MAʿĀYEB AL-REJĀL

a treatise written in 1894 by Bibi Ḵānom Estarābādi/Astarābādi as a counterargument to the anonymous Taʾdib al-neswān/Taʾdib al-nesāʾ, a tract on how to discipline women, published in the mid-19th century.

 

MAʿĀYEB AL-REJĀL (“Faults of men”), a treatise written in 1894 by Bibi Ḵānom Estarābādi/Astarābādi as a counterargument to the anonymous Taʾdib al-neswān/Taʾdib al-nesāʾ, a tract on how to discipline women, published in the mid-19th century.  According to Ruhangiz Karachi, the author of Taʾdib al-neswān is most probably Ḵānlar Mirzā Eḥtešām-al-Dawla (d. 1861, a son of Fatḥ-ʿAli Shah). Maʿāyeb al-rejāl, although not published until 1992, must have had a fair circulation at the time; four manuscript copies, including one written by the author herself (Majles Library, Ms. 8984), exist in archival collections (e.g., Malek National Library and Museum Institution, Ms. 6297).

Bibi Ḵānom begins her text with a brief autobiography explaining her social and educational background, and two poems in praise of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah and the crown prince Moẓaffar-al-Din.  The book ends with a detailed continuation of the autobiographical statement and a poem in praise of the grand vizier (pp. 88-96).  The text is composed of two sections: the first one (pp. 52-65) is a direct, wittily angry response to Taʾdib al-neswān; and the second part (pp. 66-94), addressed directly to other women (“my sisters,” as she calls them), contains advice and warnings about men, in particular as husbands.  Bibi Ḵānom explains her choice of the title, Maʿāyeb al-rejāl, in these ironic terms: “This lesser one does not consider herself worthy of disciplining men, so she has written Maʿāyeb al-rejāl in response to Taʾdib al-neswān to make their vices evident; perhaps they will give up trying to discipline women and go after disciplining and training themselves” (p. 48).  The expression “this lesser one” (in kamina) is commonly used in this period as a self-abnegating self-reference by women writers.  Such ironic subversions of traditional cultural references to women are a consistent feature of Bibi Ḵānom’s prose throughout her text.

Bibi Ḵānom interweaves the prose of the text of 40 manuscript pages with some sixty different verses of classical poetry and a number of her own occasional verses.  She engages in retelling stories within the main text and sharpens her satire with the use of street-smart songs (taṣnif) and baḥr-e ṭawils.  She skillfully combines the narration of pornographic tales with interpretations of the Qurʾan and Traditions (e.g., see Bibi Ḵānom, p. 49).  Asides from allusions to the Traditons attributed to the Prophet Moḥammad and to Nahj al-balāḡa (collections of sayings, letters, and speeches attributed to Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb), on nineteen occasions she quotes, in full or in part, verses from the Qurʾan.  Drawing at once on Islamic sources and Persian poetry, polite and coarse language, oral and written traditions, Bibi Ḵānom produces a text grounded in several cultural contexts, moving with ease from a prophetic tale to a street joke and to a classical verse of advice.  Whereas in later 20th-century literature these various historical-literary sources largely bifurcated into secular versus religious, polite versus vulgar, and modern versus traditional, in Maʿāyeb al-rejāl we have a text drawing from and connected to them all.  Moreover, as a text conceived in a female homosocial space and addressed to other women, it connects the reader to the language of that cultural space, a language of feminine transgressive irony that was later to be re-scripted as vulgar and rejected as backward.

Maʿāyeb al-rejāl is a consistently and remarkably female-centered text.  While Bibi Ḵānom’s narrative, rhetorical, and inter-textual ties with classical literary and religious sources transfer the authority of past culture to her text, her particular re-writings and re-interpretive gestures produce a highly subversive and innovative text.  Whether she is dealing with a classical poet such as Saʿdi or with Qurʾanic verses and prophetic narratives, Bibi Ḵānum refers to them dismissively, satirizes them, or openly polemicizes against them if she finds them misogynous.  Yet she does not hesitate to draw upon them to back up women’s cause.  Moreover, in discussing verses and sayings that are often simply dismissed as misogynous, she frequently re-interprets them subversively.  For instance, she quotes the first hemistich of the verse “Just this one art is enough for women / To sit and give birth to male lions,” which is often cited as prime example of misogyny in classical literature, and uses it to give credence to her own subversion of male-female hierarchy: “‘Just this one art is enough for women, that men, even if they reach the heavens, have been given birth by women to and fallen out of them” (p. 55).

Bibi Ḵānom uses many of the same religious tales, Qurʾanic verses, proverbs, and classical poetry that are employed by the author of Taʾdib al-neswān.  However, while Taʾdib al-neswān draws on these to confirm the traditional normative concepts regarding women, by her ironic and at times subversive narration, Bibi Ḵānom engages in a double challenge.  She rebukes the author of Taʾdib al-neswān at the same time that she opens possibilities for positive re-scripting of traditional images of women.

Asides from the significance of the text as a woman’s response to a popular misogynous tract, the text is also important because of its moment of composition at a time that women’s literacy was on the rise and women were beginning to publish in more public domains, such as newspapers, a process that had enormous repercussions in changing women’s language.

 

Bibliography

Fereydun Ādamiyat and Homā Nāṭeq, Afkār-e ejtemāʿi wa siāsi wa eqteṣādi dar āṯār-e montašer našoda-ye dawrān- Qājār, Tehran, 1977, pp. 20-27.

Bibi Ḵānum Astarābādi, Maʿāyeb al-rejāl: dar pāsoḵ ba taʾdib al-neswān, ed. Afsaneh Najmabadi, New York, 1992; tr. Hasan Javadi and Willem Floor, as The Vices of Men, in idem, The Education of Women and the Vices of Men: Two Qajar Tracts, Syracuse, N.Y., 2010; “Ma‘ayib al-rijal [Vices of men],” available at  http://www.qajarwomen.org/en/items/1018A17.html (accessed 6 February 2013).

Ḥasan Jawādi (Javadi), Maniẕa Marʿaši, and Simin Šekarlu, eds. Ruyāruʾi-e zan wa mard dar ʿaṣr-e Qājār: do resāla-ye Taʾdib al-neswān wa Maʿāyeb al-rejāl, Evanston, Illinois, and Bethesda, Maryland, 1992.

Ruhangiz Karachi, “Who Is the Original Author of Taʾdib al-nesvān?” Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt 65/3, 2010, pp. 199-208.

Afsaneh Najmabadi,  “Veiled Discourse: Unveiled Bodies,” Feminist Studies 19/3, 1993, pp. 487-518.

Taʾdib al-neswān, tr. Gaston Audibert, as La femme persane, jugée et critiquée par un Persan, Paris, 1889; tr. Edward Powys Mathers, as The Education of Wives, London, 1927; “Taʼdib al-nisaʼ [Disciplining women],” available at http://www.qajarwomen.org/en/items/1018A3.html (accessed 6 February 2013).

(Afsaneh Najmabadi)

Last Updated: February 8, 2013