Gabbay: Role of Women in the Shahnameh and the Female/Male Dynamic

The Shahnameh focuses primarily on the Persian Kings and their conquests all through pre-Islamic Persian era, but women are also a big part of the story. The way that males and females interact throughout the poem can provide insight into how people of different genders act in relation to one another and identify their roles within Persian society. For my first post, I decided to focus on this topic of the female and male relationship; more specifically I will analyze the article “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahram Gur-Slave Girl Story,” by Alyssa Gabbay. I chose this work for the first post because her argument focuses on one singular story instead of the whole poem. By looking at an individual story first, I can start to explore the women’s role in Persian culture and start building upon the already established literature.   

To understand Gabbay’s argument, one must first know the story of Bahram Gur and his slave girl, Azada. The story goes that Bahram Gur took Azada on a hunt with him. Two deer appeared and Bahram Gur asked her which one he should shoot: the female or the male. Azada replies with “‘men of battle do not kill deer.’” (1) When Bahram Gur shoots and kills the deer she begins to cry and says: “This is not manliness: you are not a man; you have a demon’s spirit.” (2) Angrily, he throws her off his camel and rides over her–killing her. Gabbay focuses on this scene to make her argument.

Gabbay’s main argument was the relationship dynamic of Bahram Gur and his slave girl declares that “successful love depends on an unequal relationship between the sexes and on a woman’s obedience to her mate.” (3) She first supports her claim by breaking down the characters to their gender roles. She identifies Bahram Gur as always maintaining authority and power throughout the story and being associated with hunting, a symbol of aggression and skill. He embodies the typical stereotype of masculinity. Azada, on the other hand, is characterized by her physical beauty, her ability to play lyre, and ultimately her status as a slave, someone with no power.  Gabbay points out that she “personifies the medieval stereotype of the woman who is foolish, ruled by her emotions, and unable to hold her tongue.” (4) Azada is not any different from the characterizations of women during that time period; one in which women are seen as permissive to males and foolishly compassionate. By looking at the characterization of Bahram Gur and Azada, Gabbay asserts that Ferdowsi supports a relationship dynamic where males are superior to females.

To back up her claim further, Gabbay further asserts that the story immediately following Azada’s death“… seems to support the notion that Bahram Gur admirably fulfills the requirement of being a good hunter–and a good man. Azada is wrong in declaring that Bahram Gur is no man.” (5) In the next story, Bahram Gur shoots a lion with one arrow and hunts ostriches. Mundhir, the guardian of Bahram Gur, immediately demands that the best artist must come and depict his skills. Bahram Gur is seen in a good light, where his decision to kill Azada does not result in consequences. He is glorified in this story and Gabbay asserts that the cost is the lowering down of Azada to that of an animal.

Gabbay shows that males are seen as superior in terms of the Bahram Gur story. From this point onward, I will use other scholarly articles to challenge and to support Gabbay’s claims. I, additionally, will collaborate with my fellow group members to see how this gender dynamic is seen in the art and religion in Persia.

More to come!

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(Source: Bahram Gur Hunting with Azadeh. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

  1. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” Iranian Studies 42, no. 5 (2009): 678-679.
  2. Ibid, 679.
  3. Ibid, 682.
  4. Ibid, 679.
  5. Ibid, 681.
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First blog post: What is this blog about and what do we hope to accomplish?

(Source: Rostam carried by Akwan-Diwa. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings) is an epic poem by Ferdowsi that depicts the history of Persia from its creation to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. It mainly focuses on the Persian Kings and depicts a history of them masked in mysticism and intrigue. It is an immensely long work with some fifty-thousand verses and hundreds of brilliant artworks displayed throughout its pages. Furthermore, it is one of the few histories that capture the manifestations of Persian intellect before the fall of their empire. Some scholars regard the Shahnameh as being the best encapsulation of Persian culture. Some of the cultural dimensions explored through Ferdowsi’s work are women, art, religion, and national identity. The goal of our project is to deeply understand these cultural aspects of the work and to contribute to the scholarly work that has already been done.

One of the cultural dimensions we hope to explore through this work is women. Women play a major role throughout the work and are portrayed in multiple ways, which adds to the complexity of the work. Through a dialogue between Ferdowsi’s work and other scholarly works, a deeper understanding of the Persian culture will be understood.

Another aspect of the book we wish to examine is the art. The Shahnameh is a richly illustrated book depicting heroes from throughout ancient-Iranian history, and the art can tell us a fair amount about the context it was created in. We wish to explore the methods and medium of the art, including its symbols and their relation to the story. We will also investigate the artists and their history as well as how these pages have been received by the people who came in contact with them over time.

Lastly, a third cultural aspect of the Shahnameh we will analyze is religion. Religion had a huge influence on the Ferdowsi’s writing and influenced the perspective he took within the work. It is important to remember that the Shahnameh was written at a time when the Persian empire had fallen and the culture of Persia was at risk of being forgotten. The religious influences within the work will add depth to our understanding of the culture captured within this work.

Our project will be a blog that explores the cultural dimensions of the Shahnameh; more specifically, we want to focus on the religion, art, and the role of women as a way to understand the Persian culture. The blog format allows accessibility for a mass audience and interactivity with the dialogues that are created around this work. Through our exploration of the scholarly work, we will uncover a new take that will build upon the work that has already been done and breath new life into the topic.