2) Hardcore Muslims, women, and the world of the Third Crusade: How historically accurate is my portrayal of empowered females in the culture of the time and place?
The long answer:
So I guess there's this image of the Middle East, and Islam in general, being all Hardcore in their approach to women's rights in that they don't acknowledge they exist. It's certainly true that a lot of fundamentalist Islamic states aren't onboard with the whole equality thing (cough Saudi Arabia cough cough)—what with the whole forced marriages, and honor killings, and having to stay inside the house unless you're escorted by a male relative, and stonings, and so forth. But it's also true that this is the twenty-first century, and Assassin's Creed takes place in the twelfth. The two cultures are separated by nine hundred years, which is a lot of time for change—hell, there's been plenty of change in the past ninety years, what with various governments overthrowing each other and going "okay, veils on now" and then "nevermind, wear what you want" and then "whoops we changed our minds again, burqas all around" like some kind of bi-polar fashion police. The current perception in the Western world (which is where I live, so I'll be writing this from that particular point of view) is that Muslim women are abused, Muslim men are oppressive, and the entirety of the Middle East is a breeding ground for religious fanatics who think nothing of driving airplanes into tall buildings. A lot of this is true, but it's also missing a lot of subtleties, and there's a ton of arguments on both sides—but none of that really matters, because, again, AC is set in the twelfth century, and it's an entirely different culture from what exists today.
(Well, okay, it's unfair to say "entirely" since today's culture is descended from yesterday's, but just bear with me.)
I mean, take coffee. That's a pretty standard Middle East-ish thing, right? But coffee beans didn't start getting cultivated until, like, the 13th century, and then only in a few rare places—so coffee was definitely something that couldn't have been in AC1. In the sequel, Ezio meets a guy (Antonio) who introduces him to a new drink called caffa that's just making a presence in Italy—and that's like, 1500-ish, before the concept of coffee gets established enough in the Middle East for them to start exporting it to other places which are relatively close by; the port cities along the Syrian coast (like Acre) had been sending ships to Cyprus and Sicily for centuries.
For something more controversial, take Islamic law. It's called sharia and it's ostensibly based off the Koran, and the idea is to make a set of laws that are in accordance with what God (via Mohammed) says you should do. But the Koran is centuries and centuries old—and the law itself is a bunch of guys trying to guess at what Muhammad meant (if you're feeling charitable) or a bunch of guys trying to push their own agendas under the guise of religious piety (if you're not feeling charitable). If you take that down through the centuries, you end up with other people second-guessing those original guys, and more people third-guessing them, and so on, and after a while (not even a very long while) you can see how these laws get distorted. If you live in the United States: think about how the Supreme Court argues over the interpretation of the Constitution all the damn time. It's "but do you really think the Founding Fathers wanted to allow abortion" and "does this clause about free speech still hold if you're trying to incite panic" and "oh man, Jefferson would've been really pissed to see the states pulling this stuff on us, but maybe Madison would've approved." No one knows, because the original writers are dead; everyone's just making their best guess, and that best guess changes over time as different people come to power. So the laws under Saladin would've been different, and had a different interpretation and different degrees of enforcement, than the laws that are in effect today.
It's certainly not true that they were completely different, but assuming that AC1 is like Saudi Arabia except with hooded assassins would be inaccurate. Wine and alcoholic beverages, for example, are banned under sharia because Mohammed specifically said not to touch them (so, less wiggle room for interpretation there) but back in the twelfth century there wasn't much else to drink. The water had bacteria and you really didn't want to die from dysentery. So people drank wine and beer and no one cared that much, unless you were super-religious—I mean, look at Abu'l Nuquod, who filled an entire fountain with wine in Damascus which was very firmly in Saracen territory, and sure, he was evil, but none of his guests had any qualms about dipping their goblets into the fountain. And now look at Saudi Arabia, where you can get whipped for possession. (I promise I will try to pick on Saudi Arabia less, but it's so easy. :| )
So anyway, when it's not Brutal Islamic Regime being imagined into place, it's usually something like out of the fairy tales of old Persia, with sultans and harems and flying carpets, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that (because come on, who'd say no to a flying carpet?) but it's also not AC1. Harems weren't that sexy, first of all. Sure, if you're a sultan or a caliph or an all-around important rich guy, you could have a bunch of concubines (and no more than four wives) at your beck and call—but harems weren't just for your ladyloves, they were also places for the other women in your household, like your mother and your aunts and your grandma, and also for the children too young to be given their own rooms elsewhere. You'd go in and order your concubines to do a sexy dance for you, but halfway through your mother comes in and starts nagging about how you never visit anymore, and then your aunt tries to show you her new baby, except that he throws up on your shoes—so yeah, that's sexytimes ruined. Harems were a place to live first and foremost, and it was only later that they became a power fantasy for (mostly European) males, and I will stop here before I go rambling on about orientalism. (But Edward Said wrote a very nice book, which you should read if you're interested.)
Also, the fairy tale image is too…I dunno, homogenous? The population wasn't all vaguely-brown Muslim people. It was the Crusades, first of all, and there were plenty of Crusaders in the Middle East at the time—and not just the armies imported from France and Italy, but natives too: kings and princes who had been in the area for ages, like the Kingdom of Jerusalem or the Kingdom of Tripoli. And, of course, the big cities had plenty of non-Muslims: Damascus would get all the far-flung traders coming in from the Silk Road, Jerusalem would get two hundred different kinds of pilgrims, and Acre was a port city where ships would go to Italy and Egypt and beyond. There were universities there. They were seats of government. They had, like, cool stuff that attracted all sorts of tourists. These were big cosmopolitan cities, some of the most important cities in the world at the time, and there was plenty of diversity because you can't become a big city without being at the crossroads of something. (I hope that came through in the story. I tried to go for "big" and "cosmopolitan" in Damascus and Jerusalem, but Isra doesn't actually get out that much, sadly.)
Okay. Women specifically.
They were oppressed to varying degrees, but so were women everywhere else in the world, because this was way before feminism. There's a whole thing about the hidden woman—ie, if you were a woman, you stayed inside the house where no one could see you—but for the bulk of the population this would have immensely impractical; you can't afford to discount half your workforce when your entire economy is based on agriculture and you haven't invented tractors yet. If you were poor, you went out in the fields and did work like anyone else, woman or not, and you wore veils because this is the Middle East and it gets really hot in the middle of the day. On the other hand, if you were rich then you could afford to hide your women this way, and plenty of people did, but once you start talking about money then the rules get bent. Wealthy noble women did participate in public life: they had political power via influence husbands/sons/brothers, they could donate money for charitable causes like building schools or libraries, they could get educations and involve themselves in the academics of the day. They had to be discreet, but they weren't powerless. Of course it would take a very indulgent parent to put up with Rasha (and she's pretty much unmarriageable) but girls like Isra and Sarai would've been accepted, if you took out the part where they're secretly Assassins.
Anyway it doesn't matter if Isra is a believable character or not in the context of the Third Crusade; what's more important is that she be believable in the context of the Assassin's Creed universe, which takes a lot of liberties with history as it is, and that everything I write is internally consistent. So thanks for reading this, and sorry if it's not very organized since I wrote it on the fly, and please don't message me asking for sources because I'm too lazy to look them up because it's two in the morning. Oh, and feel free to e-mail/review/whatever with your own thoughts, I'd love to hear them, but please don't expect a reply. (Although if someone cares enough to start a forum discussion or something, I'll respond there, I just don't want to have five individual discussions going on, because, well, you'd rather have the next chapter, right?)