In the modern world, with its growing attention to diversity and equality in all of its forms, the question of gender quality is one of the most important and frequently discussed subjects. This issue is studied in a number of fields such as education, business, political and social studies, and literature. The latter is often viewed as a reflection of the historical and cultural realities during various periods of time; this is why the attitude towards women in literature is often researched from the anthropological point of view. This paper is focused on the exploration of the roles of women on two of the most well-known works of literature – Homer’s “The Iliad” and the collection of the Arabic folk stories called “1001 Nights”.
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Both of the works serve as detailed and deep reflections of the histories and cultures of the countries they came from and elaborately portrayed the relationships between men and women, religions and spirituality, and the morals of their nations. The two cultures described in “The Iliad” and “1001 Nights” are very different, yet they contain some rather striking similarities determined mostly by the eras whey originate from known for explicit patriarchal built of the societies. This way, the roles of women and attitudes towards them demonstrated in both books are very different from the ideas promoted in contemporary society.
Generally, even though “The Iliad” and “1001 Nights” date back to very different historical periods and come from cultures with little similarities, the gender roles in them are rather alike as in both books women are widely objectified and oppressed, they are not treated as equals to men and often referred to as commodities that can be sold, exchanged, given away as bribes, or abducted as material valuables.
Historically, the creation of “The Iliad” dates back to the Bronze Age, approximately 1260 BC. This period is often called the dark age of Greece. The country was divided into multiple city-states, and as a result, armed conflicts and violence were not rare. “1001 Nights” is a more recent work compared to “The Iliad,” it dates back to the 940s, back then it was known as “A Thousand Nights,” and the word “thousand” was put into the title as a figurative reference to a large number, the actual number of the stories added to the collection was less than 500 (The Thousand and One Nights par. 4).
Both eras are known for male domination. In Greece, men were the ones who prevailed in such fields as politics, economy, military plans, arts, and sciences. To test this fact, one may simply try to remember any female artists, philosophers, or politicians from ancient Greece. When it comes to “1001 Nights”, this work is a collection of stories from a number of countries, yet they all have one important feature in common – their religion. The stories of “1001 Nights” are the tales of the Muslim world; they incorporate Islamic moral rules and norms, ethical beliefs, social hierarchy, and mythology. Social inequality between men and women in “1001 Nights” is obvious; it the individual tales and in the general store where the king is determined to execute all of his female slaves just because he lost his faith in women.
Regardless of the utter inequality between male and female characters, the roles of women in “The Iliad” and “1001 Nights” are multidimensional. Women serve as objects of victimization, they are negatively portrayed as unfaithful, cunning, and envious creatures, but at the same time, they are often admired and even worshiped for their beauty, wisdom, and kindness.
Homer’s “The Iliad” reflected the cultural environment of the time when it was created and the area it describes. For the reader of this epic, it is easy to notice how goal-driven and proud all of the characters are. Achieving, conquering, and winning are the main objectives of their lives. The achievements of this kind characterize a worthy male; this is why the male characters of the epic are involved in a constant rivalry and confrontation; they fight over territories, influences, power, wealth, resources, and, of course, for women. In “The Iliad,” women are viewed as valuable trophies, especially the women of noble background and from wealthy and influential families.
A great demonstration of this tendency can be found in the very beginning of the epic during the conversation between Agamemnon and Calchas, where the former finds out that Apollo is sending plague to his warriors following the prayers of Chryses, and the only way to stop this is for Agamemnon to return the daughter of Chryses to her father. The abduction of the girl is viewed as an act of dishonoring for the father. Agamemnon is unwilling to give back the girl because to him she is “a maid, unmatch’d in manners as in the face,/ Skill’d in each art, and crown’d with every grace; / Not half so dear were Clytaemnestra’s charms” (Book 1, 6).
Basically, Agamemnon openly admits that the girl he abducted is more interesting for him than his own wife, and this seems to be treated as a matter of fact situation. Besides, facing the fact that the threat to his troops is very serious, he decides to give up the girl saying, “The prize, the beauteous prize, I will resign, /So dearly valued, and so justly mine” (Book 1, 6). The daughter of Chryses is Agamemnon’s prize, a trophy he earned during a battle; he likes it and wishes to keep it as a reminder of his great achievements. The desires of the “prize,” or her wishes considering where to go are not taken into consideration at all.
While in “The Iliad,” women are treated as valuable trophies, the male characters of “1001 Night” have an utterly consumerist attitude towards their females. For example, in “The Second Kalander’s Tale,” the narrator meets a woman, by whom he is completely mesmerized. The attributes that make her so special to him are mainly her devoted serving – she bathes him, shampoos his feet, brings delicious food and wine, and, of course, pleasures him sexually. As a result, the man admits that he begins to fall in love with her within just a couple of days. This can be viewed as a demonstration that only a very submissive female deserves a man’s favor. Besides, the woman initially is a property of an Ifrit, a monstrous mythological creature, yet she is willing to be shared between the two lovers saying to the narrator: “Of every ten days one is for the Ifrit and the other nine are thine” (The Second Kalander’s Tale par. 11).
This arrangement is an interesting aspect of the morals showed in the story, it emphasizes the unfaithfulness of a woman, but it is justified by the fact that she is exploited by a monster. The consumerist attitude of a man becomes even more obvious when the Ifrit finds out about the affair of his woman and starts to torture her asking about her secret lover. The woman endures the pain to save the man, and the man does absolutely nothing to save the woman. He simply runs away and hides. Once again, the female is admired for her devotion, which is taken for granted and neglected by the man. There is another line that serves an excellent demonstration of the attitude towards women in the story.
When the Ifrit confronts the narrator and asks him to kill the unfaithful woman, the man refuses to say “O mighty Ifrit and hero, if a woman lacking wits and faith deems it unlawful to strike off my head, how can it be lawful for me, a man, to smite her neck whom I never saw in my whole life?” (The Second Kalander’s Tale par. 22). He shows mercy refusing to kill the woman, but at the same time, he is paying compliments to the Ifrit and insulting the woman, which clearly shows that his priority is to save his own life at any cost.
This way, culturally, women are not considered as equals and are generally objectified in both books. In “The Iliad,” an admirable female is characterized by her ability to accept any owner that takes hold of her, and in “1001 Nights,” the best quality is the devotion of a woman to a man even if it is selective and occurs from her unfaithfulness to another male. At the same time, in both books, women are valued for their education, intellect, and the ability to maintain a witty conversation. Yet, this does not justify the reduction of females to entertainers, servants, and sex toys.
Religion and mythology play a vital role in both “The Iliad” and “1001 Nights”. While the ancient Greek society is under constant control of their gods, who have the ability to empower, punish and manipulate humans, the Muslim society members of “1001 Nights” live according to the Sharia laws and often mention Allah. In contemporary Western society, the image of an oppressed Muslim woman is rather recognizable and familiar; this image is constantly communicated by the media and creates a stereotype of a cruel and unjust Islamic world. “1001 Nights” demonstrate the multiple dimensions of women’s role in that society; it offers a taste of the new philosophy.
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This way, if we ignore the violence and cruelty common for medieval literature of any geographical area, we will notice that Muslim women are portrayed as strong-willed, persistent, brave, loyal, wise, and clever. Scenes of brutality against women and utter disregard of their lives are frequent in “1001 Nights”, yet male characters are tortured, beaten up and murdered just as much as females there. Since women do not have the physical strength of men and can hardly protect themselves with a weapon, women are shown to pursue alternative ways of survival. In “1001 Nights,” men carry swords and axes, and women’s weapon is wit; this is why at times, women are portrayed as stronger and more dangerous than men.
For example, in the main story of “1001 Nights,” Scheherazade acts according to a very clever plan trying to save her life and the rest of the women king Shahryar intends to execute due to his lack of faith in women. The story shows a man as a simple and straightforward creature, with a primitive way of thinking – since one female let him down, he concludes that all women are alike. Scheherazade is clever; she finds a disguised way to educate the king about women, teach him new morals, and open up his mind.
In “The Iliad,” not all females are powerless against men. The complex hierarchy of the Greek pagan gods and demigods makes a lot of females more powerful and influential than males. Yet, it needs to be mentioned that the only powerful female figures in the epic are goddesses such as Thetis, the mother of Achilles, Hera, the wife of Zeus, and the goddess of love Aphrodite. These goddesses participate in battles, manipulate people, and can provide supernatural help by sending winds, defeating someone with sudden diseases or command nature and make rivers rise. Besides, just like human women, they frequently use their beauty and charm to seduce men, manipulate them, and use their weaknesses against them.
In conclusion, regardless of the significant cultural differences between the societies “the Iliad” and “1001 Nights” originate from, the two works have a number of similarities. First of all, they demonstrate the strict patriarchal built of their societies, which facilitates victimization and objectification of women. At the same time, women in the two books are portrayed in a variety of dimensions and are described as the characters with complex strengths and weaknesses forced to survive in the rough environments or their eras.
Homer. The Iliad. 2006. Web.
The Second Kalander’s Tale. The Arabian Nights. 2015. Web.
The Thousand and One Nights. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2013. Web.