When Fairy Tales Fail Us

Fatima M. Jaffer

When a daughter is born into a loving family, she is cherished and treated like a princess and dressed up like pretty little doll with colorful plastic bangles and trinkets.

The beautiful princess is told fairy tales before being tucked into bed. Her mother speaks about the knights that saved Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White. Then, this little girl begins to dream of her very own Prince Charming and she starts looking for him as soon as she turns sixteen years old. Some girls get lucky and bump into him without trying. Others have to face mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and cousins who love them as single women —  until they hit a certain age. Then, some princesses find themselves unmarried or maybe divorced and still without children.

At that point, the fairy tales are over — unless you consider the types of mothers/aunties/cousins who are metaphors for trickster witches; it is often women who make girls feel miserable about the state of their lives. No matter how educated, talented and beautiful a single woman may be, she is always sidelined and frequently humiliated because she is unmarried. It seems that some women can’t imagine alternative realities for themselves or for their daughters.

I’m tired of fairy tales. We need new stories about our future that go beyond marriage saving us from a life of ruin and despair.

The stories we are told starts with a mother who tells her daughter that there is no point in her studying so much or so hard. Then there is the educated mother who helps her daughter acquire impressive academic education but who is always scouting for her daughter’s perfect match at the stake of her self-respect. Meanwhile, we wait for marriage before we can do things like travel alone or move out of the house. We get the message that marriage is where the rest of our life will take place.

Now many readers might say I’m being too harsh, perhaps unfair, because a mother is just looking out for her daughter. Yet we are often treated like a commodity or a burden when it comes to marriage after a “certain age.” How else can one feel when a mother literally distributes pictures to matchmakers around the globe while tolerating crappy conversation that she knows you can hear?

Let me share a personal example. A few years ago, this is what someone told my friend’s mother:

“Oh, I only know men from UK and USA and they want to marry someone who lives there but I will do my best. Ask your daughter to email me her profile and a picture without hijab. I will try but may Allah opens her fortune and it must be so worrying for you.”

It seems female relatives do this en masse. Every occasion they spot the family’s Single Girl at family gatherings, they will wish them good tidings and then pray for her marriage.

The newly married woman or younger married woman will tell the single girl how awesome their life is now that they have a husband. They will speak to her about the gifts that he brings to them and just how fantastic a life they are having.

And, they will utter The Sentence:

“You don’t know how it feels but you will soon Insha’Allah once you get married”
This is when you want to tell her something snarky to her face, but you don’t because that isn’t considered polite. The comment seems so backhanded.

It took me years to shake these things off, to realize that my own journey as a single woman is completely legitimate. I value my education and my ability to live as I want to live, and I would enjoy the experience a lot more if women didn’t consistently judge my existence based on the presence – or lack of – a man in my life. I hope to have one by my side one day, Insha’Allah, but riding solo has great merits.

Mothers, sisters, cousins, aunties and all gendered parties involved could try and accept things the way they sometimes are: not every girl is going to get married. And if she does, she may not get married at the time you think is best for her nor to whom you think she should marry. For these circumstances, we have to give our daughters an ability to face whatever future awaits them.

This is what I want to say to all the women out there who keep throwing the fairy tales at us: give it a rest. Why not tell us about Helen Keller when you tuck us to bed. Share Keller’s example about how being disabled worked to her advantage. Because of what was perceived as a flaw or impediment, she was able to achieve things in her era that many physically-abled women couldn’t do.

Fathers, tell your princesses about what things made Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” different from the pretty damsel in distress. Assure your girls that they will grow up to be strong women. Give them the confidence that they can become the next Indra Nooyi, the current chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, the second largest food and beverage business in the world.

The reality is that women aren’t going to have it all. A few of us might have fulfilling marriages and careers and great children; most of us will carry some burdens and we will have to make some compromises. Such is life. But we need stories that show us how to accept all outcomes.

Teach your daughter to live outside of fairy tales. Give her the option of becoming her own superhero.

Fatima Mohammad Jaffer is a thirty-year-old single woman who believes that one should never allow their lives to be driven by what people say and should go by what our objectives, passions and ideals are. She feels one should never downgrade ideals in the moment of weakness. Fatima is a graduate in arts and a Montessori Diploma holder with keen interest in writing. Read her previous Loveinshallah essay here.

13 Comments on “When Fairy Tales Fail Us”

  1. I agree!! Being single is fun! You know, sometimes I feel, socialising (more so facebook) is turning into an evil thing. People live their lives to impress upon others. Wishing the family happy birthday on facebook, posting how happy you are because your husband treated you with a holiday, what gift you got, etc. are all means to let others know how happy you are, whether you are actually happy or not is not important anymore. I mean I have seen people taking shots after shots for that perfect profile picture not realising that they just missed out on spending quality time with the ones they love!

    I wouldn’t believe anyone who gives only rosy images of marriage. Not because marriages are not happy, but because it is not always rosy. And secondly, the only aim of a person is not to get married and bore children. It is to enjoy every phase of your life.

    You are so right in saying that instead of those fairy tales, we should teach about hellen keller, margaret thatcher!

  2. Yara says:

    I totally agree, actually just kind of blogged about it. It is no different here in South Africa. But I don’t only blame fairy tales. I blame the Islamic stories we are told as children, which actually has no basis but is passed for one generation to the next. Things like “married people get more sawab than single people” Yes! Someone actually said that. Or things like everybody’s partner is put out. I’m not saying that it’s not true, I’m saying that some people don’t get married. It’s a sad strange world we live in.

  3. Zaidah says:

    Jazakillahu khairan sister! Even if I’m only 25 and I supposedly have a long way to go and many things to experience, I do see that some people have that clout to put me down when they know I am still solo. Questions like “when are you getting married?” or “is there someone in your life?” bothers me deeply because it infringes on my privacy..

    I do embrace the conception of marriage and love and all that wonderful stuff, and like you I hope to be someone’s someone special, but when people make it sound like a thing to cross of a To Do list, it breaks me.. It’s as if having no man in my life attests to my lack of desirability, or attractiveness. Yes, the desire for companionship is human. but trust me, I have tried multiple times in the past few years by being open to prospects to no avail. Honestly it leaves me almost hopeless at this point. Since when a woman’s sense of wholeness and being complete become tied to her marriageability, and her ability to snag a man in her life?

  4. Minnie says:

    Very well written and thought provoking! Beyond the fairy tales lay women who dream of more then just magical marriages! The strength of a woman is amazing, she can have it all or choose not to; whatever the outcome she will forever remain strong! Lovely and engaging post. Thank you.

  5. Lala Rukh says:

    I can’t agree more. Beside those traditional fairy tales, we have to teach our daughters the harsh realities…. Whether in a sugar coated way or the hard way. We have to tell them what we parents will think when they ll get educated…. that the point of getting education is to find a good match for them and that their aim is to educate them and then find a life partner that’s all. I really am sad about this thinking that has settled down in our minds….. call it an influence of religion or society… but parents and children have no useful communication bond now-a-days. Children can’t tell their parents what their thoughts are about anything and vice versa. Your article was excellent.

  6. afsh says:

    i agree with u line per line. infact it seems like u just nailed it. esp. the aunties bit. yes about all that should be taught but if u teach all that to ur daughter how will she survive marriage 😦 u can’t guarantee she won’t marry. n to be honest those who always tell his great everything is just envya
    single lady v much n want to put her down too

  7. k says:

    I don’t think a woman’s life should be defined by whether or not she is married … she should be able to write her own fairy tale where … she can make her own choice to have a prince or to rule solo. or have it all or not.

  8. vanee says:

    I loved your article!!! Its an amazing piece of writing. I’m 24years old and my mom and aunties keep telling me abhi shadi karlo bad main nahi hogi. But i believe marriage is all about fate. Im not mentally prepared for shaddies and all. I love being single and im happy with my life.

  9. KristaSpyFiz says:

    This kind of unfair expectations that most society put on us women bothers me. I loved my father (he is gone) and all my three brothers, but I dislike what they expect of me especially expectations for being a woman, or a sister. I am from a Christian family, one sunday in my early twenties before church my father asked me why I was wearing a suit-pant set to go to church. It was okay back when I was younger, before I left home, but then I guessed something changed within the church, and girls/women were supposed to wear long skirts or long dresses. I ignored him, and it didn’t bother me then. But when I think of it know, along with other society expectations toward women, I get offensive. Why do women treated as a second class citizen? Anyway, I am married with two teenage children. I feel bad for some of my high school and college friends who are still single and are trying so hard to find their matches. It is hard for them to be happy and to enjoy their independence because of what everybody else asked of them. I want to shout “Let them be!, they don’t have to be married to earn your respect. Just respect them!”

  10. Alan Howard says:

    Absolutely excellent article. It also indirectly sheds light on the gender differences in this area. Thank you Fatima.

  11. Kulsoom K. Ijaz says:

    I appreciated this post a lot. ❤

  12. kiran .. says:

    Asak !!
    First of all I love your article. It’s very inspirational.
    It’s like someone has written about my sufferings