The Dervish and the Princess (Or How Men Fantasize About a Woman’s ‘No’ Being a ‘Yes’)

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.

11 thoughts on “The Dervish and the Princess (Or How Men Fantasize About a Woman’s ‘No’ Being a ‘Yes’)

  1. Very interesting. I do think women, and particularly pre-teen and teen girls, need to be educated about “signals” they might be inadvertently sending. Of course, not to excuse men’s behavior, but for their own well-being and safety having awareness and taking some action as a result makes sense. As a school teacher, I am aware that most girls today are taught nothing about this at all and are totally clueless about how some men are eyeing and interpreting their clothing – because the girls themselves are 13 or 14 and naive and not having such thoughts, they are not aware that someone else may see things differently. There is still a place for this type of education and promotion of at least some level of modesty in feminine (and masculine) dress.

    Have you seen any of the episodes of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding? Most of the episodes are almost exactly about this. The last episode talked about the Irish traveler / gypsy tradition of “grabbing”. Boys/young men go to social events and forcibly take girls to kiss them. Girls are expected to resist, and sometimes things are violent. But no good traveler man would NOT do such a thing even if he thinks the girls don’t like it and aren’t just acting – it is expected of him as a man to dominate women in this way and other ways in that society, and is an important part of the cultural traditions.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Otowi. I think there needs to be a radical change in society. It needs to more away from “don’t get raped” culture to a society that demands men to “don’t rape.” Men, including young men, need to be taught that regardless of how a woman dresses, it is not an invitation to harass her, sexually abuse her, or rape her. They need to be taught that rape is NEVER the victim’s fault.

      I haven’t seen that show, but wow, that sounds awful!

  2. I really loved this post and this is such an important issue, which seems to be a problem across the world and in many different societies, sadly.

    1. Thanks, Becky. It is sad how widespread this is, for sure. If we just look at media representations alone, particularly in popular film, we see women commonly depicted as playing “passive” roles where they “resist” a man’s romantic and/or sexual advances before giving in. The message being conveyed is that a woman’s “no” means “yes,” and men just need to keep persisting – even if it means stalking that person.

  3. Interesting piece! Thank you for sharing this with us! And I absolutely agree with you when you say ” Victim-blaming only serves to normalize and continue heteropatriarchy and misogyny”. I hope more people will realize this.

    Could you please share the name of the book you mention on Sufi Tales. I would love to read it.

  4. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it on your blog. I really enjoyed it.

    I have a 12 year old daughter and I’m currently obsessed with teaching her not to give wrong signals. She is still a child and giggles and laughs like one but she is tall and obviously her happiness could be misinterpreted like in the story. This is a story I would like to share with her so she understands. However, I wouldn’t put all my efforts into controlling only her behaviour. I have sons as well and they get more strict training than my girl.

    “The phrase, “be a man,” Real continues, means to “suck it up and keep going.”

    I once wrote that in my house the phrase is “be strong, be a woman” and some people didn’t like it. The thing is my son saw how strong I was when my father passed away – how I took up responsibility for the family left behind by my father, how I handled a very difficult pregnancy and still managed to do everything with a paralysing Sciatica and once when my husband was really down it was my son who coined the phrase and said “be strong daddy, be like mummy” 😀 It felt good that my son appreciated what not just me but majority of women go through. I think it is very important to raise respectful and tolerant boys and I can say that your parents did an amazing job with raising you to be tolerant and respectful 🙂

    Thank you for this post!

  5. Very though provoking. Though I am aware of how men sometimes do interpret simple act as something more than what we intend for them to be this really opened up my eyes.
    I never really looked so deeply into the matter. I guess still being young and immature, can often leads to forgetfulness.
    Great post btw! I’m already a fan!

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