Male-Female Relationships in "The Promises of the Three Sisters"

Catherine Markham

Writer’s comment: I
decided to analyze the Egyptian folktale "The Promises of the Three
Sisters" because of the interesting way it plays with male-female
stereotypes. As a woman, I am often expected to behave in "typically
female" ways, which of course angers me. Men, too, are locked into
certain (frequently ridiculous) preconceptions of "manliness." I found
it fascinating that this folktale, from an entirely different culture
and time period, deals with gender conflicts that still haunt us today.
"The Promises of the Three Sister" played the same role in its period
that magazines and talk shows do in ours: it reached out to the masses,
bringing to the surface and rasing for discussion some underlying
conflicts in society. Moreover, though, it's an enjoyable story.
—Catherine Markham

Instructor’s comment: I gave students in my
Integrated Studies World Folk Tales Class various options for their
term paper. Catherine Markham’s analysis of the Egyptian folktale “The
Promises of the Three Sisters” was striking for the sensitivity and
ingenuity with which she talked about male/female cultural roles and
stereotypes as reflected in the tale. She never became doctrinaire,
always stayed focused on the details of the tale itself, and was
consistently interesting and original. She thus convinced me not only
that she was ingenious, sensitive, and interesting, but that she was
also right, that “The Promises of the Three Sisters” was indeed about
what she said it was about. I was also convinced that she had a genuine
understanding of what many of us have to learn from those of the
opposite sex.

Much of this work in World Folk Tales required storytelling (both of
traditional folk tales and of true-life tales). Catherine’s
storytelling was just as memorable and polished as her writing. It is
rare to meet a student (much less a first-year student) who can equally
well tell a story and talk about it.

—John Boe, English Department

“All men think about is sex.”

“Women are slaves to PMS.”

“He never wants to spend time with me; he’s always hanging out with the
guys—watching football, rating women, and competing to make the
loudest, rudest noise with his armpit.”

“She spends hours on the phone, talking to friends who live three
blocks away. She’ll be talking and laughing, but it’s dead silence as
soon as I walk in—then either I have to leave or she switches to the
other line. What the hell do women talk about that’s so top secret?”

All of us have heard generalizations, usually unpleasant ones, about
the opposite sex. Most of us have said our share of them when the phone
does not ring at the appointed hour or the love of our life mentions
those dreaded words: “open relationship.” Men have trouble
understanding women, and women have trouble understanding men. This
problem is universal, extending through different cultures and time
periods. The Egyptian folktale “The Promises of the Three Sisters”
reflects the division between the sexes, a theme which is as relevant
in our modern society as it was then.

In “The Promises of the Three Sisters,” the king represents the male
world. In his castle, he is completely isolated from all female
elements; the only companion mentioned is a male advisor. When he goes
down to the village, he is confronted by the female world, as
represented by the three sisters. The sisters have a supernatural
quality, which shows how mystical the female world appears to the king.
The women are weaving, a traditional female activity associated with an
almost magical creativity. They are orphans, so their origin is
mysterious. Also, their hut is removed from the familiar and
conventional village.

Each sister promises the king something if he marries her. The older
two promise him physical gratification: a cake that will feed him and
his army and a carpet that will seat him and all his soldiers. The
inclusion of his army is an appeal to the traditionally male value of
force and power. The youngest sister promises him emotional
satisfaction: twins, a boy and a girl. Her approach is more typically
female, since it appeals to his personal feelings and includes a
daughter in the bargain.

The king responds to his first contact with the female world in a
stereotypically male fashion: the practical, unemotional approach. He
marries the sisters, starting from the oldest and working down to the
youngest. When each fails to produce her promised gift, he divorces
her, for she is no longer useful to him. The first two sisters
scornfully tell him, “Night talk is covered with butter; it melts when
the sun rises.” The phrase “night talk” has sexual connotations,
suggesting that speech used in sexual situations is meaningless. Its
purpose is simply seduction: getting what one wants. In the folktale,
men may have physical and temporal power, but women have mastered
verbal power (“night talk”), and they use this to get what they want
from men. The third sister actually does deliver the promised twins,
but the midwife and her sisters maliciously substitute a dog and cat.
The king keeps the animals, saying that God’s will is always good, but
he sends his wife away. He returns to his purely male world. However,
his contact with the female world has changed him, for he feels the
emptiness of his one-sided lifestyle.

At this point the story shifts its focus to the twins. The sisters shut
them in a box and throw them in a river. A fisherman finds and adopts
them, saying they are God’s gift. The twins are found suckling each
other with their thumbs; this signifies the balance they will
eventually find between the male and female worlds, for they are from
the first equal and mutually supportive.

They do fall into stereotypical roles. The brother, Clever Muhummad,
embodies the typical male traits of protectiveness and rationality. He
provides for his sister, Sitt el-Husn, financially by fishing, and when
she cries, he immediately drops what he is doing and fixes the problem.
He responds to difficulties in a practical, decisive manner, without
any emotional involvement to delay the action.

Sitt el-Husn responds to troubles in a typically female fashion: she
cries. However, she finds power in her emotions; when she smiles, the
sun shines, and when she cries, it rains. The association of her
emotions with nature emphasizes that emotional responses are natural to
human beings. Sensitivity is not simply a weak, indulgent, female
reaction. Emotions are powerful; they produce effects and get things
accomplished. Her sensitivity gives her control over her brother, for
he immediately does what is necessary to stop her tears (and the rain).

As the twins age, the balance becomes disrupted. When the adopted
parents die, the separation of the male and female worlds is once more
emphasized. The father-son and the mother-daughter relationships are
seen as most important and divide the family in half, according to
gender, during the time of crisis. The fisherman calls Clever Muhummad
to his deathbed and gives him two horse hairs, which when rubbed
together will give him what he needs. The fisherman’s wife calls Sitt
el-Husn to her side and gives her a purse that will provide her with
ten pounds every morning, an unusual gift in that it gives a woman
financial power. Clever Muhummad buries his adopted father, but before
he buries his mother, he must summon an old woman to wash and prepare
the body. Even in this crisis, involving his own mother, he is not
allowed intimate interaction with the female world.

After the deaths of their adopted parents, the twins move to the
village. They become rich through Sitt el-Husn’s purse, yet it is
Clever Muhummad who becomes well-known. His sister, perhaps through
that mystical “woman’s intuition,” has a palace built directly opposite
that of the king, their true father. The separation between the male
and female worlds is still evident, for the king becomes fast friends
with Clever Muhummad but completely ignores Sitt el-Husn. The evil
aunts quickly befriend their niece. They use the female power of speech
to convince Sitt el-Husn that she needs certain rarities in her garden
and that her brother should prove his love for her by obtaining these
items. Here the quest plot begins.

Clever Muhummad’s quest represents the struggle to unite the male and
female worlds. Thus, he is given instructions by an old woman. His
first trip, to retrieve the dancing bamboo, involves the male world of
Father Ogre. He succeeds in his purpose and escapes from Father Ogre
unscathed. In order to find the singing water, the old woman tells him
to go to the garden of Mother Ogre, a female world. Once again he
succeeds, although with more difficulties than his first quest posed.
His third goal, the capture of the talking lark, is the most dangerous,
for it is in the palace of the Long-Haired Lady. The female world of
Mother Ogre is not as threatening, for men learn during childhood to
deal with the maternal feminine qualities; in addition, Mother Ogre’s
monstrous nature prevents any question of sexual relations. The old
woman guide, a motherly figure, will not direct him to the Long-Haired
Lady’s realm. He rubs the fisherman’s horse hairs together, and a horse
appears. The horse is a masculine figure, for it is the son of the King
of the Jinns, and horses are a Freudian sexual symbol, representing a
phallic male energy. Clever Muhummad must now rely on his male
instincts and sexuality to deal with the physical attraction of the
opposite sex.

The horse tells him to kill a sheep and feed one part of it to each of
the two lions and two dogs which guard the palace. If he speaks to
them, he will be torn apart. The horse warns him that the Long-Haired
Lady will tell him she loves him, and if he responds, he will be turned
to stone. This is the first time romantic, sexual love is mentioned,
and it is seen as a danger to men. Speech is forbidden him because
verbal prowess has been the realm of women throughout the story, and as
a man, Clever Muhummad cannot compete with them, especially in this
female world. Clever Muhummad follows these instructions, but when the
talking lark complains endlessly, he loses patience and orders it to be
silent. He immediately turns to stone.

Sitt el-Husn feels her brother’s danger in her heart, another example
of “women’s intuition” and the power of sensitivity. Instead of crying,
which has been her previous reaction to stress, she sets out after him.
Significantly, she dresses as a man to do this. Her need for a disguise
suggests that decisive action is a masculine trait. It also shows that
women have the ability to assume the traditional male role, to act
decisively, if they can overcome society’s taboos against it. She does
not have the old woman’s help to make the transition between the female
and male worlds; her disguise, which she dons of her own accord, is her
transitional element. Along the way, she meets three ogres, all males.
She greets each one with “Peace be with you,” and they do not eat her
because of this greeting.

Once again, the power of women over speech is emphasized. The last ogre
tells her how to get to the Long-Haired Lady’s palace. She repeats her
brother’s actions, although no one has instructed her how to behave.
She knows the female world, and feminine sexuality is no threat to her.
Ironically, she behaves more cleverly than her brother, who is called Clever
Muhummad. He never does anything to support his nickname; he only
follows others’ directions. Sitt el-Husn must actively prove her
cleverness, for her culture is reluctant to attribute that quality to
women. As a female, she faces the obstacles of living in a
male-dominated society, so she compensates by being more clever than
her brother, to whom status and respect come more easily.

Sitt el-Husn captures the lark, and her brother changes back into
flesh. At first, he does not recognize her in her disguise; he is not
accustomed to seeing her in a role equal to his. Once she rescues her
brother, the twins return to the balanced male and female worlds that
they had as children. They are equals, mutually protective of each
other. Now that they have achieved a platonic joining of the male and
female worlds, the story can return to the king and the issue of
joining the worlds through love and marriage.

The talking lark tells Sitt el-Husn and Clever Muhummad to have a
party. The king arrives at the party with his dog and cat “children.”
The lark questions the king about these strange offspring and the king
repeats that it is God’s will. The lark then calls in the midwife, who
confesses the crime she committed with the sisters. The evil women are
condemned and burned. There is no mention of the reunion between Clever
Muhummad and Sitt el-Husn and their lost parents. The story
concentrates on the king and his wife, who are re-united and live a
long and happy life together, bearing many children. The king and queen
represent the culture; their strength and unity symbolize the strength
and unity of the society. In the beginning of the story, the king is
alone and miserable; two women have deceived and made a fool of him, he
is separated from his third wife, and he is convinced that the only
children he can have are a dog and a cat. A barren, ineffective ruler
means a barren, ineffective society. The culture is badly in need of

Sitt el-Husn and Clever Muhummad represent the energy and new ideas of
youth. The twins introduce a reconciliation of the male and female
worlds; the unity that this reconciliation brings strengthens the
culture. Once the youthful energy and ideas are integrated into the
society, the culture can progress and flourish. Sitt el-Husn and Clever
Muhummad have accomplished their function and thus are no longer
necessary to the plot, which explains the shift in focus back to the

In “The Promises of the Three Sisters,” the stereotypically female
sensitivity is a powerful asset, not a weakness. It is not weak to be
female; rather, it is weak to be one-sided. In the beginning of the
story, the king saw only the male world, and he was neither happy nor
fulfilled. Clever Muhummad was turned to stone when he could not master
the women’s realm of verbal power, and Sitt el-Husn did not accomplish
anything on her own when she cried at every hardship. Men need to learn
to express their emotions better and to develop their negotiation
skills instead of acting first, thinking later. Women need to learn to
act more decisively and to not completely depend on men to get things
done. The story proves that men and women are capable of playing each
other’s usual roles. However, men are more reluctant to do so, which is
represented by the paranoia in the story toward female sexuality. The
female protagonists in the story—Sitt el-Husn, the old woman, and the
third sister—are asexual, while the sexually potent older sisters and
the Long-Haired Lady are all seen as dangerous. The men in the story
feel that “giving in” to a woman sexually is allowing that woman
control over them, and they are not ready for women to be equal to
them. “The Promises of the Three Sisters” was told in a male-dominated
society, and thus it begins with negative stereotypes of women: the
conniving sisters, the extremely sensitive Sitt el-Husn. However, as
the story progresses, Sitt el-Husn breaks the stereotype and is seen by
her brother as an equal. Shattering the male-female stereotypes is
necessary in order to achieve understanding between the sexes.


Yolen, Jane, ed. Favorite Folktales from around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986.