Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The modern witch hunt

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.


Rose Sawyer said...

This blog post reminded me of an article [1] that a friend recently sent to me.

The article, which bears the tongue-in-cheek title "All the Single Ladies," is about author Kate Solick's struggle to balance "autonomy and intimacy," and her eventual conclusion that traditional gender roles just aren't for her. Her quest for self-actualization eventually leads her to "the Begijnhof," a Dutch collective founded "in the mid-12th century as a religious all-female collective devoted to taking care of the sick.” At that time, “[t]he women were not nuns, but nor were they married, and they were free to cancel their vows and leave at any time. Over the ensuing centuries, very little has changed. Today the religious trappings are gone (though there is an active chapel on site), and to be accepted, an applicant must be female and between the ages of 30 and 65, and commit to living alone. The institution is beloved by the Dutch, and gaining entry isn’t easy. The waiting list is as long as the turnover is low."

Clearly, the author believes that the Begijnhof is a mecca of sorts – a utopian alternative to conventional social structures and the expectations that go along with them.

I started thinking about the concept of women, living in a collective, without male partners and all the trappings of family life, and I felt – confused. Aspects of it felt comforting and liberating. But it also struck me as antisocial, a little heretic.

Like the elderly African women who live alone, the women of the Begijnhof challenge an established social order. Refusing to be either madonnas, or whores, perhaps women like these are our modern day witches.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/5/#.Tp9Nh_MWEhA.mailto

Rose Sawyer said...

Here is another interesting article by the same author chronicling modern women's alternatives to traditional marriage:


Caitlin said...

This reminds me of a sociology class I took in undergrad. It was entitled "Race, Class, Gender, and Disney." We basically watched Disney movies and dissected their use of stereotypes.

One group of articles I found particularly interesting were those that identified three distinct female characters in Disney movies. All of their roles/characterizations centered around sex and power.

The first was the virgin. Think Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. Young, helpless, and naive, she was basically there to be protected by a man.

The second was the sexual and powerful middle-aged woman. Think of the various witches. Or Cinderella's step-mother. This woman exists outside of a world of men. She tries to do it all by herself, and ultimately fails. She is evil and irrational. She does not know how to deal with her power.

Finally, there is the maternal grandmother. Think Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. These were all post-menopausal, highly maternal women whose lives revolved around those around them. They were totally selfless, and did not seek any power whatsoever.

Sometimes I think these three analogies can be seen in many other areas of popular culture--I can't help but see the characterization of many women politicians as similar to the second, sex hungry, powerful woman.

KayZee said...

Alright, this may be a bit off-topic, but the mention of Halloween and the comments regarding Disney brought something to mind. Yesterday, I went into the local temporary Halloween store to search for a costume. Not only was I disappointed with the women's costumes (there was actually no surprise there because Halloween is always an opportunity for grown women to dress scantily), but I was especially upset with the children's section. I don't know what motivated me, but I randomly wandered through the "boys" and "girls" sections to see what trends were big amongst kids these day. Much to my dismay, I quickly realized that the "girls" section was severely limited. Walking through the "boys" costume section, there were the traditional super heroes and various occupations. But once I entered into the "girls" isle, I found only princesses and other "girly" outfits. The only "professional" costume was a "fire chief" that came in the form of a somewhat sultry dress. Since when do firemen wear dresses? Other than that, there was not a SINGLE police officer, doctor, or other profession. WHY is it that little girls are so limited to Halloween costume options? I almost went to talk to a cashier about it, but then thought better of it (I highly doubt that they have any say in it), but still, I was highly disappointed.

AMS said...


Thank you for bringing this issue to light. It is disheartening to learn that people throughout the world continue to label women as witches for the purpose of punishing women. I also like the fact that you consider the Madonna-Whore complex and the seemingly impossible balance expected of women.

Contemplating these ideas, I was reminded of a recent run-ins with witches. This depiction represents a potentially progressive approach to the idea of women as witches.


At the end of the summer, I began (re-)watching the 1990s television series, "Charmed." When I came across the series on my Netflix account, I saw the show as a convenient way to take a break from the grind and enjoy a little entertainment. Until I read your post, I never stopped to think about the fact that this television show (despite its cheesy 90s moments) features three, strong, female leads...who happen to be witches.

Playing the role of modern-day witches, these women are "good witches" who fight against evil. The show emphasizes the concept of a strong, more masculine female who rises to the challenge, engages in physical fights, and protects the world (or at least San Francisco). Yet, the show also follows the drama of the sisters' lives and highlights stereotypically "girly" interests like fashion and cooking. Additionally, the women struggle with accepting their responsibility as witches and frequently fall subject to the manipulations of evil (until the other sisters are able to save the day).

In the context of "Charmed's" representation of women, I think your characterization of a modern-day Madonna-Whore complex is quite on point. Even the fictional "Charmed" sisters struggle to find a balance between (as you quoted) "sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope…"

Thus, the show is clearly imperfect from a feminist perspective. Yet, I appreciate that the writers took a traditionally negative term, "witch," and turned it into an opportunity to emphasize the strength, endurance, and bravery of contemporary women.

AMS said...

Your blog post also reminded me another method by which societies have treated women as scapegoats.

Witches vs. Mental Illness

In the course of checking some law review citations, I happened upon the following account from William Pincus' note entitled Civil Commitment and the "Great Confinement" Revisited: Straightjacketing Individual Rights, Stifling Culture (See 36 Wm and Mary L. Rev. 1769 (1995)):

In 1860, Reverend Packard committed his wife, Elizabeth, to a State public mental hospital where she remained for three years. Reverend Packard was driven to this decision because Mrs. Packard disagreed with his religious views. Although Mrs. Packard may have suffered a period of mental illness at some point in her life, her relative mental health or illness was unrelated to her forced hospitalization. Writing after her release, Mrs. Packard compared her commitment to the mistreatment of witches in an earlier era:

'Had I lived in the sixteenth instead of the nineteenth century my husband would have used the laws of the day to punish me as a heretic for this departure from the established creed . . . . Much that is now called insanity will be looked upon by future ages with a feeling similar to what we feel toward those who suffered as witches in Salem, Massachusetts.'

(See id. at 1769-70 (quoting 1 E.P.W. Packard, Modern Persecution: Or Insane Asylums Unveiled 95 (1873)).

I agree with Elizabeth. Despite the fact that people in the twenty-first century are still learning how to approach mental illness, I know that her prediction was correct--at least with respect to my personal impressions. Mental illness is often frustrating and puzzling. Much like your account of women in Africa, a lack of understanding leads to the need to explain the misunderstood by blaming others.

Those suffering from mental illness are vulnerable to being cast as modern-day witches. This was the story of many women at the close of the nineteenth century. Like Elizabeth, these women were placed in mental institutions for acting in ways that the powerful males of society did not approve of. Instead of burning at the stake, they were confined against their will.

Although I do not know the current figures, I do not get the sense that women today are forced into mental institutions for challenging the status quo. Yet, women who challenge the status quo continue to suffer. Whether we're talking about domestic violence or the cruel jokes criticizing women on the political stage, it looks to me like the witch hunts continue...