Norms are established in the religious literature that prescribe a passive role for women, particularly in relation to their husbands. On the other hand, in the secular literature women violate these norms and act in accordance with other preconditions.
The literature that is analysed in the dissertation consists primarily of biographies of pious women in the first Muslim community, as well as of female singers and musicians who were principally active in the circles around the Abbasid court in Baghdad. Two biographies have been translated in their entirety, one that portrays the prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha bint Abi Talib and one of the singer and musician Arib. The biographies of the women in the first Muslim community have a reception history that extends into our period, as they are sometimes presented as models for Muslim women today. Moreover, they are frequently cited in the rancorous debate that is currently taking place regarding the position of women in Islam, where it is possible to use them to demonstrate the strength of women’s position in Islam as well as the opposite.
On the other hand, the secular literature, which offers an alternative picture of women’s possibilities and circumstances in early Islamic society, has been almost entirely disregarded in the modern debate. This is not just the case in that context for there are hardly any critical literary analyses of this literature, thus far all that has been undertaken is philological work.
Pernilla Myrne uses narrative analyses to investigate how different norms and conceptions about women during this important period were constructed in literature, both in the more normative religious texts about the first Muslim women, and in the biographies of female singers and musicians that were primarily for entertainment. In both these types of text women occupy strong positions in the narrative; in speech and narrative women can shine. Furthermore, the strength and abilities of women are emphasised in both the religious and the secular literature. However, what is specific to the normative literature is that women’s strength is channelled into certain spheres in society, piety for example, an area in which they are experts, along with the ability to assist tribe, family and husband. In all activities that are to do with marriage women occupy the object position for their husbands. The hierarchy is depicted in this context as given and stable.
In the literature designed to entertain on the other hand, the hierarchies are unstable and can be overturned at any time. Especially cherished are anecdotes that are structured as verbal duels between a woman and a man, where the woman has the last word and the man is put down. The dissertation also addresses how conceptions of masculinity are constructed in the texts, as well as how narrative techniques are used to create authority and authenticity.
Title of the dissertation: Narrative, Gender and Authority in Abbasid Literature on Women.