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Scheherazad and Esther: The Power of Women Through Time—Sabrina Wichner, Guest Blogger

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Today we share a post by a student in our Spring 2022 Introduction to the Fairy Tale course.

Painting of Shahrazad and Sultan Schariar
Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar by Ferdinand Keller (1880)

Sabrina Wichner received her bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University in Sculpture and Art History. After ten years in the entertainment industry making props, she decided to refocus her creativity on making her own stories come alive. Tales that incorporate magical realism, and journeys to other worlds are particular favorites of hers.

While I was growing up, my education incorporated both Biblical stories and progressive reading lists. To me, Scheherazad from The Thousand and One Nights was just as powerful and interesting as the Biblical figure Esther. Esther was brave, resourceful, saw how she could personally change society for the better, and took action toward that goal. But unlike Esther, Scheherazad’s story is not propped up with the popularity of the Bible and is often dismissed as an ancillary component to tales within The Thousand and One Nights.

Erica Brown wrote "Having an Esther Moment" for The Atlantic in 2020, twenty years after my first critical assessment of Scheherazad and Esther as a young student. Brown’s article is framed within the #MeToo movement, but I think the strength of these women goes beyond rising up against the patriarchy and protecting the autonomy of the self.

Brown writes, “In the space of one chapter, Esther went from object to subject, from a pretty face to an empowered, courageous leader. And this was millennia ago.” Her mention of the passage of time is not a comment on the story itself but the fact that women still find themselves as disempowered objects. She looks to Esther as a source of inspiration during a time when she feels victimized as a woman. Brown compares the actions of Scheherazad to Esther and supports them both as examples of feminine strength against masculinity that we have somehow lost.

However, I would like to draw attention to this passage of time and the unchanging influence Esther has had as a Biblical figure. In retellings and retranslations of the Book of Esther, her role is more or less unchanged, even in sanitized child-friendly versions. The Bible is liberated from the external social pressures in this way, or one might even argue that the Bible is a large component of that pressure--but that is another conversation altogether. When The Thousand and One Nights is retold, or rather, when components of the story are retold, they exist outside of Scheherazad’s narrative. The most popular are stories about men (Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sindbad), and the passage of time has removed Scheherazad from these stories.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and do not all carry the negative connotations that might be suggested by this line of thinking being paired with the #MeToo movement. However, I would like to mention the evolution of another tale to explore some of the possible reasons and results of this type of change.

Midori Yamamoto McKeon, in her article "The Transformation of the Urashima Legend: The Influence of Religion on Gender" published in the U.S.-Japan Women's Journal, discusses the evolution of Otohime in the Japanese folk tale “Urashima Taro” across time. As various religious and social values become more popular in Japan, the content and even moral of the “Urashima Taro” tale change, but more importantly so does the role of Otohime. In the earliest versions, Otohime has agency as a princess and woman to choose her own husband. But in the popularized post-war version, she plays a small and ornamental role in the narrative.

This connects, in some ways, back to the #MeToo context Erica Brown brought to her comparison of Esther and Scheherazad in The Atlantic article. Yet the wonderful thing about fairy tales is that the themes and stories are universal: There are always new contexts that can be relevant to modern life and current events, and they continue to speak to us in ways that reflect our own experiences.

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