Whenever I have discussions about men “misinterpreting” women, within the heterosexual context, I remember a Sufi parable I once read about a dervish and a princess. The story is part of a collection of Sufi tales that originate mostly in classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and South Asian literature and oral traditions. Described as “teaching-stores of the Sufi Masters over the past thousand years,” the selections serve as a way for students to increase knowledge and perception, as well as obtaining a better understanding of their fellow human beings and the world around them. It is noted that many Sufi tales “have passed into folklore, or ethical teachings, or crept into biographies.” They are also commonly valued as “entertainment pieces.”
The story about the dervish and the princess is interesting because I believe it touches upon a number of serious issues that are relevant today. Perhaps to some, the reality of men “misinterpreting” a woman’s friendly behavior, for example, as flirtatious or “leading him on,” may sound harmless, but in order to understand why this is serious and even dangerous, it’s important recognize the oppressive forces at work within patriarchy that makes abuse, violence, and rape against women acceptable. It becomes more than just “misinterpreting,” but rather exercising masculine power and domination facilitated by oppressive hierarchies already in place, as well as maintaining and constantly constructing these social structures.
Heterosexual men are socialized to be homophobic, to be sexist, and to represent a singular mold of “masculinity,” i.e. be tough, aggressive, dominating (especially over women and other men), and even violent. It is common for many to interpret the previous sentence as a “generalization” about men. However, this is not an attempt to vilify men, but rather to honestly discuss the indoctrination of patriarchal and sexist thinking that surrounds us. bell hooks provides an important comment on masculine socialization in her book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love”:
Whenever women thinkers, especially advocates of feminism, speak about the widespread problem of male violence, folks are eager to stand up and make the point that most men are not violent. They refuse to acknowledge that masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.
hooks cites Terrence Real, who argues that “violence is boyhood socialization.” That is, the way society “turn boys into men is through injury,” detaching them from feelings, sensitivity, and expressiveness. The phrase, “be a man,” Real continues, means to “suck it up and keep going.” Images of men being violent, aggressive, and sexually promiscuous are celebrated in popular films, television shows, video games, comic books, advertisements, literature, etc. These images, along with the way boys are socialized early in childhood contributes to the normalization of male domination over women.
When men are taught to expect and/or demand sex on the first date to “score,” or prove their “masculinity” and show off to their male peers, it isn’t about getting to know someone on a deeper, personal level. It becomes a game. There are strategies that men have to play in order to “score” with a woman – whether that means paying for movie tickets or the dinner bill, or behaving like he’s interested in what she’s talking about. Such socialization is dangerous because it leads to date rape, touching women sexually against their will, and other abuses. Charlene L. Muehlenhard writes a scenario in her piece, “‘Nice Women’ Don’t Say Yes and ‘Real Men’ Don’t Say No: How Miscommunication and the Double Standard Can Cause Sexual Problems,” that I found relevant:
Imagine that a man is with a woman and he wants to have sex with her (or feels he should try to have sex with her, so that he can avoid the stigma of being sexually inexperienced). He does not attempt to discuss their sexual desires; instead, he tries to interpret her behaviors. She is wearing tight jeans and a low-cut blouse, and she is willing to go to his apartment to listen to records. He interprets this behavior to mean that he is interested in sex. He begins to make advances. She says no. He assumes that she is merely offering token resistance to sex so as not to appear promiscuous – and, even if she does not mean to, why was she “leading him on” with her “suggestive” clothing and behavior? He thinks of jokes he has heard about unmasculine men who stop their advances after being told no, he thinks of movies in which the woman first resists the man’s advances but soon becomes overwhelmed with desire, and he thinks of his male friends who all have sexual stories to tell. He has sex with her in spite of her protests.
As mentioned earlier, it is more than just about so-called “misinterpretation,” but about male domination and fantasy. A friend, Shaista Patel, shared some important points on how fantasies are about “symbolic violence for the fear of losing a dominant position and hence the object of love (whether it is the woman, the clique one belongs to, respect of other men) is inherent.” Furthermore, these fantasies are not just symbolic violence, but also personal violence. This fantasy, as Patel explains, also “emanates from a position of not only dominance, and hence the fear of losing it, but from a position of disempowerment, where a sense of engulfment by the woman, or other men, makes the man take a woman’s ‘no’ as a ‘yes.'”
What’s horrible about this is that women are blamed for men’s abuse. It is a woman’s fault she was raped, abused, assaulted, etc. because she was being “too flirty,” because she was “leading him on,” because she “smiled at him,” because her clothing was “too provocative” or “suggestive,” because “she was asking for it.” Victim-blaming only serves to normalize and reinforce heteropatriarchy and misogyny. Of course, there is more to comment on this subject and much has been written on it. I think the Sufi story below challenges the heterosexual male fantasy as discussed above.
The Dervish and the Princess
A King’s daughter was as beautiful as the moon, and admired by all. A dervish saw her one day, as he was about to eat a piece of bread. The morsel fell to the ground, for he was so deeply moved that he could not hold it.
As she passed by she smiled upon him. This action sent him into convulsions, his bread in the dust, his sense half bereft. In a state of ecstasy he remained thus for seven years. The dervish spent all that time in the street, where dogs slept.
He was a nuisance to the princess, and her attendants decided to kill him.
But she called him to her and said: “There can be no union between you and me. And my servants intend to kill you; therefore disappear.”
The miserable man answered: “Since I first saw you, life is nothing to me. They will kill me without cause. But please answer me one question since you are to be the cause of my death. Why did you smile at all?”
“Silly man!” said the princess. “When I saw what a fool you were making yourself, I smiled in pity, not for any other reason.”
And she disappeared from his sight.
Idries Shah’s commentary:
In his “Parliament of the Birds,” Attar speaks of the misunderstanding of subjective emotions which causes men to believe that certain experiences (“the smile of the princess”) are special gifts (“admiration”) whereas they may be the very reverse (“pity”).
Many have been misled, because this kind of literature has its own conventions, into believing that Sufi classical writings are other than technical descriptions of psychological states.