Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Women and witchcraft: the feminization of black magic accusations

Women in parts of Africa and Asia are still commonly accused of witchcraft, although none among the accused has yet displayed any supernatural powers. The paradox inherit in witchcraft accusations is that powerless individuals (often members of powerless groups) are believed to have supernatural powers so advanced that they could change their socio-economic status (with only a wiggle of their nose), but they do not change their status, and remain powerless to protect themselves even from persecution. Witchcraft accusations are often made against women and are not based on reason (often thriving within their own internal logic). Instead, they are the manifestation of strong emotional discomforts within a society.

The feminization of witchcraft accusations is no surprise, however, since women represent the marginalized gender, whose marginalized status constantly poses a threat to the disproportioned balance of power between the genders. Even in earlier centuries, witchcraft accusers targeted women and protected men. One Scottish writer in 1785 accused various women of witchcraft, but “in justice add[ed] that the husbands of these ladies are in general no conjurers.” He wanted to ensure that “no innocent person may suffer from [his] accusations and that the Lord of any such great Lady may not…suffer for the witchcraft of his wife.” Antinquo-Modernus, To the Author of the Lounger, Lounger (Edinburgh, Scotland), Nov. 12, 1785, Issue XLI.

The accusation of witchcraft against women is certainly not a novel phenomenon. Surprisingly, neither is the wholesale disbelief in black magic. Even in 1785, the belief in witchcraft was laughable. Our 18th century Scottish writer accused those women of witchcraft because he wanted to challenge the disbelief of witchcraft in his time. What persists over time, however, is society’s inclination to reach for witchcraft accusations against women as a tool to resolve societal tensions that would not logically or fairly have an alternative institutional or legal resolution. The accusations themselves are a last resort for maintaining a society’s status quo and power balance.

In our time, the belief in witchcraft remains rampant among well-educated middle and upper class people in parts of Asia. Accusations of witchcraft against foreign domestic workers are astonishingly commonly in Singapore and other parts of Asia. Audrey Verma, Black Magic Women: On the Purported Use of Sorcery by Female Foreign Domestic Workers in Singapore, in Negotiating Identities: Constructed Selves and Others 25, 26 (Helen Vella Bonavita ed., 2011).

The “maid trade” is predominately labored by women from poorer countries, some of whom are even certified teachers or nurses in their home countries. Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land 230 (2011). In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers earn $600 (US) per year and work (and live) under dangerously abusive conditions. Id. One worker was abandoned at a local hospital with two broken ribs after suffering “months of blows and kicks from her employer.” Id. Black magic accusations in the foreign domestic worker context results in the unfair treatment of a group that predominantly consists of poor women, and serves to perpetuate the exploitation of their marginalized condition.

Accusations of witchcraft serve the socio-functional purpose of maintaining the status quo within a community. Often, accusations of witchcraft serve as an indicator of societal tensions between groups of people – such as the threat of power realignment among classes or genders. Because the belief in witchcraft is irrational, it is grounded in strong emotional responses to those existing tensions. Thus, an accusation of witchcraft is the expression of both the existing tension between people, and their emotional response to those tensions.

Witchcraft accusations offer (problematic) mechanisms by which to resolve those tensions. In Ghana, for instance, women accused of witchcraft are often those who challenge gender roles by being overly eccentric, or threaten the class structure by inheriting substantial estates. These women present a gender and class tension in Ghanaian society that is largely emotional and without a legal or institutional resolution. Accused women are sent away to isolated witch camps – forever separated from their communities, families, and property. Witchcraft accusations give those with privilege a way to blame those who are oppressed for any misfortunes that the privileged face, all the while pulling attention away from the misfortunes of the oppressed that are perpetuated and often caused by the privileged.

The irrational nature of witchcraft accusations invites irrational and inequitable treatment of the accused. In 1789, on the Grain Coast of West Africa (where Guinea is presently situated), local tribes would prosecute all criminal defendants in fair and open trials, except for those accused of witchcraft. Witchcraft trials were always carried out in secret. Moreover, those convicted of serious crimes were sold into the slave trade, except those convicted of witchcraft – they were strangled and then their bodies were burned. Captain John Knox, Continuation of the Evidence before the Commons: On the Slave Trade, World, June 29, 1789, Issue 776. Today, witchcraft accusations are predominately made against women with multiple disfavored identities. As such, these already vulnerable women face inequitable and dangerous treatment upon being accused of witchcraft, and often are forced to flee their homes.

In conclusion, the feminization of witchcraft is no coincidence. Witchcraft accusations have heavily targeted women, and particularly women with multiple disfavored identities (i.e., noncitizen status, minority race, the elderly, the widowed, the heiresses, the eccentrics, etc.) In most cases, the accusation is the manifestation of an emotional response to a societal tension. Often, witchcraft is used to relieve tensions for the privileged because they have no alternative institutional or legal resolution available to them. However, the lack of institutional or legal solutions may be due to the blatantly irrational and unfair nature of the tension. For instance, tensions may be caused by the desire to maintain power balances against marginalized women. Since the accusations themselves are irrational, the resolution of the tension can often be dangerous and unfair to the accused women. Ultimately, the larger societal problem that allows the feminization of witchcraft accusations to persist into modern times is a structural misalignment of power and status between the genders and the classes.


KB said...

Prior to reading this post I was unaware that witchcraft accusations still occur in certain parts of the world. What is the law doing to protect these women? For example, is it legal under national or international law for Ghana to have witch camps? Are the witch camps illegal and the government ignores what is happening? Maybe one could argue that abusing women accused of witchcraft violates human rights or discrimination laws.

If there are no laws to protect those accused of witchcraft, creating new laws may be difficult as the female victims likely have little voice in government. In addition, if the culture’s belief in witchcraft is entrenched and is used to marginalize women, it will be difficult to convince those in power that witchcraft does not exist, and thus that any abuses resulting from accusations should be outlawed.

KSergent said...

I really enjoyed this post. It makes sense that women who threatened the status quo have been historically targeted to preserve male dominance and the norms of the existing order.

I am curious about your perspective on the Salem Witch Trials, in which women accused other women of being witches. It reminds me of the problem in modern society where women often put down other women. It seems like women are put into a “kill or be killed” bind; they either need to join in the witch hunt or they’ll be hung at the gallows.