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!

firdawsi-bahram-gur-h-w600442a-full-page

(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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