x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Arabian Nights character Scheherazade 'a role model for women'

Scheherazade is the first fictional female superhero. By using her wit and storytelling abilities to captivate her audience, she saves her life and the lives of other women.

Alia Yunis, assistant professor of communications at Zayed University, discussed the portrayal of women at TEDxAbuDhabiU. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
Alia Yunis, assistant professor of communications at Zayed University, discussed the portrayal of women at TEDxAbuDhabiU. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National

ABU DHABI // Superwoman can fly and Wonder Woman has incredible strength but the Arabic storyteller Scheherazade may well be the best heroine of them all.

Around for hundreds of years, what makes her such a strong role model is her ability to use her mind and wit to captivate people with her enchanting tales -and not X-ray vision.

Author, professor and former journalist Alia Yunis explained why the character from 1,001 Arabian Nights is a true inspiration. She was speaking at TEDxAbuDhabiU, an event that provides a platform to exchange ideas across all industries.

The tale from the Islamic Golden Age tells the story of an Arabian king who was betrayed by his wife. He goes on to marry a series of virgins, only to execute them the following morning - until he meets Scheherazade. For 1,001 nights, she distracts him with her stories, saving her life and the lives of other women, until the king falls in love with her.

The TEDx event was held at the weekend under the theme "Dare to" and Ms Yunis dared women to follow Scheherazade's footsteps and use their experience, knowledge and skills to become superheroines.

"Unlike Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, who were waiting for their knights in shining armour to come to the rescue, Scheherazade chose to take matters into her own hands," said Ms Yunis, assistant professor of communications at Zayed University. "Scheherazade became a storyteller as a natural survival instinct. All of us are natural-born storytellers."

Women in the media had come full circle, Ms Yunis said, from being victims to heroines to victims, and the media too often portrayed women as helpless.

Dr Soaad al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at United Arab Emirates University, agreed that women were often victimised in the media but added that western and Arab media had varying roles. Lack of expertise by industry professionals coupled with regulation contributed to a negative trend, Dr al Oraimi said.

"The media is only a channel through which information and images are relayed," she said. "The problem lies in the industry behind the media. This will not change unless women join the industry and use their professional skills to make a difference."

Even if women joined the media, such perceptions would not be eradicated unless social attitudes changed from the roots, said Dr Nawar Golley, an associate professor in literary theory and women's studies at the American University of Sharjah.

"There are women present everywhere in the media and in decision-making positions, but these women are not taking action. They have a very mild attitude," Dr Golley said. "They need to be persistent in their fight for what they believe is right and against these very harmful representations of women."

Although the media did portray positive images of women, a majority of them continued to be "overwhelmingly negative", Dr Golley said. Such constant images could create a vicious cycle, she said, as these values were ingrained in children's minds.

"It's interesting how pathetic the position of women has become in the past 10 years," Ms Yunis said. "From being vampire slayers to the ones being slain. Women always need to be saved by men. It's as though we're going backwards."

While schools and universities had a significant role to play, they were not placing as much effort as necessary, Dr Golley said, adding that there was "absolutely no excuse" as to why women often continued to be portrayed as the victims and not heroines of their communities.

"In such a short period of time, women in the UAE have proved themselves capable," she said. "We have the government support and we have the resources. Media has remarkable power, it has the power to create war. Why, then, can't it bring about social change?"

mismail@thenational.ae