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 change.
      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 king.
      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.