Published on The Daily Femme – Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011
Contributed by Annamarya
On Monday, Indian Shaman Bhagwan Deen, along with six villagers, were arrested for allegedly rounding up women in central Chhattisgarh state’s Shivni village on Sunday and forcing them to consume a poisonous herbal potion to prove they weren’t witches. According to BBC News South Asia, an 18-year-old women was accused of witchcraft because she felt sick, and her father, along with other villagers, thought it was due to “an evil spell cast by a witch,” so they called in Deen (a village “ojha”, or witchdoctor) to cast it away. He, along with others residents, pooled together nearly 30 women to find the “witch,” and when his rituals failed to “expose” her, he brewed the elixir, which he then demanded they drink in hopes “the real witch would voluntarily confess.” Afterwards, the women who fell ill were taken to the hospital; 25 were discharged and five still admitted, including a 70-year-old in serious condition.
Still prevalent in east and central India, witch hunts are a gravely caustic violent practice that, according to Jezebel, is disturbingly on the rise, particularly in the rural communities of Chhattisgard, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Madhy Pradesh. According to Cornell University International Law Journal Editor, Rebecca Vernon, as quoted in a 2010 Womens News Network (WNN) article,approximately 2,500 Indian women were murdered for being “witches” over the last fifteen years. What’s truly deplorable and execrable is that women continue to be the targets of ignorance and erroneous gender “obligation”. As we’ve seen with the Salem witch trials of the early 1690s, women accused of “witchcraft” often do not fit the mold of what is expected of their gender, such as beauty, submission, espousal, and fertility. Instead, as Kachan Mathur, professor at The Institute of Development Studies in India told WNN , women who are poor and low-caste, as well as those who are infertile, widowed, elderly, unprotected or considered “ugly,” tend to be the “easy targets” for “witch” naming. Additionally, those accused of “Dayan Pratha” (the practice of witchcraft) are often also accused of bringing calamity onto their village, such as natural disasters or the death of a village child. And, once branded by phobia and ignorance from her own community, she is unable to circumvent the stigma, so her life is spent facing public humiliation that can include “public beatings, forced hair shavings, and forced acts of physical torture”– brutalities that can lead to death (according to WNN, most recent data show that 137 women were killed because of “witch” branding).
The despotizing and ostracizing witch hunt practice can be followed back to India’s first social communities. According to Dinesh Mishra, head of women advocacy group Andra Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India, local women who exuded power by “fulfilling the role of healer and counselor” were feared “when they became too powerful for the male leadership to control,” and, as their power increased within their community, so did the urgency to “bring them down to their place.” “The practice (of persecution) is mostly prevalent in tribal belts. The villagers blame anything they don’t understand on (the most ancient Hindu customs of) tantra,” Mishra told the Womens News Network last year (Mishra also noted that property greed is another motivation behind “witch”-killings). As the WNN piece states, many of the ancient practices of Hinduism, such as nature worship and polytheism, can be deemed as “witchcraft” or paganism, and those women who devout themselves to “ancient traditions” viewed as “witches.”
As Sadie Stein wrote in her Jezebel piece, to end such horrific practice, education is absolutely critical. Afterall, as Vernon said in the WNN piece, the commonality of witch hunts are often found in poor, rural communities where health services and education are scarce, and the archaic belief in witchcraft is persistent. A felicitous education in gender & economic equality, human rights, violence against women, medicine, and science will lead these villagers to build a stronger, more productive community that does not lend itself to panic or vehemence but instead to rationality and amity, while still keeping their spirituality. It would also lead lawmakers to draft and enact more strignent legislation that safeguards women from such barbarity and violence. According to Women News Network, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan have all passed anti-witchcraft laws but they’re ineffective at protection. The laws need to be revamped to ensure women will not be subjected to humiliation or retaliation from their village, that they can safely turn to police without being ridiculed, turned away or, worse, beaten violently, and that justice will be brought against their attackers instead of a blind-eye being turned, as is often the case with the witch-naming ojhas, who, according to WNN, rarely see over a six-month sentence. The villages also need adequate health care that provides a visible medical solution to illnesses, as well as easier and more efficient access to the world around them. Maybe then, such oppression of women in rural India will see the beginning of the end.