Wives, Witches, And Warriors: Women In Arabic Popular Epic
English Language and Literature
Near Eastern Languages and Societies
This dissertation consolidates the known corpus of the medieval Arabic popular epic (sīrah shaʿbīyah) in order to examine the roles of its female characters and how they relate to power. Borrowing from feminist theory, the study takes as its organizing principle the categories of “power-over,” “power-to,” and “power-with,” showing that how a woman is judged for expressing power depends upon how her actions fit into one of these three categories. Moreover, each expression of power tends to be connected to a woman’s familial relationships: sexually available women are usually classified as expressing “power-over,” while the nonsexual relationships of sisters and daughters exemplify “power-to.” The character of the selfless mother represents the ultimate expression of “power-with.” By comparing these characterizations to portrayals of women in religious, historical, and adab works also created during the Middle Periods of Islamic history, we can conclude that the modern perception of women being confined to the private sphere and thus invisible in medieval Arabic literary production is based on ignorance of their ubiquitous and complex roles in more popular forms of literature.