The 21st century ‘witch’ hunt

// 14 April 2008

A few weeks ago, a 45 year-old woman accused of being a “witch” was rescued by the Indian police. It seems they almost certainly saved her from being murdered, but she had already suffered at the hands of residents of the village Bihar, who had “mercilessly beat her up, paraded her through the streets, tied her to a palm tree, cut her hair and smeared her face with limestone paste”.

News of this comes from Ultra Violet – a community of young, Indian feminists, which today carries a disturbing post linking this latest incident to a trend for beating and murdering women on the apparent basis that they are “witches”. Meena Kandasamy says:

The helpless ‘witches’ are hounded and punished by being stripped naked, paraded around the villages, their hair is burnt off or their heads tonsured, their faces blackened, their noses cut off, their teeth pulled out (they are supposedly defanged) so that they can no longer curse, they are whipped, they are branded, sometimes, they are forced to eat human faeces and finally, they are put to death (here again the Indian imagination takes over: the victim is hanged, impaled, hacked, lynched or buried alive). And you have got it all wrong if you assumed that such stomach-churning, toe-curling torture is done in dingy, shadowy places: vast, open village lands come in particularly handy as favoured locations, and the cheering crowd can fill a modest stadium. Where these women are left to live, they are considered inauspicious and malevolent, socially ostracized and forced to forgo their livelihood. Where they don’t end up losing their life, they are made to lose their mental balance.

Kandasamy explicitly links this with caste-based oppression, noting that the victims are usually Dalit or Adivasi women. But these women are also sometimes targetted when they, say, stand for elections, or otherwise attempt to assert their rights.

This is extremely disturbing stuff. Go read the full report at Ultra Violet, which does an excellent job of covering gender-oppression and, more positively, the feminist response, in India.

But I’d also like to call attention to this piece in the New York Times, arguing that one of the consequences of global warming could be an increase in this particular brand of violence against women, dressed up as “witch hunts” – although I take issue with the description of misogynistic murder as “bizarre”.

The piece argues that rich countries must do more to cushion the economic impact of global warming, in order to forestall even more gendered violence.

Comments From You

Maria // Posted 30 April 2008 at 5:34 pm

It is significant that the women accused of being witches are mostly older and of low caste.

Shea // Posted 30 April 2008 at 7:25 pm

I have heard of similar things happening in Nigeria and the caribbean, esp Haiti. I’m curious of the accusations of witchcraft though, I have a theory (one among many) that peasant women were the original physicians and scientists (Eve anyone? ), aware of natural phenomenon and obervant of it. Further they were the first to apply and record their findings and knowledge as medicine women and herbalists (also shamans). I wonder that the knowledge was also passed down between women. Traditionally there was a high mortality rate in childbirth, but if a woman survived that she had a good chance of living into old age and the knowledge with her (such as with the Ache tribe). I think that once knowledge became valuable and commodifiable (and the professions established) then women began to be persecuted as witches. You can see such patterns in the medieval times when the traditionally female physicians of Padua became replaced once the profession became lucrative and well established.

The fact that the theft of traditional knowledge, by biotech/pharmaceutical companies has increased over the past decade gives me cause to think it might have some connection to this kind of violence and oppression against women (in tandem with the historic oppression of women in the caste system and Indian society).

It needs more work as a theory. But I think the point about global warming is particularly significant, esp given some 70% of the world’s poorest people are women. Its hard to even envision the widespread and catastrophic impact climate change will and is having.

Sorry to derail the thread, just my wednesday afternoon musings……..Back to work.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 25 June 2008 at 2:01 am

if it was really about getting rid of the witch, would the stripping really be necessary? they can put much down to spells like hair being source of a power… and i suppose robes. *sigh* the mental picture of 60-80 year old ladies being beaten to death, and/or especially suffering the humiliating rituals, will be burning in my mind for a long time

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