Today we share with you a folk story. Folklores and fairytales are the earliest form of education, embodying collective wisdom and memory of a community through each retelling. It is a form of living history that allows the audience and storyteller to reinterpret and critically reflect about meanings and power in this world, and our places in them.
Because they are told to us from a very young age, they also play a big part in shaping our values and ideas of gender roles: princesses wait to be rescued; princes kill monsters; beauty and deformity being clear signs of good and evil.
But there are also many folklores and fairytales that speak about courage, resourcefulness and empowerment of the less powerful. Find these stories in your culture and share them. Or retell a popular folklore by changing the unequal social norms that textures the story, and by turning its gendered stereotypes on its head.
Help us create a culture that is free from violence against women, starting from folklores and fairytales that speaks of equality and empowerment. Take Back the Tech!
-------------Tale of Two Sisters: Bawang Merah & Bawang Putih
In a village, by the river at the edge of the forest lived a Mother, Mak Kundur, and her two Daughters, Bawang Merah and Bawang Putih. Bawang Merah was pale, quiet and beautiful, and the one more loved by Mak Kundur. Bawang Putih was brown, active and equally lovely, but somehow, she was always a little ignored by their Mother. Being strong and hardworking, Bawang Putih didn’t mind, and took it upon herself to take care of all the work that needed to be done.
In the mornings, she picked plants and herbs from the forest for food and medicine. In the afternoons, she cooked hot and wholesome meals for the family. In the evenings, she cleaned, washed and swept. Bawang Merah sometimes remembered to help, but usually she was lost inside one of the five books they owned, which she read and reread everyday. Mak Kundur who was still grieving over the loss of her husband would find some comfort in combing Bawang Merah’s long black hair while she read out loud. So they passed their days, seldom talking, each absorbed in their own routines.
One evening, while Bawang Putih was washing their clothes by the river, one of her mother’s sarong was carried away by the current. Knowing that they already had very little, Bawang Putih followed the piece of cloth along the river to try and find it. Eventually, the river flowed into a cave and she followed in. There she met an Old Woman.
“Gentle Makcik, have you seen a piece of cloth that came floating in? It belongs to my mother and she does not have much.”
The Old Woman replied, “Yes, I have seen it. But before I return it to you, can you help me with some tasks? I am an old woman, and my strength is not as before.”
Bawang Putih immediately agreed, and went about collecting wood and fruits, weeded and tended to her small patch of vegetables, swept and cleaned the cave. The Old Woman was so pleased with her hard work that she praised her affectionately and gave her a warm and loving hug every time she was done with each task. Bawang Putih missed such comforts very much, but did not realise it. Longing for more, she offered to do more and more tasks for the Old Woman.
Meanwhile, days have passed and Bawang Merah and Mak Kundur became worried with Bawang Putih’s absence. At first, they were more concerned about getting used to the work that she usually did. Later, they began to miss her presence and the way she would whistle while she worked.
Bawang Merah who read all those books knew how stories went. She knew she would have to go and rescue Bawang Putih from the magic she is entrapped in. So she equipped herself with a poem, a thumb of young ginger and a silver fish, and went in search of her sister. It has been so long since she has been to the forest, and she enjoyed the sunlight and the wind and the sound of insects and birds around her.
Before long, she came across a mousedeer. “Sang Mousedeer, did you see my sister? She is brown, whistles while she works and is as beautiful as the sun.”
The mousedeer replied, “Yes, I have seen her. But I am busy in a match with the Crocodile. If you can give me a riddle that will stump him for awhile, I can take you to her.”
Bawang Merah pulled out her poem, which was a form of pantun teka teki, and gave it to the mousedeer. The mousedeer was overjoyed and recited it to the Crocodile, then took Bawang Merah to the cave by the river. There she found the Old Woman and her sister.
“Bawang Putih, here you are. Please come home with us.”
But Bawang Putih did not seem to hear her. Bawang Merah turned to the Old Woman and begged her to release her sister.
The Old Woman replied, “I am not keeping her here but she cannot hear you because now her ears are warm but your mouth is cold. Your words sound like nothing but distant whispers.”
Bawang Merah took her thumb of ginger and chewed and when the heat from the ginger burned her tongue and her throat she cried,
“Bawang Putih, here I am. Please come home with us.”
Bawang Putih turned around in surprise, but could not seem to see her.
The Old Woman said, “I am not keeping her here but she cannot see you because now her eyes are hot but your blood is cold. You are like nothing but a shivering shadow.”
Bawang Merah took out her silver fish, slit it open and ate its roe and liver and when her fingers were stained pink and her stomach hot she cried,
“Bawang Putih, here we are. Please let us go home together.”
And finally, Bawang Putih can see and hear her. For the first time in a long time, they held each other tight in a loving embrace.
The Old Woman gave Bawang Putih a large pumpkin for her kindness, and when Bawang Merah and Bawang Putih returned home, Mak Kundur so missed her daughters she ran to them, comb and tears forgotten. In the haste of their embrace, the pumpkin crashed to the ground, broke open, and grew into a tree, and the tree bore heavy red fruits that tasted like sweet fire.
- Adapted from a Malay folk tale from the Malay Peninsular and Indonesian Archipelago by Jhybe for the Take Back the Tech! campaign.