Conclusion: Women Reveal the Cultural Changes Throughout the Shahnameh

I have spent this whole semester analyzing scholar’s different points of view on the role of women in the Shahnameh. I started with addressing Gabbay’s argument that women and men are not equals in the Shahnameh and then contrasted her argument with Loveimi’s argument that women play important narrative aspects in the play and are seen as equal to male characters.(1) (2) Unsure how to proceed, I came upon an article by Dick Davis that revealed that the Shahnameh is divided up into a legendary and historic section and the roles in which women played within those parts of the poem revealed the role of women in that specific time period. (3) I, then, looked at the art and religious aspects of the Shahnameh, which displayed to me that Ferdowsi intended to capture the essence of Iranian society before the Arab takeover. Hence, I can conclude from all my research that the role of women in the Shahnameh is one in which is decided by the point in which the reader is within the narrative. The women characters show the progression of time by the way in which they change from being important to the narrative to being background characters. The Shahnameh does not capture women in a specific way–indicating that the culture of Iran is never fixed.

  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) 46-56.
  3. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 67-90. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.

Conclusion of Project

Keir-Shahnameh-frontispiece-1493At the beginning of this semester, our professor gave us the choice of researching many topics throughout the semester. One of the topics she professed enthusiasm towards was the Shahnameh, otherwise known as the Persian Book of Kings. We did not know what it was, but the name “Book of Kings” sounded interesting to all of us. We were not sure what we were expecting, but as we dove deeper into research we recognized that this text had more importance to it than we thought. After an initial investigation of this text, we were struck by the amount of cultural significance it seemed to have, considering it was a poem none of us had ever heard of before. As we began our research, the question we kept in mind was what is the relationship between Iranian culture and theShahnameh? We split into three groups focusing on a different aspect of culture: women, art, and religion.

We found that the Shahnameh was a meaningful cultural artifact of Iran. The art demonstrated the conservation of Iranian culture within creative mediums and conveyed a piece of history that affected the people who read Ferdowsi. The women in the text displayed the ever-shifting and unstable place of women within Iranian culture. The religious aspects of the work showed an attempt to preserve pre-Islamic culture. Overall, the Shahnameh exemplifies the culture of Iran and it continues to touch the hearts of everyone who reads it.

(Picture Source: Frontispiece from Firdausi’s Shahnameh from the Keir Collection (1493). 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 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.

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.

Women in the Art of the Shahnameh

It probably does not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that women throughout time have frequently been left out of the historical records. The idea that women do not impact history has been widespread among the subjects of history, as well as the people who study it. However, this is one place where the Shahnameh is unique. Women appear quite often in its stories, in all sorts of roles, including one woman who was a queen (1). But the history of the Shahnameh is not limited to what Ferdowsi wrote and the artwork of the Shahnameh shows a different perspective on women.

The artists who were commissioned to illustrate the Shahnameh were often told to do so by royalty who were inspired by epic heroes like Rostam and Eskandar. They wanted to see the scenes filled with action and those were the scenes chosen to be illustrated and the ones that most often survived to today. Most of the women in the Shahnameh were not involved in combat scenes and so were not depicted often, with a few notable exceptions like Gordafraid, a warrior who fought Rostam’s son (2). Even then, there are very few versions of Gordafraid’s fight that still exist and Gordafraid is not often depicted particularly well in them.

sohrab_fights_gordafarid1

One woman who appears much more often is Azedeh, a slave who went hunting with the prince Bahram Gur and dared him to shoot a deer in the ear. When he did and she protested that the deer died, Bahram Gur pushed her off the saddle and trampled her beneath his camel (3). Azedeh can be seen on plates and bowls often at the beginning of the era when the Shahnameh first started being illustrated.  Her story serves as a reminder of how people of different social standings should interact with each other, with the consequences crystal clear. This lesson, in addition to its moment of graphic action, make it a tempting scene to illustrate.

The other woman who appears frequently in illustrations of the Shahnameh is Tahmineh, Rostam’s lover and daughter of the king of Samangan. Tahmineh is a very active figure during her time in the Shahnameh. When Rostam arrives in her father’s castle she visits his room in the night and asks him to have sex with her in order to bear him an heir (4). Illustrations of this scene are common and Tahmineh is given prominence in them: she is often taking up the entire vertical frame, even when her slave isn’t, and is always the active party (5). The different versions have different interpretations of Rostam’s reaction, from surprised to eager. Even though Tahmineh is always the one acting, around the 1400s, during the Timurid dynasty, she began to be painted with her head down and shoulder up in a more timid and uncertain way (6). Many depictions of this scene retain the same composition from version to version, a kind of visual consensus on what happened, and similarly, the timid version of Tahmineh became a popular depiction of her, with a very similar image being found in the fifteenth or sixteenth century during the Safavid empire (7). But this interpretation contradicts the text, where Tahmineh is shown to be confident in what she wants, even saying that she has wanted Rostam since she first heard stories of him. The shift in Tahmineh’s demeanor is another product of the cultures each Shahnameh was made in. A similar change can be seen in the artwork, simple action focused illustrations in the Mongol empire changed to complex architectural paintings in Timurid dynasty (8). Other evidence of this is the change of Tahmineh’s attendant. In the Shahnameh she is a slave and the early images reflect that. As time goes on however, the attendant changes to a male black eunuch and remains male for the rest of the time (9). These are all reflections of the dynasties they were created under.

The actual writing of the Shahnameh might be fairly equal concerning men and women, but the text has been interpreted and filtered through the cultural framework of each society who read it.These cultures all have different interpretations of women’s roles and the scenes depicted, behavior of characters, and even the gender of side characters change to reflect those ideas. It’s vitally important for us to recognize the difference between what the text says and what the illustrations show. The Shahnameh impacted these societies enough that they wished to recreate it and we need to be aware of why.

 

  1. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 67-90. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. p. 192-193
  3. Ibid. p. 713
  4. Ibid. p. 189
  5. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  6. Ibid. p. 138
  7. Ibid. p. 183
  8. Gurgīn, Īraj., Grabar, Oleg, Films for the Humanities, and Rādyū Tilivīzyūn-i Millī-i Īrān. The Art of the Book : Persian Miniatures from the Shahnameh = Mīni̇yātūr’ha-yi Shāhnāmah. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1980.
  9. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Gordafraid being defeated by Sohrab. 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 of less.

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.