-- CULTURE -- Female Roles -- PART ONE

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Quill, Feb 8, 2013.

  1. [rainbow]PART ONE OF FOUR: THE SLAVES[/rainbow]

    I love fantasy. But lately, I have been reading fantasy novels with scores and scores of cultures and women's roles in them, and I keep stumbling over the same four tropes, over and over and over again. This guide is to celebrate and comprehend other ways historical cultures have seen and treated women. Hopefully this guide will inspire you to get new ideas!

    [blink]THE TROPES[/blink]​

    Current fantasy cultures are abundant with these four clichéd women’s roles. They may be easy to come up with and simple to pull through, but to a world-builder aspiring to make something unique, I suggest finding innovative ways of combining and changing these tropes, even when they cannot be avoided altogether.

    These women are oppressed and usually exist within a sexist hierarchy. Laws restrict their rights and freedoms and they have little political control or social influence within their culture. Often, they are characterized as sex objects.

    These women assume spiritual roles in their cultures, usually bonding with the supernatural. Magicians, priests and healers, they guide and nurture.

    With their women physically and usually political dominant, this culture basically reverses the stereotypical gender roles. Above domestic work, the Amazon women are warriors, risk-takers, political leaders and in control of their own destiny.

    These women are treated and usually act exactly like modern women in First World countries. They have all and any imaginable human rights and enjoy equal freedom as men.

    So now we’ve met fantasy’s most vehement tropes, let’s take a closer look at each of them, and how to diversify them through examples in our own human history.



    The most common analogy made between fantasy cultures with oppressed women and human history is the Arab caliphate from about the seventh to the sixteenth centuries C.E. and the Ottoman Era that would follow for the next 600+ years. Unfortunately these are often characterized by narrow-minded Western views that misinterpret the Middle East’s rich culture by exaggerating the restriction on women’s freedoms and leaving out interesting aspects of the culture that allowed them greater freedom than their medieval and colonial European counterparts. Remember also that the modern, Western definition of freedom may be starkly different from the meaning other cultures see in the word. If you asked a selfish American billionaire, he might tell you he was the freest man in the world because he could act exactly as he pleased, and by that standard would see a beggar monk as trapped in poverty and strict rules. But if you asked a Daoist monk, he might tell you he was free because he was enlightened, and the selfish billionaire was lost and trapped by the insignificant material world.

    What Is Liberty?
    So before even beginning to imagine your culture where women assume the role of the oppressed, consider first what liberty means in your created society. Zeyneb Hanoum, a diplomat’s daughter who lived in a harem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, fled to Europe in 1908 to avoid scandal for publishing a book revealing the oppression women suffered in Turkey at the time. In her travels across the continent she was thoroughly disenchanted by what she had formerly thought was an enlightened and free society. While visiting London she cried of the female suffragists, “Have they not confused individual liberty, which is the right to live as one pleases, with true liberty, which to my Oriental mind is the right to choose one’s own joys and forbearances?” Some cultures believe the individual has no liberty at all, and that freedom can only be found by contribution to the community. Others believe the individual has all possible liberty, even if exercising it infringes on the freedoms of others. Most are somewhere in between.

    Liberty Across Social Classes
    Now that you have an idea of what freedom may mean to your culture, frame how the women in it would be oppressed by lacking access to this freedom. In doing this it can be helpful to consider whether women in different social classes have different amounts of freedom. In the early Arab caliphate, for instance, one could argue the hard-working slave women in a caliph’s harem were better off than their aristocratic counterparts who married him officially. In the society, both were basically sex slaves, forced to be subservient. In Women In Islam, Naila Minai describes the advantages of being a slave: “The charm of these slaves lay in their talents in music, dance, and poetry. […] Though every educated woman of the day knew how to compose a good verse and strum a pleasant melody on the lute, most were amateurs compared to slave girls trained in the best conservatories since childhood by slave dealers who hoped to recoup their investment through the astronomical prices these artists fetched on the market. […] The Caliph Al-Mutawakkil would summon his favorite slaves to court and improvise a line or two of verse, then challenge his poetesses to continue in the same meter and rhyme. The one whose response pleased him the most felt a bag of gold drop into her lap. […] The most famous patron [of slaves] turned his palace into a veritable theater where he staged extravaganzas with a cast of thousands of slave and freelance artists.” Obviously, slavery has drawbacks. But in a culture where free-born women are reverted to a slave status upon marriage, while a caliph’s concubine, should she bear him an heir, could become the most politically powerful person in the nation, on average slaves might well be more privileged, more educated, more artistic, more independent, and ultimately less restricted in their opportunities.

    Oppression in a Free Nation
    In Zeyneb’s lifetime, Western Europe had outlawed slavery, and in fact has no history of harems or enslaving women of their own ethnicity. Indeed, one would think the wife of a British ambassador in the nineteenth century would be freer than a harem slave. But Oriental slaves were guaranteed a pension and legitimate children. Sexual segregation allowed for greater independence from male authority. The master of a harem was not authorized to interfere in its internal affairs, or even visit one of his women if the slippers of another guest were at her chamber door. In contrast, mistresses of the Occident had no rights whatsoever; no pension, absolutely no legitimate children, a ruined reputation, and thus a hopeless future. Wives fared only slightly better: according to British law, for instance, a wife was forced to give up her personal rights and property to her husband in exchange for legitimate children. As Mary Montagu lamented, “Turkish Ladys are perhaps freer than any Ladys in the universe.”

    There is an old Bavarian saying: “Men make laws, women make customs.” This is not true for all cultures, but throughout all cultures, manipulating customs is crucial to achieving social success and perpetuating one’s will. For many oppressed women, it is an indirect avenue of power that works wonders. Folklore is a great source of customs. In old eastern German small towns, for instance, a young woman seeking a husband would tap the chicken pen while alone, and if a rooster came to her first, she was ready to marry. Next she would sit on a pile of firewood if she wanted to marry a woodcutter, a pail of water if she wanted to marry a fisher, a haystack if she wanted to marry a farmer, and so forth. In small towns that can narrow down the selection quite a bit, but it would have to happen on a full moon night. Over the course of the next several days, her mother would invite eligible men suiting her description to lunch one at a time in the family home. Any young man who wanted to marry the young girl would then propose to her, but if at any time during his visit the spiderwebs in the cellar were found to have fallen apart, he would have to be sent home and there was no hope for him to ever marry the girl. This is just a small sliver of life in a culture saturated by superstition and conventions, but we can see how advantageous it can be to women seeking at least some freedom in their choice of husband and when to marry, though strictly the culture demanded it was her suitor’s choice alone.

    Resisting Oppression
    One of the greatest Slave sub-tropes is the culture of deaf, blind and mute women who live like cattle in their subjugating conditions and have no defenses at all. So here’s a fundamental truth of human nature to help us take a closer look: People express themselves. They can’t always choose to do so when or how they want, but one way or another, it happens every day. Self-expression is an indirect form of resistance to oppression, as it gives you a basic right: the right to share your thoughts or feelings. In ancient China, where the logogram for the female “I” was synonymous with “slave”, women invented their very own language to communicate with each other in ways their male oppressors could not understand. In Ottoman Turkey, “harem residents made each other’s business very much their own and punishment for adultery could be severe, [but] particularly determined women with trusted servants and friends had [in Mary Montagu’s words], ‘opportunitys of gratifying their evil Inclinations (if they have any)’. They could, for example, travel incognito behind veils, and even send love tokens. Instead of resorting to incriminating letters, they dispatched objects which symbolized verses expressing their feelings. A matchstick meant, I burn, my flame consumes me; a blank sheet of paper, I faint every hour; and a gold wire, I die, come quickly” (Women In Islam by Naila Minai). A well-known example is best exemplified by the slaves in American history, who communicated by birdcalls and uplifting songs.



    Feel free to complete the table or make your own!​

    [TABLE="class: grid, width: 500, align: center"]
    Symbolic Object

    I burn, my flame consumes me.

    blank sheet of paper
    I faint every hour...

    gold wire
    I die; come quickly!

    silver wire

    lock of hair

    black pebble

    sprig of jasmine

    brown feather

    shard of glass

    Our love is no more.

    The sun wilts in shame before you.

    I am yours.

    I ache for you.


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