That’s where Scheherazade comes in as a foundational figure. She volunteers to marry King Shahryar, a man determined to punish women for the duplicity and infidelity of his first wife. Shahryar marries a succession of women, only to execute each the morning after. Scheherazade tells him stories and uses cliffhangers to delay her execution. Her storytelling prowess enables her not only to survive, but also to change the culture in which she lives; Shahryar ends his violent practices and lives happily ever after with his wife and their children. Like many heroines, Scheherazade uses words as her weapon and stories as her sword. And her goal is neither glory nor immortality, but social justice plain and simple.
GAZETTE: How did you feel when you started analyzing the ways women have survived and thrived in these stories?
TATAR: Even when marginalized, disenfranchised, and dispossessed, women managed to perform feats of heroism. Like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” they talked back to household tyrants and seized authority, becoming authors of their own lives and putting muteness and submission on the run.
For centuries, we’ve demonized the curiosity of women like Eve and Pandora, blaming them for bringing sin and evil into the world. Yet curiosity has served women well in our cultural imagination, pushing them not just to make discoveries but also to care for others, using compassion to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. The heroines in my book are philanthropists in the true sense of the term. Their love for humanity leads them to work hard to repair the fraying edges of the social fabric, heal injuries, and make things whole again.
Because women’s speech was a powerful tool of resistance and revelation, it was even more important to control it or to make it impossible to speak. In “The Metamorphoses,” Ovid tells the story of Philomela and how she was raped by her brother-in-law. When she threatens to broadcast the crime, Tereus cuts out her tongue, something that, for all its horror, does not keep her from weaving a tapestry — and giving it to her sister — depicting her rape. Today’s non-disclosure agreements are in many ways just a legal strategy for silencing victims and keeping them from reporting criminal and abusive behavior.