Sisters and Brothers


End Violence Against Women

From a media advisory: UN commemoration of the International Day to End Violence against Women:

Women are beaten in their homes, harassed on the streets, bullied on the Internet. Globally, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in her life — mostly by an intimate partner. Of all women killed in 2012, almost half died at the hands of a partner or family member.

The International Day to End Violence against Women is commemorated worldwide on 25 November. The Day also kicks off the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an international campaign which runs until 10 December (Human Rights Day), inviting individuals and groups to mobilize and call for the elimination of violence against women and girls. This year’s theme, framed by the UN Secretary-General’s campaign UNiTE to End Violence against Women, is “Orange YOUR Neighbourhood”.

Horrifying attacks on women have been deemed newsworthy of late. We can hope that this is a sign of a new era of universal condemnation of, and a zero tolerance approach to violence against women, so that all women will be able to speak up safely, and in future, they won’t have to.

“What do fairy tales have to do with violence against women?” you ask. We all know that Cinderella was abused, and Snow White, and Briar Rose… But I don’t want to discuss that right now. I do want to look at what fairy tales tell us, perhaps surprisingly, about the potential for healthy relationships between men and women.

In “Hansel and Gretel” (Brothers Grimm), the sibling pair are taken to the woods by their selfish and cruel parents, abandoned and left to die. According to Heidi Anne Heiner of, in her annotations: “Hansel takes the leader role at the beginning of the tale, comforting his sister and working to save their lives. He is the dominant character while Gretel follows him. Later, Gretel will become the leader by killing the witch and finding a way home across a lake. Gretel’s growth through adversity is an interesting progression through the story.” When Hansel overhears his parents’ plot to abandon the children, he could easily have left Gretel to her fate, going it alone unencumbered. When Gretel knows the witch is preoccupied with eating her brother, she could have plotted her own escape. By the end of the story, each has used his or her strengths to bring the other along at a vulnerable time. Neither is a prop to the other. They are partners, full of filial love and respect for one another.

In “The Six Swans” (Brothers Grimm), a sister uses her strength and wits to keep her brothers connected to the human realm after they are changed into swans. The indefatigable love of the sister for her brothers saves them all, in the end. And the brothers, for their part, are truly grateful for their sister’s sacrifice, and recognize her excellent qualities.

In “The Snow Queen,” Hans Christian Andersen gives us a heartbreaking portrait of pure love between a girl and a boy: “Although Kai and Gerda are not biological siblings, they are bonded as brother and sister. In the course of their travels, they pass from childhood through adolescence to become adults—adults who remain children at heart” (The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, edited by Maria Tatar). Gerda goes to the ends of the earth to save Kai, who submitted to his elemental desires in joining forces with the Snow Queen.

"The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis," 1818, Oil on Canvas, Jacques-Louis David (courtesy of Getty Open Content)In “Brother and Sister” (Brothers Grimm) two siblings run away to the woods to escape their abusive stepmother. The sister and brother have only each other when the brother is turned into a roebuck by an evil enchantment placed by the stepmother on a brook from which his thirst drives him to drink, despite his sister’s intuitive grasp of the danger. This was the brother’s second temptation. The first brook, if he had not heeded his sister’s warning then, would have changed him into a much more dangerous creature (a tiger in some versions). The brother’s instincts endanger them both; the sister’s impulses are to keep him close, keep him safe, and to show him that his fantastic energy doesn’t have to lead to violence and chaos.

Fairy tales cannot be interpreted literally. Not all men are beasts, and not all women are mistresses of control. The brother/sister dyad is a balancing act, a marriage of carnal and spiritual forces, a holistic model of a healthy human relationship, a map of the human soul.