Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bahram Gur and Fitna (Feminist Folktales 12.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Iran

The story

The king Barham Gur loves to hunt, and loves even more to show off his hunting skills. One concubine forced watch and applaud him gives him an impossible challenge: to pin an antelope's back hoof to its horn with one arrow. The king wins the challenge, but the lady, named Fitna, only shrugs: "Practice makes perfect." The lack of praise angers the king, and he exiles her into the mountains to die.
Fitna finds a new home in a tower, and the first thing she does is buying a calf from a nearby village. After that, ever day she carries the calf up the stairs of the tower on her shoulders. As the calf grows, so Fitna grows stronger, until she can easily carry a fully grown ox up the stairs. Four years later the king shows up, and is amazed by the sight of a lady carrying an ox. Fitna just smiles at him, and makes her point: "Practice makes perfect." Bahram Gur admits she was right.

What makes it a feminist story?

Well, if we are talking strong female characters, here is one who is literally, amazingly strong - as an audience member once told me after this story, "that lady musta been ripped!" Fitna manages to prove that physical strength and stamina can be built up over time with patience and perseverance. This might seem like an obvious thing, especially because other famous characters in legend have also done the calf thing (Milo of Croton, the famous Greek Olympic wrestler, was one of them). However, the fact that this feat is done by a woman - a concubine, singer, handmaid, or queen, depending on the text - is extra important. Even today, there are many debates concerning women doing jobs that require high physical strength (military, law enforcement, firefighters, etc.), and one of the arguments that keeps coming up is "how is she going to carry someone who injured?" The question is flawed from the start: it should be "who can carry the weight required to do this job?" regardless of gender whatsoever. 
Fitna's name means "rebel." She stands up to the king. Instead of politely applauding his bragging, she takes him to task about the meaningless slaughter of his hunting trips. In some versions she specifically comes up with the impossible shooting challenge to make him stop killing animals left and right. She is not impressed by a show of strength, but rather looks at the values behind it. And she speaks up when she dislikes them. She is not supporting the king's (her master's, ruler's, husband's, etc.) ego by pretending that he has done some amazing thing. Women are often expected by society to be the main supporters of the male ego: admire them, praise them, applaud them for helping with chores, depend on them, serve them, or even be shorter so they can literally look up to them. Fitna rebels against this notion. "Practice makes perfect" is an obvious claim, and yet the king's fragile ego takes it as a threat, and he reacts the only way he knows how: with violence. But, by the end of the story, Fitna presents undeniable proof that her claim had been right, and shows a spectacular feat of strength - and Bahram Gur, in his wisdom, admits that she had been right, and he had been wrong. This is a very important message.

Things to consider

Or not. In the older versions of the tale (such as the Shahnameh) the king orders the lady, here called Azada, to be trampled to death by a camel for her impertinence.  Obviously I don't like this version as much as Nizami's tale about Fitna.


Nizami Ganjavi: Haft Paykar (c. 1197)
Sir John Malcolm: The History of Persia (John Murray, 1815.)
W. S. W. Vaux: Nineveh and Persepolis (Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1855.)
H. Beveridge: Nizami’s Haft Paykar (The Asiatic Quarterly Review, I/1-2, 1913.)


I wonder if Milo of Croton had this great idea first (metaphorically) and then it spread to the Middle East, or if it was the other way around...

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