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Azar Nafisi Headshot

How I Know Women Will Change The World

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I want to celebrate the creation of this blog with a tale very dear to my heart: the story of king Shahryar and his Vizier's daughter, Shahrzad which is the frame story for the tales in One Thousand and One Nights.

Once upon a time an all-powerful king, named Shahryar, upon discovering his beloved queen's betrayal of him with a slave condemns both of them to death without giving either a chance to at least defend themselves. From then on the king becomes unhinged, marrying a virgin each night and killing her at dawn, before she has a chance to betray him. Soon the country runs out of virgins. The grand Vizier, responsible for providing the king with virgins is desperate, and his daughter, Shahrezad, who is not just beautiful but also wise, and knowledgeable, volunteers to wed the king. Being the Vizier's daughter she is exempt from the ordeal. Her father is strongly opposed to her proposal, but finally consents to her marriage with the king.

On their wedding night, after the king has 'deflowered' her, Shahrezad tells Shahryar that her younger sister, Dunyazad is used to going to sleep each night after hearing her sister tell her a story. The king grants her one last tale before he has her killed. The rest, as the saying goes is history: each dawn, with the cock's crow, Shahrezad leaves her story unfinished, promising to continue when the sun sets. She continues to do so for one thousand and one nights until the king, transformed by her tales, grants her freedom, marries her and orders that her tales be recorded.

This story which I heard as a little child and have returned to, written and talked about through different stages of my life, reveals many insights, among them how women throughout history have been the canaries in the mine: their rights and liberties being standards by which we measure the degree of repression or freedom in a society. But Shahrezad's story does not present women only as helpless victims. In this case, it is obvious that they are the prime targets of the king's absolutist rule, and are given only two choices, both of them fatal: either lie to him and betray him (the queen) or unconditionally surrender and submit to his will (the virgins); in both cases the women's fate is death. At no point do we hear the queen or the virgins, they are silenced and silent.

Which is where Shahrezad comes in. She is the only one in the tale that has a voice, bestowing on her power and control over a reality that appears uncontrollable. Her presence also reveals the tyrants' vulnerability, the fact that sheer physical force and violence is deeply rooted in fear and incompetence and in the inability to confront others on an equal basis. After all, the king loses his balance not because he is threatened by an all-powerful enemy, but because of one woman's betrayal. His balance is restored by another woman armed with no physical or political power, but with an imaginative wisdom. All we have to do to understand the relevance of such facts to our lives today is by listening to the news about some of our powerful male politicians today!

What is Shahrezad's secret? Her main asset is not her beauty, but her wisdom, her knowledge of poetry, philosophy and science, the fact that she is well-read and wise. She breaks the king's cycle of violence by refusing to play the game on his grounds and in his domain, which is the domain of the public and of physical power; instead she lures the king into her domain which is that of the private and of the imagination. Note here that in this tale, imagination becomes a way of confronting and defeating brute force and autocratic mindsets -- the attack on women's rights always goes hand in hand with an assault on imagination, or what is called culture.

The king has no imagination, he is unable to see or hear anyone but himself. Shahrezad, through her tales, arouses the king's curiosity and his desire to hear voices other than his own, showing him an alternative way of looking at the world and changing it. She transports him from his black and white world into one of colors and shades, of ambiguities, teaching him that not all women are betrayers, and some men, like kings are faithful and some fickle. Through this curiosity the king finds a point of empathy, the ability to place himself in other people's shoes, to want to know them. Thus one weak woman through her ingenious refusal to play a despot's game gains what the strongest of men could never dream of achieving by force.

This is how women in the country of my birth Iran, the country from which both Shahrezad's and Shahryar's names come from, are resisting and transforming an autocratic and brutal political system, one whose repressive nature is made most naked by its systematic violence against all the citizens, but especially women. And this is how I believe women throughout the ages and all over the world have been and are gaining their rights, thereby transforming the world. And because I believe in the universality of both women's rights and the power of imagination. I started my tribute to this blog with a fictional woman from the part of the world where I was born in, and want to end it with a real woman from the part of the world I now live in: Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, who believed in the universal rights of women and all citizens of the world. She knew that she will not live to see American women gain their rights to vote, but predicted that "I never forget we are sowing winter wheat, which the coming spring will see sprout, and other hands than ours will reap and enjoy."