Shahnameh Women Through a Religious Context

I recently talked with one of my group members about the religious aspects of the work and whether those aspects gave insight into the portrayal of females. As he wrote in his post (link), the Shahnameh does not emphasize Islam in the work. Ferdowsi was instead preoccupied with preserving the main religion of Persia, Zoroastrian, before the Arab conquest. Thus, the religious context of the work focused on the Zoroastrian worldview instead of an Islamic worldview. He also emphasized that Ferdowsi’s writing was constrained by the regime he wrote under and he could not take many liberties in discussing religion.

With all that in mind, I looked at one of his sources “Religion in the Shahnameh” by Dick Davis for more context. Davis argued that  Ferdowsi emphasized ethical problems instead of dwelling on religious aspects. The one religious event of the whole book is when the prophet Zoroaster appeared at Goshtasp’s court and Goshtasp is converted to Zoroastrian. This scene was written by Daqiqi, another poet of the time. Ferdowsi made sure to point out in the narrative that he did not write that segment of the Shahnameh.(1) Davis used this example to assert that religion was not a major aspect of the Shahnameh for Ferdowsi. One of the only scenes that depicted a religious event was done by a completely another person, emphasizing that he did not want to have religion be a big part of the narrative. Ferdowsi acknowledged that Zoroastrianism was part of the culture of Iran at the time, but he did not go into depth about the actual preachings of Zoroaster. The Shahnameh was definitely not meant to be a religious text or a biography of key Zoroastrian figures.

In looking at the text, however, I did find instances where men and women did religious acts. Neither gender was barred from having a relationship with a higher being. Women and men could both freely express their religion in a public space. For example, Azadeh, the slave girl of Bahram Gur, played her lyre and sang a Zoroastrian prayer. (2) She was not limited from demonstrating her faith and devotion. Her expression of religion seemed like a normal occurrence and her acts were not called out for as being abnormal. Bahram Gur also prayed multiple times throughout his narrative to ask for forgiveness from God. (3) He used his religion as a form of retribution and forgiveness in his character flaws. Similarly to Azadeh, prayer was used as a way to show that partaking in religious acts was an everyday occurrence. I noticed from the translation, however, that Davis was right in saying that Zoroastrianism is only explored on the surface level. Ferdowsi’s understanding of that religion does not even break the surface and he never incorporated Zoroastrian preaches into the poem. In summary, Ferdowsi used religion as a cultural element of the characters instead of a guiding force of the narrative.

I did not get very far in my analysis of the role of females in the Shahnameh by looking at the religious aspects of the work. Religion is not a big factor in the Shahnameh. Ferdowsi spent much more of his time focusing on battles and politics and how they incorporated big ethical issues. As far as women in the Shahnameh through a religious context goes, they were allowed to practice religion and were equal to men in terms of devotion and practice. The religious aspects of the work are only used as a superficial preservation of Iranian culture.

 

  1. Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.”Journal Of Human Sciences: Religion And Myth In Ferdowsi’s Thought 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 340.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. 585.
  3. Ibid., 580.
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Reaction to “Women in Art of the Shahnameh” Blog Post

Recently, one of my group members posted a blog post on the art of women in the Shahnameh (link). She argued that the perspective of women depended upon the time period the piece was created and who commissioned the work. Through the art pieces, the Shahnameh story changed from the woman being displayed as active parties within the scene to being presented as submissive or inferior to males. This viewpoint was also reflected in the text of the Shahnameh as certain elements of the narrative changed with different time periods. The art and the text of the Shahnameh reflect how the culture of Persia manipulates the Shahnameh in order to reflect their current standards regarding women.

 Tahminah

(Source: Tahmina comes to visit Rostam. 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.)

A good example of this phenomenon where the original text of the Shahnameh is changed to withhold Persian cultural of that time period is the story of Tahmineh and Rostam. The story goes that one day Rostam had lost his horse. While looking for the horse, he saw a town and immediately thought that someone in the town must have stolen his horse. He marched right up to the King’s court, slammed open the doors, and demanded his horse. The King asked for him to calm down and join him in a feast. At the feast, the King asked Rostam to talk about himself, and he started to talk about his great journeys and battles. Tahmineh, the King’s daughter, is listened to these epic tales and falls in love with him. Rostam eventually retires to his own chambers and begins to fall asleep. Before he falls asleep, he realized that someone else was in the room. Tahmineh appeared and told him that if he desired he could sleep with her and be on his way in the morning. He agreed. (1) The original text had Tahmineh actively pursuing a sexual relationship with Rostam (#booty call). She, additionally, did not receive consequences for her forward nature with the epic hero. Their relationship is seen as equal to each other because both of them consent to the pleasurable act and neither is regarded as superior. The portrayal of the night between the two lovers changed, however, as time went on. Copiers of the poem found this moment so shocking they wrote in a whole new scene where Rostam and Tahmineh got married before they slept together.(2) In those versions, the moment where Tahmineh told Rostam of her desire for him, the newer versions now had her father and a priest coming in. They had a whole marriage ceremony, all that night before they slept together.

   The portrayal of the scene between Rostam and Tahmineh, as my group member has stated, in the art has also changed through the centuries. If you have not read her post yet, go now (link)! She stated that Tahmineh was shown as being submissive to Rostam and eventually her gender was reversed. Overall, she argued that the portrayal of women changed through the centuries. I have shown in the earlier example, that the text has also changed to reflect the culture of Persia from that time. Basically, the art and the text assert that the Shahnameh is the heart of Persian culture because it changes along with it. When a woman can have independence and their own agency that is reflected in the Shahnameh. When a woman has to be submissive to men and behave by the cultural standards of that time the Shahnameh now takes on that dimension. By looking at the art, it becomes more apparent that the Shahnameh is a reflection of Persia during many different times.

  1. SOAS University of London. (2013. November 5) Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ.30:00-38:00. 
  2. Ibid., 38:10-40:00.

Legend vs History: Narrative of Women in Shahnameh

     For the last couple of weeks, I have attempted to determine the role women in the Shahnameh, which has turned into more of a complex problem than I originally thought it would be. My past blog posts have shown that there are two main differences between the literature on this question. The scholar Gabbay asserted that the Shahnameh depicted females as being submissive to males and not having their own authority. She used the Bahram Gur and Azada story as evidence for the Shahnameh’s favoring of a male-dominant relationship dynamic.(1) Another scholar, Loveimi, declared that the Shahnameh is a progressive work that depicts men and women equally, which was based on the wide cast of female characters that Ferdowsi depicted and their ability to influence the fate of the epic heroes.(2) Each work had strong arguments, but also weaknesses. Gabbay’s work focused in on a singular narrative instead of looking at the Shahnameh broadly. Loveimi showcased a wide cast but did not analyze the relationship those characters had with men. Ultimately, neither scholar was able to put the other’s argument to rest. I was beginning to think that I was never going to find an answer to my question until I read Dick Davis’s “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories” and listened to a lecture he gave at SOAS University of London on youtube (link). His lecture and his article provided a deeper analysis of the work and put context towards both Loveimi’s and Gabbay’s article. Overall, he asserts that the Shahnameh is a complex work that depicts women as equal to men in the legendary portion of the text but in the historical portion, women fall prey to the traditional roles that burden Iranian society.

     A huge takeaway from the video lecture and Davis’s article was that there is a distinction between the females in the legendary section and historical portion of the epic. The females of the legendary section are independent and possess their own agency in completing their goals. Davis uses the love story of Zal and Rudabeh as the main example of female empowerment and possessing their own agendas. In contrast, the females from the historical section of the Shahnameh seem to only function in a male-centric capacity. This concept is most prevalent in Bahram Gur’s story where he refers to women as “mak[ing] [men] more moral, so buy [him] some pretty slave girls.” (3)  The separation Davis points out between female characters between the two segments helps explain why Gabbay and Loveimi took different interpretations to the epic. Gabby had focused on the historical point of the epic while Loveimi focused on characters within the legendary portion of the epic. (4)(5) I will now address the evidence that Davis provided for this differentiation between female characters within the narrative.

     In the Zal and Rudabeh story, Dick Davis used the characters of Rudabeh and Sindokht as examples of women found within the legendary section. Rudabeh is a princess from Kabul, modern day India, who falls in love with Zal, a Persian prince. Problems arise when Rudabeh and Zal realize that their families are sworn enemies of one another. They can never marry if they cannot ease the tension between the two families. Fortunately, due to some earlier events, Zal’s father, Sam, promised one wish to Zal in which he could ask for anything. Zal asks for his father to allow him to marry Rudabeh; he gives in and asks Rudabeh’s father, Mehrab, to allow the marriage. He responded by threatening to kill Rudabeh because the marriage would place Kabul under the wrath of King Manuchehr. Mehrab demanded that Rudabeh refuse the marriage, but she refused to listen to her father, stating that her love for Zal was too great. Sindokht, her mother, immediately disguised herself and went to Sam to persuade him to stop King Manuchehr. She could not stand the tension in her family any longer so she took matters into her own hands. Sam agrees to persuade King Manucher and he eventually gets the King on board. Zal and Rudabeh marry and give birth to Rostam, who ends up being a central hero in the text. (6)

     The Zal and Rudabeh story show woman who are working to achieve their own ends and who are strong-willed and determined. Rudabeh defies her father in order to be with the one she loves. The denial of her parent’s wish expressed that she was making her own decision regarding the marriage. Sindokht went against her husband’s wishes and sided with Rudabeh and helped her by going to the other king. She had her own character arc that had her daughter as the central figure instead of her husband. Both women expressed great agency and successfully achieved their own goals. 

     In the historical section, women do not take on as much as an empowering role as they do in the legendary section. As Davis states:

          “If one had to sum up in one sentence the difference between the women of the mythological/legendary section of the poem, and those of its ‘historical’ section, it would be that the women of the former section generally succeed in confronting the world on their own terms, whereas the women of the latter section virtually always fail if they attempt to do this (and most of them do not even make the attempt, being content to live within a male shadow, either a father’s or a husband’s).”(7)

The main example that Davis used to provide evidence for this claim was the same evidence that Loveimi used in their argument: Bahram Gur and Azada. Please follow this link to see my blog post on this matter: link. He supported Loveimi’s argument also asserting that the moral of the narrative is that men and women should stick to their natural domains. Men should be superior to females. He furthers that this story greatly contrasts the role of females in the opening half of the poem.

     There is a sharp contrast between the role that women play in the first half versus the second half of the poem. Dick Davis speculated that the sources that Ferdowsi used to write each of the narratives were different nearing closer to the present. Ferdowsi used oral history to capture the legendary section, which included tales from nomadic and tribal societies. In those societies, women had independence and control over their own life decisions. (8) The sources he had for the legendary section, thus, expressed more freedom to women and equal relationships with men. In contrast, the historical section had more written works and was influenced by the changing culture. Davis commented:

          “It may be that the historical section reflects an actual seclusion of women from the public affairs, and their relative impotence in controlling their own lives, in Sasanian society (it seems to have been the Sasanians, rather than their Arab and Moslem conquerors, who introduced or at least legitimized by royal usage, purdah, and the veil), but these narratives may well also be strongly influenced by the mores of Ferdowsi’s own medieval Muslim society, so that to draw conclusions from them about the status of women in Sasanian society seems risky.”(9)

The role of women changed in the Shahnameh because times were changing in Ferdowsi’s time. Women’s role in society diverted away from the role they had during nomadic and tribal times. The Shahnameh captured that divergence. The Shahnameh, hence, is a complex work that acts as a complex reflection of culture, as it transforms moving from century to century. The poem mimics this transformation through its epic tales and depiction of women. Woman are a good indicator of how Persian culture changes as time goes on since their role within society change along side it.

 

  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): 677-692.
  2. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 46-53.
  3. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 79. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  4. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” 677-692.
  5. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” 46-53.
  6. SOAS University of London. (2013. November 5) Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ.
  7. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.”79.
  8. Ibid.,85.
  9. Ibid.,85.