Artwork by Lex Trickett

The figure of the witch in today’s world

It has been argued in recent times that there is a resurgence of interest and identification with the figure of the witch. Questioning the basis of this renewed interest, I began wondering if the witch had truly re-emerged taking into consideration not only womxn identifying with the symbol of the witch but the practice and sometimes ritual of witch hunting in modern day society. But before I get to these facts let’s start at the most commonly discussed history of witches (which is problematic in itself), that of the witch-trials during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Many would know about this history of women but perhaps not the motivations for this mass persecution of women. A brief unpacking of this history is vital to understanding what is still prevailing today as well as even misogyny and sexual discrimination against womxn in modern times.

The 16th and 17th centuries in Europe were an incredibly tumultuous time with exceptionally high mortality rates and political upheaval not to mention a religious indoctrination from the church and state of citizens. As politically the mercantilist era was moving towards capitalism and the divisions of sexual labour became more prominent, primitive accumulation became a way forward. This resulted in changes in the social position of women as well as the production of labour power–a new sexual division of labour comes to the fore–women’s reproduction abilities were regarded by the state and the male population as a means of multiplying the workforce. Women were and are making babies for the state. It is important to understand that during these times wealth was linked to population growth and therefore the high mortality rates became a state concern.  

Scholarly work has confirmed that to reassemble the history of women or to view history from a feminist viewpoint, is to redefine in fundamental ways the accepted historical categories and to bring to light the masked power structures of exploitation and domination women have been subjected to all over the world for centuries. What has been agreed upon by feminist scholars is that the witch-hunt was instigated as a means of terminating the control women had over their reproductive function and created an oppressive patriarchal regime.

“Women’s history” is “class history” as seen from the perspective that “femininity” was regarded as a work-function hiding the production of the workforce under a cloak of biological destiny. In the ’70s the feminist movement connected their plight with that of witches. But as can be proved throughout history every fight women put forward for equality came with its own pitfalls. In 1970’s America, a time when things were improving for women and they had more access to free movement, violent crimes against women started escalating. The most well-known face of this victimization is perhaps Ted Bundy.

Making use of this identification with witches as a symbol of revolt, feminists quickly recognised that hundreds of thousands of women could not have been massacred unless they posed some threat to the existing power structures. This was a turning point in female history and must be continued to be investigated in order to grasp the misogyny that still plagues institutional practice and male-female relations.

Feminists have debunked the tactics of violence used by male-centred systems of exploitation as a way of keeping women in check and appropriating the female body. Thus showing how women’s bodies have been the ‘privileged’ sites, the main targets onto which power was and continues to be exercised.

During the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe women did make attempts towards controlling their reproductive function. At the time these contraceptives were called “sterility potions’’ or maleficia. Things began to change when women’s control over their bodies posed a threat to the economic as well as social workings of society (as it did after the Black Death that wiped out one-third of the European population). Fixing demographics had to be done by reducing the power women held over the reproductive act as midwives and with the use of contraceptives etc. And so, the witch was born and she had to be executed.

Laws were enforced that punished women for reproductive crimes such as infanticide; this was a capital offence. With this came new forms of surveillance projected onto women to ensure that they would not terminate their pregnancies. Resulting in the enslavement of women to procreation, used as a natural breeding machine, functioning to factors outside of women’s control. Procreation was used as both a form of enslavement as well as a terrain of resistance. By refusing women control over their own bodies the state deprived them of their integrity and thus their humanity.

Quickly women’s work became ‘non-work’ by defining them in terms such as mother, wife, daughter, veiling their status as workers and granting men free access to their bodies and the bodies and labour of their children. The new division of work made of women communal goods and women’s labour a natural resource. This historic defeat led to poverty becoming feminized as women were unable to make their own money. Women were now dependent on men as well as the state.

Today, the plight of the witch remains one of the most understudied topics in history. Witch hunting was carried to the “new world” by missionaries as a way to subjugate the local population [1]. While enacting this execution the witches were pegged by many as fooks who suffer from hallucinations and that getting rid of them was a form of “social therapy”. Referring to the witch-trials as a “craze”, “epidemic” or a “panic” is to exonerate witch hunters and to depoliticize their crimes. This campaign of terror against women weakened resistance of the European peasantry to the assault by the gentry (witches were often accused by bourgeois members). The witch-hunt was simultaneously a major political initiative in which the Roman Catholic church created an ideological and metaphysical structure to, and simultaneously became the instigators of the persecution.

What remains of interest is how witchcraft was made crimen exceptum – a crime to be investigated by special means such as torture and no physical evidence was required to convict a woman of this crime (witchcraft was viewed as predominantly a female crime).

With the attack on magic maturing in the 16th century, women were its most likely foci as they were called upon to mark sick animals, nurse their sick neighbours, provide love potions and amulets as well as cite incantations. What must be realized, arguably, is that the magical arts that women performed for generations would not have come under attack had this intense social crisis not taken shape during this time.

The witch hunt then and now is a war against women in order to degrade them, make them evil and to abolish the power they held/hold. Women being painted as evil beings became a justification of male dominance over women as well as the new patriarchal order.

What becomes problematic is the fact that when we think about witch hunts and witch hunters it is generally done so within a European context. Another point of contention lies in the fact that European writers on this history have often times pointed out similarities between colonialism, slavery and the European witch trials which I do not think is particularly productive.

In March 2009, the Independent did a feature on what they deemed ‘Africa’s hidden war on Women’ dealing with witch hunting in Kenya and Tanzania. Some of the first-hand accounts in this report are more than devastating:

Two days ago, Shikalile Msaji – a woman in her eighties, living alone – was here in this house, looking after her eight-year-old granddaughter. She had spent the day tending her crops in the fields out back, and cooking. But at six in the evening – when it is pitch-black here, the only light coming from the moon and the stars – three strange men appeared.

‘Your days are over, old woman,’ they said after smashing in her front door with a rock. Her granddaughter ran into the next room. ‘Stay there and shut up, or you will die, too,’ they shouted after her. Then they slashed into Shikalile’s skull with machetes, and tried to cut off her hands – suggesting this was a witch-killing. Her granddaughter hid until morning, then ran for help. It was too late. Shikalile’s blood still stains the walls, and the small wooden chair where she sat in her last moments of life. Her family – huddled here for the funeral – have to sleep in this room. They have nowhere else to stay until they return to their own villages.

Shikalile’s youngest son, Matseo, is wandering around, dazed. ‘My mother was a very kind person… I am worried people think she was a witch, she wasn’t,’ he says, looking down, almost mumbling. A neighbour speculates: ‘Her grandchildren have had sicknesses and fevers lately. They have not been well. So maybe she has been blamed. Maybe they said she bewitched them.’

As iterated by Federici and Cohan the suppression of witchcraft laws can be drawn back to colonization–a time in which it was made illegal to take part in any practices that are customarily linked to witchcraft. It is within Africa that tension exists between in the context of witchcraft and traditional spirituality as well as the laws that attempt to abolish these customs. These laws should be brought into question as they are a part of colonial remnants that need to be broken down, regardless of whether witch hunters are acting on their own accord unlawfully, they are still praised within certain milieus for their extermination of witches in spite of the immense violence of the deed as well as its inhumanity. Traditional healers on the other hand argue that the laws do not make a distinction between the work that they do and what is considered to be witchcraft with harmful intent. Again the question arises, how can a people’s traditional beliefs be policed in this way?

It is my opinion that through cultivating a fear of the witch the patriarchy fostered a fear of women that still takes on the form of witch hunts in today’s world what’s more is that I believe that women are still being used as breeding machines–reduced to wombs–with new reproductive technologies. Furthermore, women’s labour remains undervalued and even more so “house work” and emotional labour by women.

References:

[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, Autonomedia, 2004

[2] Alison Rowlands, Telling Witchcraft Stories: New Perspectives on Witchcraft and witches in the Early Modern Period, Blackwell Publishers, 1998

[3] John Alan Cohan, The Problem of Witchcraft Violence in Africa, 2011

[4] Johann Hari, Witch hunt: Africa’s hidden war on women, Independent, 2009

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