A Central Asian Cinderella – The Tale of Bibi Seshambe

Photograph of Women's ritual in honor of Bibi Seshambe. Turkestanskii Albom, a multi-volume photographic work produced in 1871-72 under the patronage of Russian Army General Konstantin P. von Kaufman, the first governor-general of Turkestan. The primary photographers for the Turkestan Album were Aleksandr L. Kun (1840-88), an orientalist attached to the army, and Nikolai V. Bogaevskii (1843-1912), a military engineer. U.S. Library of Congress.

This Note, written a decade ago, accompanies the review of the Bodleian Library exhibition in this month’s Cultural Property News, which references the proliferation of Cinderella tales around the world.

In 1995, when gathering research materials in Uzbekistan for a book on Central Asian textiles, I located a small, hand-bound, typed volume that appeared to date from the turn of the 20th century. It contained a number of risola. Risola are guild texts associated with the crafts. They are not primarily the rules and regulations related to guild membership or the terms of training and apprenticeship that one might expect to find in a guild text, although risola do sometimes contain references to the structure of the guild organization and the tasks of the various guild officers, particularly the actions performed by the golib, a guild elder who supervises the rituals necessary for the correct performance of craft activities.

The majority of the texts of each risola that I have seen center instead on ritual activities, such as the recitation of verses from the Koran at different stages of the craft work, the lighting of candles at specific times, and the performance of other rituals in order to avoid accidents. Most importantly, risola recognize the involvement of God in the invention and execution of craft activities; craft skills are a gift from the Creator. Often risola contain the tale of a patron saint or holy founder in the development of a craft. For example, Bahauddin Naqshband, the founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi sect, is described in risola and in popular tales as the patron saint of a number of crafts that require high levels of technique and clever innovation, particularly pattern weaving. Other crafts are said to have been founded by persons who cannot be identified with actual historical figures. The patron Hazrati Burkh, known as the Drunken Holy Man, is linked to animal hair weaving in Bukhara, where his image is connected with the totem cult of the mountain goat.

The small book that I located contained several risola: a risola of the barbers, a weavers’ risola, and a tale not tied to any craft, but containing “The Story of Bibi Seshambe.[i] The text was in Uzbek.[ii]

What follows is the portion of the risola that contains the story. I have retained the original Persian and Uzbek words in cases where there was reference to an item or a person culturally specific to the Central Asian region. In these cases, I have added bracketed interpolations to explain the references.

“Kissai Bibi Seshambe Ona, Bismilla hir rahman ir rahim. Alhamdulallah rabbil olamin val okibatal lilmutakkin va salavotu vassalom ali rasulih muhammadu va oli va ashobihi agmayin.

Here is the book of Bibi Seshambe. It narrates that in Bukhara Sharif this legend is so celebrated and holy that if somebody wants to attain something or he has any innermost desire he should make a reverent donative dish in honor of Bahauddin Nakshband’s aunt and pray for himself, and his wishes will come true, if Allah wills it. The process of preparing of this dish is as follows: A woman who doesn’t stay at home should ask for flour from seven houses. A woman who stays at home should put four earthenware bowls with flour into four corners. Than she should take flour from them and prepare umoch [a wheat porridge] with milk. Having made a kulcha [a little flat cake] of three chapotful flour, she should eat this kulcha, sharing it with a widow and the widow’s daughters. She should not give it to a man. While doing this, she should tell the story of Hazrat Bibi and pray. If everybody does this, and believes it in their hearts, they will achieve their goals, if Allah wills. Hazrat Bibi Seshambe said that if their desires did not come true, she would be guilty.

There lived an orphan who suffered from her stepmother’s hard-heartedness. Every day the stepmother gave her some cotton and their cow and commanded her to go to the desert, spin yarn, and graze the cow. She could not spin the yarn and every day her stepmother caused her pain. One day when the orphan was grazing the cow and crying, her cow ran into a cave. She followed her cow and saw sunlit Bibi Muyi Safid [Lady White Hair]. The girl came in and greeted her. Bibi greeted her too and addressed her affectionately and asked about her life. The orphan spoke with grief and sorrow about her stepmother, and about her troubles and sufferings. Hazrat Bibi Seshambe took pity on the girl and said, “O my child. Every day, come to see me and I will bless you. Let your cow eat the cotton, and follow it, and gather thread.”

Then the orphan was glad and began to come there to see Bibi and get her blessings. Having been blessed she gave the cotton to the cow, followed it, gathered the thread, and brought it to her stepmother. The stepmother was surprised and could not cause pain to the orphan. But one day the cow was killed. The orphan went to see Bibi Seshambe crying, “I came to see your holy face and ask for help. What will I do now? My cruel stepmother will hurt me,” she said and cried. Having seen that, Hazrat Bibi mercifully comforted her and said, “O my child. Don’t cry. Take the cow’s bones and bury them.”

The girl did what Bibi Seshambe said. One day an akobir, a great man of that town, arranged a toy [a celebration, often a wedding or circumcision] and called all townspeople to this toy. All the girls and women went there. The stepmother gave corn and millet to the orphan and commanded her to separate them while she was at the toy. Than she took her own daughter and went to the toy. While the girl was sitting and crying a cock came and sorted out the corn and millet. The girl rejoiced and went to see Hazrat Bibi. Hazrat Bibi ask her why she came. The orphan answered that the town’s akobir had arranged a toy and all the girls and women went there and her stepmother did too.  “But I came to see you,” she said.

“O my child. Do not worry. If you want to go to the toy, do it,” Hazrat Bibi said and blessed the girl. There came angels from the heaven bringing clothes and golden adornments. They dressed the girl up and took her to the toy. Then they said to the akobir that the daughter of a Padishah [King] had come. The orphan was welcomed and led to the palace. There was set a rich and lavish table. The girl saw her stepmother sitting at the door. She sent her stepmother the dishes that had been served for herself.

When the orphan returned from the toy she gave her sarupoi [literally ‘head to foot,’ a term used to describe a complete set of clothing presented as a gift] to Hazrat Bibi and came home before her stepmother. But in her way home she lost a golden kafsh [shoe] and one man found and brought that shoe to the akobir. The akobir announced to all the townspeople that if that shoe fit any woman’s foot, he would marry that woman. But it didn’t fit anybody’s foot. One day he heard that there was a blind woman and he sent a man to her. The stepmother hid the orphan into the tanur [oven], and dressed up her own daughter to show to the man. But the shoe did not fit all the same. They could not fit the girl’s foot.

Second photograph of women’s ritual in honor of Bibi Seshambe. Turkestanskii Albom, a multi-volume photographic work produced in 1871-72 under the patronage of Russian Army General Konstantin P. von Kaufman, the first governor-general of Turkestan.  U.S. Library of Congress.

Suddenly the cock became agitated and began to sigh “to tanur.” The man was surprised and looked into the tanur, and he saw a beautiful girl sitting there. They fit the shoe and it was the right size for the girl’s foot. The man rejoiced and went to akobir to tell him the glad news. Akobir was very happy to hear the news. Doing honors he went to the orphan in order to marry her and he got married to her. The toy [in this case a wedding] lasted forty days and nights. Khazrat Bibi made a behest: “You have gained this happiness thanks to your diligence and the troubles that you have gone through. But do not get conceited and do not forget us. Now make osh [a generic name for a stew or soup, but applied to many food dishes with liquid content] a godly dish in my honor and tell your story to everybody.” She remembered the behest of Hazrat Bibi, put four earthenware pots with flour into four corners, prepared one kazon [cauldron] of umoch from that flour. When she was baking kulcha, akobir suddenly came in. Having had seen the osh, he said that she squandered his fortune. Then, having had outraged her, he spilt the osh. It came the time of festival and he went to the festival. When it grew dark he returned home. Akobir was remorseful of causing pain to her, took three adads of zamocha and put them into a khorgin [a two section bag, thrown over the shoulder or used as a saddlebag] When he had come home to assuage her grief, he saw that the townsfolk were anxious. Three sons of the Padishah [great ruler] had disappeared. They had looked for them for three days.

Suddenly one of the seekers saw blood dropping from the khorgin. When they had opened the khorgin, they saw three blood-stained heads of the three shahzads [sons of the Padishah]. At the very same time they pulled the akobir off his horse and put him into irons. Akobir asked them to give him some time, because he had committed a sin and he repented of that. “Let me go home and expiate my sin,” he said. They allowed him to do that. He came home and asked the orphan what kind of osh was the one that he spilt. She told him everything. Akobir repented of doing that sin and made a lot of donations in the honor of Bibi Seshambe and he prepared that osh too. When he had returned he saw joyous people and rejoiced too. As it turned out, when the Padishah had opened the saddlebags, he saw only three adads of zamocha.

Everybody who saw that was astonished and having heartfelt belief, all of them made donations in honor of Bibi Seshambe. If everyone makes godly dish in honor of Hazrat Bibi Seshambe, he will be blessed by her. If everyone knows Bibi Seshambe’s story by rote, Khoda t’allah [God] will alleviate his troubles and his wishes will come to be. He will achieve his goals and in the next world he will acquire respect and mercy. Insh’allah  t’allah omin be rahmatika yoh arhaman rahim.”

I was surprised to find a tale without particular reference to a craft within the text of the risola, but even more surprised to find that this story bore a close relationship to the western European story of Cinderella – since I was not aware at that time of the wide dispersal of the Cinderella tale throughout the world. Once I began to look up the Cinderella tales, I was able to locate a number that included similar elements – a cow that defecated spun thread in a story from Iraq (Wilson 1931:187), and many European, Russian, and Asian tales that involved the death of a cow and the preservation of its bones (although the tale in the risola did not identify the cow with the Cinderella figure’s mother, as in many others), and even a cock as herald and an oven as a place of concealment. However, it was not until I located a story collected by the folklorist Margaret Mills in western Afghanistan that I felt I had connected to a close relative of my Cinderella story.

The beginning of this tale, “Ash-e Bibi Murad” [the stew of Lady Murad] describes much the same sequence of the death of the true mother, the subsequent abuse of the heroine and conflict with a stepsister, a cow fed on cotton that defecates spun thread, and the discovery of a magical person in a cave (although in the Mills tale, the magical entity is a fearsome old woman). (Mills 1982: 180-192).

Additional elements not present in the Central Asian version of the story in the risola are the placing of a glowing star and moon (emblematic of female beauty) on the forehead and chin on the orphan child in the Mills story, along with the more general protection of the magical woman. In the Mills version of the story, the stepsister is sent out to acquire the same gifts, but fails to please the magical woman in the cave, and instead is cursed with a donkey’s penis that grows from her forehead and a snake that grows from her chin. I have not been able to ascertain whether similar events paralleling the marking of a female with male attributes (and the horror of the women listeners at such a terrible curse) are present in the version of the tale as it is told at women’s gatherings in Central Asia. It would not be surprising if such elements were eliminated from a more public version of the story for a male audience – but this is pure surmise.

The Mills story continues with the tale of the girl’s visit to the toy, the loss of the shoe, and the discovery by the ruler’s representatives of the girl hidden in the oven. However, an entire second sequence of events is absent from the Mills story. There is no reference to any of the circumstances in the Central Asian story in which the bride is abused by her husband when he discovers her preparing the dish in honor of Bibi Seshambe, the mysterious appearance of the heads of the king’s sons in the husband’s saddlebags, or the repentance of the husband.

For Margaret Mills, approaching the tale as a folklorist, the story was an unusual example of the association of a folktale with a specific ritual event – a much sought for phenomenon among students of folklore. The risola’s Central Asian Muslim tale is very similar, not only in the specific elements of the story, but also in having a powerful relationship to the ritual preparation of a meal in honor of a female patron, and in being an exclusively female event whose results were the granting of particular wishes and desires to the participants.

There is evidence that a number of peculiarly Central Asian elements of the story as told in the risola are present in current retellings of the story of Bibi Seshambe collected in Uzbekistan. There is a description of a related ritual cited in a recent article on women’s communal ceremonies by Deniz Kandiyoti and Nadira Azimova (2004:327-349). In a brief version of the story collected by the authors in Ferghana in the 1990s, the angry behavior of the husband and kicking over of the umoch prepared for Bibi Seshambe, as well as the substitution of the heads of the king’s sons for a food article (in this case melons) are an important part of the tale. (Kandiyoti 2004:341)

Some years after discovering the risola, I was able to spend several days with a famous Bukharan sazanda, Tofakhan Pinkasova. Sazanda are traditional performers at women’s gatherings. Tofakhan, like the majority of Bukharan sazanda until recent years, is Jewish, from the ancient community of Jews that have lived for centuries in Central Asia, sharing many aspects of Islamic urban culture, but maintaining their own distinct dialect and religious traditions. Sazanda are able to cross over from the Jewish to the Muslim communities; they are invited to participate in weddings, circumcision celebrations, and funerals. Like other sazanda, Tofakhan’s Jewish background did not prevent her from telling stories associated with specifically Muslim traditions or giving blessings that included recitations from the Holy Koran. Although today, sazanda sing and dance for mixed audiences and their role is the more neutral one of the paid performer, in the past their special role was as honored guests providing entertainment in the women’s quarters. Women especially needed blessings, as their lives were difficult, and they had need of strength to bear with the hardships of household tasks and sometimes unsympathetic spouses. The woman’s role was tied at many levels to the tasks of raising many children, going through pregnancies and bearing them without medical assistance, and suffering tremendous psychological stress through grief at the loss of children and spouses through illness. At the time when Tofakhan was first exercising her craft, many young Central Asian soldiers were dying during the Second World War. Women met in communal gatherings rarely, most often at toy associated with weddings, circumcisions, and funeral ceremonies. For the female guests at such events, these were not only times for seeing female relatives that they did not often encounter, but also emotionally charged events where women could experience release in more sympathetic and supportive circumstances than they might find at home.

Tofakhan was an acute judge of personality, temperament, and the psychological state of her listeners. She would spend hours at a gathering, telling stories, singing and dancing, and end her visit with the giving of blessings. She would recite these blessings in formalized, poetic form, sometimes giving a hundred blessings during a single event, but each would be specially directed to the solace and healing of the individual who received them.

Tofakhan described the rituals associated with Bibi Seshambe from the point of view of a folk teller knowledgeable about stories rather than as a participant. She identified the ritual as specifically Muslim. She said that although she could participate in such a ritual if she wanted, it would not “look right” if she did so. She said that every woman in Bukhara knew the story of Bibi Seshambe, but that only Muslim women participated in the ritual and made the special meal. They did so in order to obtain the fulfillment of wishes.

According to Tofakhan, the special meal was part of a dastarkhan (literally, a tablecloth spread on the ground, but also used to refer to a whole multi-course meal) shared by a group of women. Initially, bowls of wheat, raisins, apricots, and a wheat pudding are placed on the corners of the dastarkhan. All the women have bowls and spoons. The meal is interrupted several times for prayer and readings led by an older woman participant known as an otin. Otin are religiously educated women who officiate at women’s gatherings and often provide religious education to young girls (Kandiyoti 2004: 334). According to Tofakhan, the otin read verses about God, Mohammed, and Moses as part of the ceremony.

I was not able to ask Tofakhan for a complete recital of the tale as she knows it, but she did – with great verve – tell the part of the story in which the stepmother hides the orphan in the oven, and the cock flies to the top of the tanur, and cries out, “To the tanur, the bolor in the tanur!”, lines very reminiscent of those in Mills’ story.

Each of the four versions of the stories, the turn of the century risola, Mill’s Afghanistan tale, Tofakhan’s recital, and the version described by Kandiyoti and Azimova, are firmly bound to a specific ritual. They inhabit a special place in in the culture of eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, in which women interact communally at a point of confluence between popular tradition and organized religion, and with the exception of including the tale in the risola weavers’ guild text, with the overt exclusion of males. The resilient nature of women’s propitiatory ritual encouraged its survival despite the seventy years of hostility of the Soviet state to religious activities and the active discouragement of communal activities unrelated to national or officially sanctioned holidays. Today, women’s combined social and religious activities appear to remain an important part of the communal social network in spite of the pressures of the current government’s anti-Islamic posture, and seem even to be capable of tenacious resistance to the increasing modernization and gender mixing of other social activities.


Wilson 1931, Arnold Wilson, “The Poor Girl and her Cow,” Folk Tales of Iraq, Dover Publications, 1931.

Mills 1982, Margaret A. Mills, “A Cinderella Variant in the Context of a Muslim Women’s Ritual,” in Dundes, Alan, Cinderella, A Folklore Casebook, Garland Publishing, Inc, New York & London, 1982, pp.180-192.

( See also: Margaret Mills, “Sex Role Reversals, Sex Changes, and Transvestite Disguise in the Oral Tradition of a Conservative Muslim Community in Afghanistan,” in Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture, edited by Rosan A. Jordan, Susan J. Kalcik, Univrsity of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1985)

Kandiyoti 2004, Kandiyoti D.; Azimova N., “The communal and the sacred: women’s worlds of ritual in Uzbekistan,” Kandiyoti D.; Azimova N., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2004, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 327-349(23), Blackwell Publishing.

[i] Literally, “Lady Tuesday.” In Central Asia, days are numbered in sequence after Friday, Juma (Juma, Shambe, Yakshambe, Dushambe, Seshambe, Charshambe, Panjshambe). In Iran, the rendering is often Bibi Seshanbe.

[ii] Translation was done by my friends at ABA Company, a professional business service in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.


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