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Women in the Persian Book of Kings

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the role of women in Persian poetry, storytelling, and painting.

With Women’s History Month recently behind us, I began to think about the significance of women in one of the most important works in Persian literature: Firdawsi’s epic of the Persian kings, the Shahnama. Did women have a prominent place in these tales, and how were they portrayed? Are queens represented alongside the kings?

In the first half of the Shahnama—which focuses on Iran’s mythical past, particularly Persian legends—many women play central roles as the mothers of kings and warriors, the heroes in the epic poem. Dr. Dick Davis writes that surprisingly there are “over fifty women … named in the poem … and a number of them play a significant and sometimes primary role in the narrative.” One such woman is Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, who gives birth to one of the greatest Shahnama heroes, Rostam. She is presented as a free agent and engineers her own life by defying male authority, even that of her father. In the painting above, Rudaba lets down her long hair so that Zal, her future lover and husband, can scale the building and join her on the roof. (He chooses, however, to use a lasso to climb the wall.)

Rudaba is independent and takes matters into her own hands, and by no means is she an exception. A whole host of women in the Shahnama actively pursue their desires and take initiative, and they are mostly presented in a positive light for doing so. Moreover, there is hardly any immediate social backlash. Instead, a woman making choices based on desire is glamorized and presented as entirely understandable—something almost unheard of in traditional society.

The women in the Shahnama are not just celebrated for their role as mothers. Like Rudaba, they are known for their beauty, intelligence, independence, and fierceness. The epic poem features women as diplomatic envoys and queens. This gives them a degree of political power and, as Davis has written, has allowed the women “to confront the world on their own terms.”

Despite the action-packed and colorful representations of these works, the strong women in the Shahnama sometimes take a backseat to their male contemporaries. Letting the stories of kings and heroes overshadow those of powerful queens and wise women risks diminishing the complexity of these works, which, after all, is what makes them so exquisite.

Source: Davis, D., “Women in Shahnameh” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, edited by Sara S. Poor and Jane K. Schulman (Palgrave MacMillan: 2007), 67-90.