once King Shahrayar and Shahzaman witness this betrayal, they cannot bear to be near any women and decide to venture out on their own.

While on their venture they come across a demon whom has his wife locked in a chest that he keeps under the sea. When the demon emerges from the sea to take a nap, his wife finds me to have sex with her. She encounters King Shahrayar and King Shahzaman who are terrified and hiding in a tree and orders them down from the tree to have sex with her. They plead with her to give them a reprieve but she threatens them with awaking her husband, the demon. They oblige her wishes and once they are finished she then orders them to hand over their rings to her, which she puts into a bag that contains 98 other men’s rings. In discussing this encounter with the demon’s wife they conclude that if this woman, who “is imprisoned in a glass chest, locked her up with four locks and kept in the middle of the sea”(14) cannot be trusted to be faithful than no woman can be trusted.

They decide to return to their “kingdoms and cities, never to marry a woman again” (14). King Shahrayar decides that he is going to sleep with one woman each night and then have her put to death the following morning, therefore preventing himself from being betrayed by another woman.

The women in The Arabian Nights are treated as princesses as long as they are young girls or as adults they behave according to their “masters” wishes. As soon as they betray the wishes of their male counterparts they are disposed of.