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Women not safe in their own homes
Author: Juliana Claassens
Published: 07/12/2023

​The annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign ends on Sunday 10 December. In an opinion piece for News24, Prof Juliana Claassens (Department of Old Testament and New Testament) writes that we sometimes probe violent stories to help us make sense of a violent world in which women are not even safe in their own homes.

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Juliana Claassens*

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl whose mother made her a little red riding-hood…. All too familiar is this story we tell children. However, upon a closer look, this classic fairy tale is filled with violence, particularly against those most vulnerable, and probably should come with an age restriction.

​Central to this story of Little Red Riding Hood, who takes her grandmother some cookies and gets eaten, or almost eaten, by a wolf, depending on the version, is the theme of stranger-danger coupled with the fear of woods and dark places. Written down by the Brothers Grimm but representing various oral traditions told in the woodlands around Marburg (which I got to know well during our time in Germany), this most disturbing story is quite relevant for this time of 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Children (25 November – 10 December) – or grandmothers and young girls as represented in this story.

Since the Brothers Grimm immortalised this story, there have been several retellings, each representing the mood and the community's fears that gave rise to these adaptations. Most recently, I came across Angela Carter's short story “The Werewolf." This very short story has a long opening that sets the story in a country where the weather is cold and the people's hearts even colder, with numerous superstitions and stories regarding witches and all they can do running rampant. 

Within Carter's Little Red Riding Hood, there is a twist: the werewolf proves to be the grandmother, or the grandmother the wolf, as the old woman is chased off by the entire town who deems her to be one of these witches referenced in the first part of the story – violently beating and stoning her until she died. The story ends with the little girl living in her grandmother's house, where she prospers.

In an interesting opinion piece on Carter's retelling of this popular fairytale, Dino Mušić rightly notes that Carter's adaptation captures something about contemporary society in which the drive for the material often outweighs the need to maintain social and familial relationships, which may be more perilous than the Wolves who are lurking in the shadows.

Carter's Little Red Riding Hood is a story where violence is committed on various levels, where old ladies are thrown out of their houses and framed as witches. And where greed is the norm, and the young girl prospers at the expense of her grandmother. Key to the interpretation of this story is its introduction, which portrays a cold-hearted community whose stories have real effects, especially for women who are deemed Outcasts with violence soon to follow.

Carter's story helps us to interrogate the stories circulating in a particular community that brand women as witches and old hags, as angry and obsolete. In Carter's version, it is women whose cheeses ripen when those of their neighbours do not or whose close relationship with a black cat is considered sinister by her community. In today's world, different stories and conceptions may inform how women, particularly older women, are viewed. Regardless, these stories are not innocent, and as evident in Carter's story, they are directly connected to the violence committed against the grandmother by the community as a whole.

I thought of this retelling of an already scary children's story at this time when we are observing 16 days of activism against violence afflicting women and children in South Africa. Every day, women and children are killed by intimate partners and family members, rendering moot the argument of stranger-danger that is so often put forward by people when they speak about gender-based violence, and that also is at the heart of the original Red Riding Hood tale.

Perhaps Carter's retelling of this classic children's story helps us to also go beyond the apparent violence that makes the headlines to deeper levels of structural and cultural violence. In Carter's version, the wolves are not our biggest problem. The wolf is said to “let out a gulp, almost a sob" as it runs away. This wolf is shown to feel pain, and as Carter adds, “Wolves are less brave than they seem."

The 16 days of activism is an opportune moment for us to reflect on the ways in which violence lies within our homes and our communities. The ending of Carter's story offers a grim look at the chilling consequences if a community remains cold-hearted with little compassion and respect for life and how greed leads to those most at risk not feeling safe in their own homes.

We tell violent stories to make sense of our violent world, probing the darkest corners of people's hearts and minds as we seek to understand the human condition. These stories, from those gathered by the Brothers Grimm to those given creative new shapes by authors such as Angela Carter, help us think a bit deeper about who we are as a community and who we want to become. A community in which the little girls are free to venture into the woods and where grandmothers can live out their days without fear of being eaten or, worse, being mistaken for a werewolf.

*Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.