Thought Jasmine and Farah were the toughest Princesses of the Middle East? Well, think again, because after a very, very long break ( I had an apprenticeship, damnit) It’s finally time to look at another brilliant Princess from the World of Fairytales. We’ve seen Princesses rule over ancient China, get befuddled by sexy strangers and slay dragons, but this time, we’re off to ancient Mesopotamia to visit the cunning Princesses of the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom.
STRONG WOMEN OF MESOPOTAMIAN FICTION
When you hear ‘Middle Eastern fairy tales’ you immediately think of Aladdin or Sinbad or ‘Arabian Nights’ (fun fact: even though they’re both Arabian Nights’ most famous
stories, neither of them are in the original collection). Most of these tales are collected from Turkey or the Persian empire.
However, the lesser known collection of Mesopotamian fiction has tonnes of strong women. In one story, it wasn’t the 15 year old prince who had to travel the country to find his future bride, but his mother; in another tale, a woman gets spurned by her husband, travels the desert and eventually rises to become the Sultan. In many more we have tales of strong, intelligent women winning the heart of their stubborn husbands through their wit and resourcefulness.
I have a number of theories why these collections were full of female centered roles. The collections I’m reading were collected from female storytellers, many of whom had heard the story passed down from their Grandmothers. Women storytellers were welcome in the harems and would tell their tales to entertain their children. As a result, we have a female story tradition that has been passed from mother to daughter, and was often told to a female audience. As such, these stories often had women front and center stage.
But are these stories what we’d call ’empowering ?’ or about women striking out on their
own? No, not by a long shot. In these tales, we see women bend over backwards to please the spoilt males in their life; though the heroine of The Merchant’s Daughter ruled as Sultan, she still took back her husband and gave up her crown to let him become ruler instead of her. In Bunayya and The Prince and the Daughter of the Thornseller, the women go to ridiculous extremes to get their men to accept them after instantaneously rejecting them.
This is because these stories weren’t about women ruling the world- these stories were about good female role models and how they successfully navigated the sexist, patriarchal world around them. Like with Arabian Nights’ Shaharazhad (a princess for another post), men had all the power, so women had to be taught to play their hand carefully and be beyond reproach at all time, because it was men who had the power, not them.
THE POOR GIRL AND HER COW- RAGS TO RICHES PRINCESS
Did you know that the original fairytale that inspired Perrault’s Cinderella did not originate from Europe, but came from the Middle and far East? In this Middle Eastern version, a poor girl is close to her mother who dies, leaving her with a spineless father and yet another evil stepmother. However, her loving mother gave her a magical cow which eats cotton and returns it spun. After a strange series of events, the girl meets an ogress who gives her magical golden hair and in another complicated series of events, she gets a beautiful dress, meets a prince, runs away leaving behind a clog instead of a glass slipper.
JARADA- THE CLEVER WOMAN WHOSE CUNNING MADE HER FAMILY A FORTUNE
A personal favourite of mine, this tells the tale of a clever woman who’s married to a lazy, airheaded husband. When he can’t get a job, she contrives to make him a ‘white magician’ who sells charms, because that requires neither talent, brains or hard work. When he claims he can’t write, his wife tells him ‘make a few scribblings on paper and they will take it for hidden writing’. Thus, Jarada becomes one of history’s first skeptics and jaded cynics.
But, as luck would have it, his fame as a magician spreads across the Kingdom and he ends up being constantly put to the test as his charade puts him in predicament after predicament.
After a mix of Jarada’s intellect and hilarious dumb luck on her husband’s part, they bumble into a lot of wealth. This is another tale that exonerates the value of having a good wife.
THE MERCHANT’S DAUGHTER- THE WOMAN WHO OUTSMARTS EVERYONE TO BECOME SULTANA
This is a pretty dark story of resilience that I don’t have enough space to unpack here. This story involves a beautiful woman who marries a disgraced crown prince. She gets abducted by a peasant man who attempts to rape her, but luckily her quick wits allow to her to escape and beat the man half to death.
However, he uses his power as a male to slut shame her and tells her husband she’s been sleeping around. After her husband attacks her in a jealous rage, she travels the land, constantly using her quick wits to escape the clutches of the men around her. She ends up becoming Sultan, ruling with justice and compassion. In a great feat of intellect, she ends up staging a trial for the men who tried to attack her, and brings back her undeserving husband.
Another tale of a stubborn man who needed a good woman to show him the way. Bunayya is the pampered only son of the Sultan, who travels to Istanbul to learn about the world. A keen intellectual, the boy grows to look down on his own people, and when he is forced to marry Mai, in spite of her ‘unmatched’ intellect, he refuses to look at her.
The heartbroken girl won’t give up without a fight. She disguises as a boy and has intellectual conversations with him by day, and by night pretends the be her alter ego’s sister and seduces him. This combination of being the perfect best friend and the perfect lover wins his heart, and in the end he never takes another wife and she becomes his one and only.
THE PRINCE AND THE DAUGHTER OF THE THORN SELLER
This story has to be about the most spoilt Prince ever created. He falls in love with a picture of a beautiful woman and sends his poor, long suffering mother all over the kingdom to find her. And when she does, she brings her prettier sister home and arranges a wedding. But when the Prince hears some rumours that his intended is ugly from women who have every reason to want want to ruin his happiness? He locks himself in his room and sulks, causing the two women in his life endless grief.
The girl ends up dressing as a man and the (apparently very bisexual) Prince falls in love with her in male guise and is delighted when he finds out she’s actually his intended. One thing I do like is that the Prince’s mother is an equally important character as the Princess and the two women have a very warm, caring relationship. I also like that the Prince’s mother has a number of female friends who she can talk to about her problems and there is a warm supportive friendship between them.
THE CRYSTAL SHIP
This fairy tale has the greatest heroine of them all. While in almost every fairy tale (even in most modern ones) the Prince rescues the Princess. Here, in a fairy story from the middle east that is centuries old, a Princess travels across deserts to save her prince. This is going to be a story I retell in a lot more detail in next week’s Badass Princess of the Week.