The 21st century ‘witch’ hunt

A few weeks ago, a 45 year-old woman accused of being a “witch” was rescued by the Indian police. It seems they almost certainly saved her from being murdered, but she had already suffered at the hands of residents of the village Bihar, who had “mercilessly beat her up, paraded her through the streets, tied her to a palm tree, cut her hair and smeared her face with limestone paste”.

News of this comes from Ultra Violet – a community of young, Indian feminists, which today carries a disturbing post linking this latest incident to a trend for beating and murdering women on the apparent basis that they are “witches”. Meena Kandasamy says:

The helpless ‘witches’ are hounded and punished by being stripped naked, paraded around the villages, their hair is burnt off or their heads tonsured, their faces blackened, their noses cut off, their teeth pulled out (they are supposedly defanged) so that they can no longer curse, they are whipped, they are branded, sometimes, they are forced to eat human faeces and finally, they are put to death (here again the Indian imagination takes over: the victim is hanged, impaled, hacked, lynched or buried alive). And you have got it all wrong if you assumed that such stomach-churning, toe-curling torture is done in dingy, shadowy places: vast, open village lands come in particularly handy as favoured locations, and the cheering crowd can fill a modest stadium. Where these women are left to live, they are considered inauspicious and malevolent, socially ostracized and forced to forgo their livelihood. Where they don’t end up losing their life, they are made to lose their mental balance.

Kandasamy explicitly links this with caste-based oppression, noting that the victims are usually Dalit or Adivasi women. But these women are also sometimes targetted when they, say, stand for elections, or otherwise attempt to assert their rights.

This is extremely disturbing stuff. Go read the full report at Ultra Violet, which does an excellent job of covering gender-oppression and, more positively, the feminist response, in India.

But I’d also like to call attention to this piece in the New York Times, arguing that one of the consequences of global warming could be an increase in this particular brand of violence against women, dressed up as “witch hunts” – although I take issue with the description of misogynistic murder as “bizarre”.

The piece argues that rich countries must do more to cushion the economic impact of global warming, in order to forestall even more gendered violence.

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