October 09, 2007

The Woman, the Witch and the Goddess

THIS STORY is both old and new, traditional and modern. The scapegoating, finger-pointing and name-calling of those who are different, those who threaten the social order, those who happen to have a female face. In the past two months, there have been at least two instances of witch lynching in India reported in the mainstream media; I wonder how many more have gone unnoticed. The most recent one was in Bihar. A 60-year old tribal woman was accused by villagers in Bihar of practicing witchcraft and beaten to death by them. Apparently, her ’spells’ couldn’t cure their mindsets.

A witchcraft practitioner identified her as the one who was responsible for all maladies of the village.

A case has been registered against six villagers under the Prevention of Witchcraft Practices Act. No arrest has been yet.

I wasn’t aware that there was such an Act; Bihar’s is the first of its kind, passed in 1999. The name of this Act is pretty strange and belies the fact that it’s meant to protect those accused of witchcraft and punish the offending name-callers and abusers. A Jharkhand NGO, Free Legal Aid Committee (FLAC), campaigns against the practice of witch-hunting and offers aid to those accused.

An article at OneWorld South Asia explains how, unsurprisingly, old, widowed, or otherwise unprotected women are more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. It sounds too familiar — those who are not conforming in some way become targets.

Superstition is often the chief reason. This factor is strongly linked to the lack of medical care and awareness in rural areas. In absence of health care facilities, there is exploitation by ‘ojhas’ or witch doctors who profit from the villagers’ ignorance.

Land grabbing, property disputes and revenge are other major causes behind such accusations in most states. The above examples reflect that such labelling has become a common form of violence against women. It is now a pretext for suppressing women and gaining personal interests.

In many backward districts of Rajasthan, such as Dungarpur, Banswara, Kota, Udaipur, Tonk, Chittorgarh and Bhilwara, it has been observed that women who are mentally ill or show abnormal behaviour are often branded as witches and ill treated by society.

This issue is a very complex one: the co-mingling of ignorance and fear, greed and malignance. It sounds only too similar to all the dowry-related stories, be it harassment or death. One side, the majority, seeks to wield power over the weaker party.

It’s a coincidence that I just finished reading Paulo Coelho’s new book, The Witch of Portobello. For those of you familiar with his work, you may know that it is always of a mystical and penetrating quality despite his simple style. As a feminist, I am quite fascinated by the emergence of a distinct literary curiosity with goddess worship — Dan Brown’s fabulously popular The Da Vinci Code would also fall in this category. Could one go so far as to say that people are seeking alternatives to the paradigm of male domination on a large scale?

That’s what Coelho seems to be insinuating, at least to some extent. It is on the one hand, a response to the violence and destruction enacted in the name of organised religion and that male, all-powerful God. On the other hand, it is an appreciation, a re-valuation of the feminine as sacred, of the creative force as a motherly one. I realise this dichotomy is not entirely incompatible with Hinduism, which boasts many female goddesses. However it is interesting to see how this worship on a spiritual plane translates into reality.

From the gender perspective, it is difficult to get into the terrain of feminine=motherly, because this tends to stick women in restrictive roles and responsibilities with a lack of options. (Then again, perhaps these roles are only restrictive because society at large doesn’t attribute them with the worth that they’re due?) At any rate, I have difficulty rationalising an appreciation of feminine qualities — maternal or otherwise — because I am wary of gender roles. They usually tend to be more limiting than liberating. One passage in the book is particularly relevant here:

There are women who say: “I’m not going to do the washing up, let the men do it.” Fine, let the men do it if they want to, but that has nothing to do with equality. There’s nothing wrong with doing simple things, although if I were to publish an article tomorrow saying everything I think; I’d be accused of working against the feminist cause. Nonsense! As if washing up or wearing a bra or having someone open or close a door could be humiliating to me as a woman. The fact is, I love it when a man opens the door for me. According to etiquette this means: “She needs me to do this because she’s fragile,” but in my soul is written: “I’m being treated like a goddess. I’m a queen.” I’m not here to work for the feminist cause, because both men and women are a manifestation of the Mother, the Divine Unity. No one can be greater than that.’ (p182)

Without going into the details of the plot (because I do recommend reading this book), I’d like to bring up several points for discussion. If simple things are fine and good, then why do men get to do them less than women? Why do they get to go out, have fancy jobs and power and make the women do the housework? Also, most feminists say that gender equality would benefit both men and women, but the popular perception is that feminists are anti-men. And lastly, how is one to convince men that gender equality is in their favour, when they may be content with the way things are currently?

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6 comments to The Woman, the Witch and the Goddess

  • paulocoe

    Dear Bexband,

    Paulo Coelho got wind of your blog through aart hilal and wants to post this article on his blog.
    Paulo Coelho’s blog
    In case you have any restrictions, do not hesitate to write me on my email : paulabraconnot@gmail.com
    Have a wonderful day!
    And here’s a quote to ponder:
    “The warrior of Light perseveres in his desire,
    but knows he must wait for the best moment.” Paulo Coelho

  • apu

    phew. this piece touches a whole lot of different points. the last bit however – many roles traditionally performed by women have their own intrinsic value. no one can deny for instance, that raising children or caring for the elderly are worthwhile things to spend your time on. the issue comes in when women no longer want to do *only* these things. naturally, with only 24 hours available per day, they will have less time to do these, which means, for a balanced work-life balance, men must step in to do some of the traditionally female tasks. which begs the question. if they are truly worthwhile tasks (and I believe they are), why can’t men do them? while more and more men are getting involved in those areas, since they were never ‘paid for’, actually they were treated as low value, with lip service being given to their high value…

  • […] quality despite his simple style. …   This article is written by bexband. Please visit her blog to read the […]

  • Colleen

    Woman do worth while things? Man do some worth while things. Men do them, children do them, especially when women don’t do them.

  • within the country where women are worshipped like goddess, there is another India where the “ghar ki lakshmi” is brabded a witch and mercilessly slaughtered.
    Being an student of Journalism i have researched on this issue alot. Ironically, through a prevention of Witch Practices Act was passed in undivided Bihar in 1999, a low literacy rate and an ailing public health structure has made the law almost meaningless.
    at last on this blog, my take is that “whitch-hunting has its roots in gender injustice. so together we should take this issue seriously and must take some strong steps as Bexband has taken..

    Bexband i am with you, lets do something towards this issue..

  • 30 days of advocacy against Witch-hunts in Africa

    29 March to 27 April 2010

    The ‘witchcraft epidemic’ in Africa is fueled by religious extremism. Practitioners of traditional African religions, traditional healers, witch-doctors and Christian missionaries and religious leaders incite witch-hunts on this continent.

    There are comparisons to be made between Africa’s current witch-craze, European Inquisitions and American witch-hunts. Perhaps the lessons to be learned in Africa are the same as those that needed to be learned by Europeans and Americans; there is no ‘culture’ without human rights.

    All men and women, including Witches, have the right to live without being falsely accused, assaulted, persecuted or murdered.

    Say NO to witch-hunts in Africa!

    Support or participate in this campaign?
    Contact: paganrightsalliance@ananzi.co.za
    or join our campaign on Facebook for planning and action updates at

    This advocacy campaign is sponsored by the South African Pagan Council and the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, and supported by Pagan Federation International and the Correllian Nativist Tradition (S.A. & U.S.).

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