Women today enjoy an unprecedented amount of liberty and freedom, yet a brief look into the past reveals a history of persecution and villainization which still lingers. While the Western world may applaud itself for the progress women have made in recent years, “women as witches” is a paradigm that still lurks in corners of the world.
Women have been castigated for the fall of man as far back as the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Duped into eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge by the serpent (Satan), Eve tempts Adam to do the same, thus forever damning humans to lives of pain and suffering on Earth. The curse of Eve (and on all women) to suffer in childbirth and be subservient to men has been interpreted in various ways, and has been used to justify sexism and promulgate the belief that women are at their core lustful sirens.
The Virgin Mary is best known for the immaculate conception of Jesus - the son of God was born to her, a virgin. According to the Roman Catholic Church, this means that Mary is free from the “stain” of original sin with which we are all born as a result of Eve’s misstep. Further, Eve is said to be the mother of all humankind according to the flesh, while Mary is the spiritual mother of all the faithful. While Eve lost grace, Mary preserved it. Eve conversed with the devil for the ruin of man, while Mary conversed with Gabriel, for the salvation of man. It is also no coincidence that Eve is often portrayed nude, big-breasted, and with long flowing hair, while Mary is depicted as matronly with her hair covered.
Women are still battling these roles today as they strive to toe the line between being pure and motherly, or a lustful prostitute. This dichotomy, also known as the “Madonna-Whore” complex, has left women faced with a Hobson’s choice, unable to express themselves fully without confronting the possibility of criticism and contempt. Indeed, in 1968 feminists protested at the Miss America pageant to demand that women no longer play both roles at once. They noted, "To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope…" Whether pitted against one another or held down by sexism, women live with an almost paralyzing level of criticism.
There are consequences for women who are unable to achieve the contrived and stifling balance of appearing wholesome yet attractive to men, namely the construct of the witch. The Malleus Maleficarum (a medieval treatise on witches) stated, "All witchcraft arises from lust, which in women is insatiable." Witches’ lust was supposedly for the devil, echoing the story of Eve and it was believed that the devil could easily seduce women to join him. This explained why most of the accused witches were female. Women also possess powers that men do not: the power to bear children, breast feed, menstruate, and provoke erections. Such powers were not explainable at the time, making it easy to turn women into evil beings. Further, years of witch hysteria typically parallel times of societal struggle, upheaval, and change, resulting in scapegoating behavior targeted at women.
Today, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Papau New Guinea, women are again threatened with accusations of witchcraft. Over the past decade, areas of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Papau New Guinea have seen rashes of witch massacres which have included gruesome murders of women accused of being witches, and the mutilation of young girls’ genitals to destroy their “filthy” sexuality and to keep them “pure.” The attacks are mainly focused on elderly women living alone, and many posit that the witch killings are efforts to stamp out their unique sliver of independence. Other women are killed after their children or grandchildren fall ill, as it is believed that they have bewitched these sick children and are responsible for disease. One commonly held belief is that red eyes are a sign of a witch; women develop red coloration in their eyes due to cooking over open fires all day. The areas most affected also face extreme poverty and disease, and it seems that “witches” are again the scapegoats for these tragedies. Juliana Bernard, a Tanzanian woman working to end witch-hunting, sums it up,"Witch-hunting is the most extreme end of the extreme views towards women held by many men here…We have no rights, no property, and no say. Widows are the exception – and that is why they are targeted. Anything bad is blamed on us, and we can't answer back. It ends with us being blamed even for disease and death."
Female genital mutilation, too, appears to overlap with the modern persecution of women as witches in Africa. Girls’ clitorises are completely cut off and their vaginas so badly maimed that they are left with nothing but scar tissue, making sexual intercourse torturous and childbirth deadly. It is believed that if a girl is left uncut, she will grow into a sexually insatiable woman (read: witch). While old widows may be targeted because of their independence, young girls are targeted because of their sexuality.
With all the strides we’ve made, women today are still vilified and persecuted in parts of the world as they were centuries ago. Whether in the media as promiscuous Hollywood starlets, or as too fat/skinny, or in the African bush damning the village to starvation and disease, women face consequences (sometimes risk their lives) simply for being women. Their sexuality is controlled, criticized, repressed, and exploited; their independence is conditional, fleeting, or nonexistent. Are we still punishing Eve with our witch-hunts?
With Halloween approaching, think about the modern image of the witch: they’re either old hags or sultry seductresses. Both can be seen as representations of a woman liberated (from conformity?), yet both are condemned and punished.