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.

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