On Rethinking Fairy Tales

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On 4th January, 2018, a 6-year old girl was raped and murdered in Qasur, Pakistan. This instance of child abuse  served as a wake up call for a society which has been lax in its response to abuse and has shaken the collective conscience of the Pakistani nation. While the issue is in the spotlight, it is important to look at it from various angles, instead of just skimming the issue at a superficial level. Child abuse relates to neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse of children.  In this regards I believe there is a need to explore the role of fairy tales which are an important medium of inspiring imagination for children and have facilitated the normalization of child abuse.

For the past few decades, fairy tales have come under intense criticism for their underlying tones especially child abuse and neglect. Critics like Jack Zipes, Marina Warner and Maria Tatar have critiqued fairy tales, especially those of Brothers Grimm, which have normalized and overlooked child abuse in the name of a happy ending. They have also lamented at how these stories have socialized children to accept the abuse/neglect they suffer, without realizing it. So we have Cinderella (emotional abuse of a child by her stepmother and stepsisters), Rapunzel (sacrifice of a female child by her parents; imprisonment and mental abuse by a witch), Beauty and the Beast ( sacrifice of a female child to save the patriarch), Snow White (physical abuse which evolves into attempted murder), Hansel and Gretel (child neglect and abandon by parents, physical abuse and attempted murder by witch) and the Little Red Riding Hood (well established reputation of the wolf as a child predator), to name a few. Ironically, the endings also represent a harmony of the child with established notions of the adult world. Hansel and Gretel return to their parent, with treasures; a parent who had neglected and abandoned them and everybody is happy.

When we cross over to the Urdu equivalent of these Western fairy tales, there is a similar pattern of child/female abuse, imprisonment and normalizing the unpleasant past in the name of ‘happily ever after’. So while characters and names change, a common theme in Urdu folklore for children would be the kidnapping of a beautiful princess by a sorcerer/king/villain and her ultimate release at the hands of a valiant prince/commoner. It is only recently that we hear new stories of brave and adventurous female characters which are a stark contrast to the beautiful, but passive princesses from traditional fairy tales. So stories like Burqa Avenger stand out as an anomaly but have yet to have a major domino effect on our literature focused on children. It is important to revisit these fairy tales with a focus on the initial abuse and remember how this abuse will be played down and forgotten by the happy endings of the fairy tale. At a time when our nation is in a soul searching mode over the Kasur incidents, now, more than ever, we need new tales to lead us through our troubling times.

A knee jerk reaction would be to sanitize, censor and police folk lore.  Instead I believe that these fairy tales are still valuable today, even when they are targeted at a very young audience. Storytelling is a powerful and inexpensive method that can bring issues to consciousness if done constructively. If used sensibly, these fairy tales can be used for children to be informed of the dangers that lurk around them, and how to deal with them. Given the universal reception of storytelling to children, we can use fairy tales to instill values in them that would both enable them to be good members of society as well as survive in a violent and uncertain world.

There is also a need to challenge the dominant discourse by reframing of inner stories, myths and metaphors and using fairy tales to address violence and colonial stereotypes. Futurists like Ivana Milojević, Sohail Inaytaullah and Aleksandra Izgarjan have worked extensively with teachers, librarians, and children on the deconstruction and reconstruction of fairytales and myths in war torn Serbia. In a country that is trying to come to terms with its recent violent past, their work with children indicates that many interesting versions of a single story can be created as a method of creating peace-oriented worldviews and promoting diversity. As an example of their work, a young woman challenges the norms and proves that female sacrifice is not needed by building a castle – she goes on to become a successful architect. In another story, a girl’s fairy godmother prevents her victimization and takes her to another country where she works on creating a safe and gender equal society.

In my work with librarians and story letters in Pakistan, participants have come up with different versions of popular folk lore by questioning the assumptions behind the stories.

  • A participant of a story telling workshop, retold the story of the boy who cried wolf with the shepherd who cried for help when the wolf really attacked his herd. The assumption was that why do we need to spread the message of repeated lies, and turning society immune to cries of help, before learning a lesson. Why can’t we have the truth the first time around?
  • A female participant retold the story of Red Riding Hood especially the role of the grandmother who domesticates the wolf before Red Riding hood visits her.
  • One female participant questioned as to why we need to retell stories, if abuse is already prevalent in our society. Why don’t we use these fairy tales to instruct our kids about the dangers prevailing around them and how to tackle them? This is a policy directive which needs to be taken seriously and used to sensitize children and their caretakers on the dangers lurking around them.

And finally we need to give our children the ‘right’ to change and reframe stories. We live in a society where there is no dearth of things which have been deemed sacred. If we want change to happen, then we will have to reframe deeply embedded social narratives. We could start this by situating folklore as something which can be meddled with. Children, with their innocence and exuberance, have an enormous reframing potential while telling a story and I have always been amazed at how remarkably children comment on reality. After all it was a young child who audaciously commented that the emperor has no clothes.

Umar Sheraz is a futurist based in Pakistan and can be reached at usheraz@gmail.com. This blog originally appeared on Pak Tea House Blog and has been republished with permission. 

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