Scheherazade, I heard a radio host say the other day, was an advocate for women. How's that again, I thought?
Scheherazade was the fictional consort of the king in the Persian narrative Arabian Nights, a king who, once cuckolded, resolves to sleep with a new virgin every night and behead her in the morning. This insured he would never be cuckolded again--expediency exceeding humanity by half. Or a head and a half.
But when Scheherazade, against her father's wishes, goes to the king's bed, she tells him a story so rivetting that, as dawn breaks, the tale is unfinished, a new day has begun and Scheherazade's life has been spared.
The tale will continue for another night. And another.
So passes a thousand and one nights, each extending Scheherazade's life until, at last, the king takes her as his bride and spares her life indefinitely: he has fallen in love.
If we know Arabian Nights at all, it is the stories themselves--Disney's 2003 movie "Sinbad" is from the collection--rather than the framing device of Scheherazade's bid to buy her life anew each day through story-telling.
Still--Scheherazade as an advocate for women seemed a stretch to me. But the radio host was introducing Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic poem "Scheherazade" and maybe she needed a hook to pique listeners' interest. Whatever, I thought.
But only a few days later, the Alabama's so-called "heartbeat bill" was all over the news, followed hard by enacted or pending restrictive legislation in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Utah.
Stories suddenly seemed important.
The ones we tell around hearth and table: my daughter and I have long agreed that everybody hates abortion and no one wants them. We are pro-choice which essentially means that we are pro-education. When I was in my salad days, I knew about Planned Parenthood and found a way to get to it--and never had an unplanned pregnancy. My daughters were raised to do the same and did.
Access, education and an acceptance that it isn't only okay for boys to have sexual desires are keys to preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Then there are the abortion stories in fiction--older fiction: Hemingway's short story, "Hill Like White Elephants" isn't actually about hills or elephants. Nor is Katherine Mansfield's story "This Flower" about a flower. They're about what happens when pregnancy is unwanted and contraception is unavailable. Is abstinence a viable option? You tell me. Or go ask Bristol Palin.
And then there is the bold, raw witness of the late, great 20th-century author, Ursula LeGuin, whose story of the scapegoat "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is so painful that though I have repeatedly taught it, I can barely manage to read it.
Making its Facebook rounds, LeGuin's 2012 account of what it would have been like if she had not been able to abort a first, accidental and unwanted pregnancy is more than ever apt reading in these days:
It’s like this: if I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents … if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, … the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have born a child for them, their child.
But I would not have born my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.
LeGuin has a story that will instill value in human life.
Scheherazade told stories to prolong and extend human life. It's fiction, not reportage, but within the strictures of story, imagine the lives Scheherazade saved, the women whose heads didn't roll once their hymens were rent. Scheherazade's stories saved her life--but not only her own life.
Maybe that's both the nature and the purpose of telling our stories: to find the heartbeats in the hearers of the tale. Scheherazade changed a hardened heart through her stories. The king who had the power listened. He listened. And living women were saved.