Tuesday, April 26, 2016

V is for Violence against women

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

Here is the thing about violence against women in traditional stories: It is often portrayed, but rarely ever punished. Unless it was committed by another woman, e.g. a stepmother, in which case it is punished horribly. I have been trying to find stories where a man who beats/abuses a woman receives just punishment for it, either from the law, or from divine intervention, but it is hard to find any. Sometimes wife-beating is a joke or a resolution, and I cringe every time I hear one of those stories told.
Note: If you want to believe that all folktales carry the ancient, universal wisdom of our Ancestors, do not Google "wife beating folktales." It is a depressing lineup.

So, for today, I included both (kinda) positive examples, and stories that we should think about, and maybe re-imagine. 

The Woman and the King's Treasury
One of the more positive tales comes from a collection of stories from Syrian refugees. In it, a kind and little simple woman is abused by her husband, until one day he throws her out of the home. She wanders away, and accidentally witnesses two thieves dividing up treasure they stole from the King. She tells her husband, who takes the treasure, covers his tracks, and threatens her into silence. She decides to stand up for herself, and goes to report it all to the King - the thieves and the husband are arrested, the woman gets half the treasure, and she can live in wealth and peace for the rest of her life.
(Read this story in Timeless Tales)

The spirits of the hearth
In this Vietnamese legend, a childless couple quarrels a lot until the husband beats the wife in a fit of rage. She runs away, meets a kind man, and lives with him as his wife for a while. One day her former husband appears as a beggar, and she hides him in a haystack. Her new husband comes home and goes to work on the fields - starting by burning the haystack. Desperate, she throws herself into the flames too, and the new husband kills himself out of guilt. All three become Gods of the Hearth by the Jade Emperor's order.
(Read the story here)

The Siren Wife
In this Italian folktale, a sailor husband returns home after a long absence to find that his wife has become a rich man's lover. He takes her out to sea and throws her into the water to drown. Instead, she becomes a siren (it is implied that sirens are women who died from abuse of some sort), and spends her time luring men to their watery death with her siren-sisters. One day they lure her own husband into the sea, but she takes pity on him and saves his life. In return, he decides to save hers, and makes a deal with the fairies of the land to break the curse on her.
(Read the story in Italo Calvino's folktale collection)

The tale of Aso Yaa
I have mentioned Aso in earlier posts, but I am mentioning her again. In this tale, she is a poor woman lying at the side of the road covered in sores and ulcers, until Ananse comes along, sees the beauty in her eyes, and takes her in, miraculously peeling off her sores and making her beautiful. She lives with him as his wife, but when he goes on a long trading journey, he returns to find that she has been sleeping with other men. The tale at this point says that any man would have beat her for this, but Ananse was patient... They have a fight, and later in the evening Ananse shows up at a dance party where Aso is dancing, calls her out in front of everyone, and releases the sores from his magic calabash back onto her body.
This is a very complex story, and I am really tempted to play around with it. On the one hand, it talks of trust and betrayal, but on the other hand, it implies that a man who is kind to a woman in need can feel entitled to her body. There is a lot to think about.
(Read this story in West African folktales)

The Dark Men
In this Italian folktale collected in America, the abuse of a woman by her husband is described in great realistic detail, and witnessed by their little son. The man finally strangles his wife in a fit of drunken rage, after which Dark Men appear in the house and tear him limb from limb. That night, the boy find a trap door in his room, and takes a trip into Hell, where is told his mother is in Heaven, and he witnesses his father being tortured by the Dark Men in various ways for his cruelty.
(Read the story in this book)

The wife who would not be beaten
This is folktale type ATU 888A, known all over India. A prince will only marry a woman who agrees to be beaten every morning and evening. A woman marries him, but at the first beating she refuses to submit, telling him he has to prove himself first. When he fails spectacularly at a trading expedition, and becomes a slave, his wife rescues her through cunning and courage. The next time he wants to beat her, she reminds him of how she saved her, and he never attempts a beating again.
(Read one version of the story in this book)

Physician in spite of himself
Folktale type ATU 1641B. A husband beats his wife, and she takes revenge on him by telling the King he is a doctor, but he likes to hide his life-saving talents, and only prescribes medicine when he is beaten first. The husband gets a sound and repeated beating.
(See tale XCVIII in this collection, in German. Not all versions of the tale type feature the abuse-and-revenge storyline - in a lot of them, the wife is simply foolish. The motif number for the "will work when beaten" trope is J1545.1)

A reason to beat your wife
In this delightful Egyptian folktale, a man is told by his friend that he has to beat his wife at least once to teach her who is the "master of the house." In order to create an excuse to beat her, the husband orders her to cook a bunch of fish, planning to beat her for not preparing the fish the way he wanted. She prepares the fish in carious different ways, and while she is doing so, her toddler poops on the floor next to the table. She covers the pile with a bowl just as her husband walks through the door. He keeps asking for different kinds of fish, and she keeps serving them right away. Finally he says "shit!" in confusion, and she triumphantly lifts the bowl: "We have that too!"
(You can find the folktale in this book, and also other versions here)

Shout out: Joy at the Joyous Living blog has been doing an amazing A to Z theme on child abuse and sexual assault awareness.

What do you think about these stories? Would you tell them? Would you change them? How? Do any other stories come to mind?


  1. The Egyptian story reminded me of a news story where the Grand Imam of Al Azhar said that there is nothing irreligious about women hitting their husbands (abusers) back hard if the husband uses violence against them. Good for him!

    Liked the Syrian one too.

    In the Indian context, the whole war of Mahabharata hinges upon the abuse and attempted public rape of Draupadi by her husbands' cousins, which is avenged by one of her husbands during the battle.

    There are so many instances of husbands/ fathers/strangers cursing women to shocking levels of hardship for some minor flaw/oversight that it makes my head spin! (e.g. Sita exiled by Ram because his subjects were suspicious of her moral character, Ahalya turned to stone because she slept with a god who duped her by disguising himself as her husband, Shakuntala cursed by sage Durvasa because she did not run to wash his feet quickly enough...the list goes on..)

  2. I think I only like the stories in which someone gets severely punished for beating the woman.

  3. If is sobering the way abuse of women is treated throughout history, especially when a spouse is involved. Let's face it, domestic abuse was seen as a private matter by police even in the 1980's in the UK - just watching some old episodes of cop shows makes me cringe. I found the Siren Wife an interesting story, because it condones death as a solution to infidelity, but in the end there is forgiveness on both sides - it leaves me not sure what to think about it.
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

    1. Right? I have been over and over that story, and I would really love to tell it, but I am not sure what to do with it...

  4. What are "toddles" that poop on the floor in the last story?

  5. I suppose these stories are pretty illustrative of how women have been regarded throughout history. I liked the story of The Siren Wife. Maybe as a siren she can lure a lot of nasty guys to their deaths. ;)

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

  6. I'd like to say that, looking back, we've learned a lot about violence against women, but not nearly enough.

  7. I wanted to hate this post ... until the last hilarious story.

    -- Jaye @ Life Afloat http://lifeafloatarchives.blogspot.com/

  8. I'm so glad wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence are no longer socially acceptable, though I unfortunately know at least one person who seriously laments the fact that men are no longer allowed to backhand "uppity" women who don't constantly validate their position as the "superior" sex. This individual is full of other premodern, insulting, misogynistic ideas.

    I don't know if this counts, but one of my favorite Decameron stories involves a wife-beater getting his just desserts. Sismonda has been cheating on her husband, and when he discovers what's been going on, he runs off to have a sword fight with the lover while Sismonda convinces her maid to take her place in bed. Ferruccio, the husband, comes back and gives the maid the beating of a lifetime, complete with cutting off her hair. He then runs off to tattle to Sismonda's mother and brothers, but when they get to the house, they find Sismonda sitting on the stairs and sewing, not a scratch on her. Sismonda convinces them Ferruccio is a raging drunk and possibly did all this to some other woman, whom he believes were his own wife. She also tells them he appears still half-drunk now.

    1. Correction: The dirtbag husband's name is actually Arriguccio!

  9. In their version of the "wife-beater" tale Lieb und Leid Teilen (Sharing Joy and Sorrow), the Grimm brothers decided to do a much needed adjustment. When the husband tries to weasel word his way out after he is brought to court for beating his wife, the judges don't buy it punish him anyway

  10. The last one is absolutely fantastic!

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  11. The last one is absolutely fantastic!

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  12. A hard to read list but also a necessary one. Nilanjana has already mentioned the Indian epic Mahabharata where cruelty against women is visible ,hence it's violent. Then there is the implied cruelty in Ramayana, when Rama asks his wife to prove that she hasn't slept with her abductor by walking through fire. She has to prove her purity to him, her word doesn't count. He's the king and the protector of what is morally'right', so he has the right to show the world who is BOSS. Doesn't sound very different from what goes on in many homes, in corporations and in politics these days. Does it?

  13. Tricky subject matter. It is sad to hear that there aren't many stories out there where the person committing the violence gets punished. That's something we writers should work on for sure.

  14. i love your theme - some dark subjects, but so intriguing and opportunities to learn and grow. great job!

    The Really Real Housewives

  15. I think they are pretty horrifying and I would only tell most of them as horrifying examples of abuse.

    I notice that we can no longer tag blogger comments with our web. Too bad. maybe it will work with out the html...

    Finding Eliza

  16. I'm not sure I'd know what to do with some of the stories either. The Ananse one makes me shudder for the very reasons you mention. Then there is the siren story which, actually my first instinct is, what if she likes being a siren? Which doesn't even touch on the whole problem of the husband getting away with killing his wife.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  17. Love the last story. I had a cousin whose husband beat her. When my mother suggested she should cut her hair, she said that if she did her husband would beat her. My mother told her that when he did at least she would look good in the ER. The man beat her for no reason and she put up with it. So sad that these things continue to happen.

  18. I'm really so appreciative of all the gifts of this series and all your efforts in creating it. I've learned about so many new characters and stories, but even more importantly you've had me thinking more deeply about our roles as story tellers. This topic, violence against women, is a challenging one, and one we clearly need to do so much work around even today within all our societies.