It's Mother's Day in 2008 and somewhere a woman is about to be murdered for witchcraft. Just this week a crowd of 20 people in India gathered to beat a 75-year-old woman for being a witch. A judicial inquiry found that 150 women had been tortured for witchcraft in three Indian provinces since the first of the year, despite the passage of a new law meant to protect them.
Reports of witchcraft are common in Africa these days. There's this recent case of an 18-year-old girl who says that she was sent by her grandmother to steal a newborn baby and given magical powers to accomplish the task. (Stories like this are frequently reported as fact in African newspapers.) Panicked reports of kidnapping and murder for body parts are frequent in Tanzania and nearby countries. And readers of a Ghanian tabloid were given this information, presented drily as fact:
"A global meeting of witches, currently underway in Ghana, is targeting thousands of lives through fatal road and other accidents. The assembly is also looking to infect millions of lives with incurable diseases, according to documents available to Daily Guide. In keeping with the witches' agenda, 1,000,154 people would be killed worldwide through road accidents, rape, murder and armed robbery. For Ghana, the organizers of the annual global congress insist they want to make the meeting a memorable one and are therefore requesting heavy loss of lives on the nation's roads. According to the document, Ashanti Region has to 'donate' 722 lives, Eastern Region, 119; Brong Ahafo, 103; Central, 134; and Greater Accra, 76; through an operation code-named 'XXC-XVI-Starlight 666' ...
"In the first quarter of our calendar year we are to infect 110,000 people (both married and unmarried) with HIV/AIDS through sex, 4,000 with tuberculosis, 6,000 with high blood pressure, and 2,600 with blindness, while 11,000 pastors and preachers will be destroyed, 220 marriages broken, and 100,000 wombs destroyed."
In a direct sign of the kinds of subconscious anxiety that lead to these accusations, there has been a wave of reports regarding penises shrunken by witches. Paging Dr. Freud ...
But it's no joke. A 60-year-old woman in India was beheaded last month by a neighbor who believed she was a witch. Saudi Arabia is planning to execute a woman accused of witchcraft, and so far King Abdullah has resisted calls for clemency. Also in Saudi Arabia, a maid was accused of bewitching her male boss because the boss's wife noticed he defended her from criticism.
Women aren't the only victims of witchcraft accusations. In Africa, for example, men are frequently accused of operating "magic planes," supernatural vehicles that seem to crash with alarming frequency. Children are targets, too. "Planet of Slums," by Mike Davis, documents the hysteria created by Christian preachers who distribute videos of bewitched children and exorcisms. He writes that "literal, perverse belief in Harry Potter has taken hold in Kinshasa, leading to the mass-hysterical denunciation of child 'witches' and their expulsion into the street, even their murder." But the vast majority of witchcraft accusations are still directed against women.
Different theories are being floated for the increase in this behavior. Nicholas Kristof writes of a study suggesting a link between climate change and witchcraft claims, a link which the New York Times "Freakanomics" blog explores even further.
But there's still an underlying theme behind all of these trials, murders, and incidents of torture: the superstitious fear of women. Until the ignorance and misogyny that drives these accusations are rooted out, these incidents will continue. And if you think this only a problem among "primitive" people, that it's nothing but ancient history for "civilized Europeans," think again. It's a human problem.
We may idealize women in the role of mother and enjoy the ritual of cards and flowers, but the urge to demonize the female isn't just a tribal one. Do you know when the last woman was imprisoned for witchcraft in Great Britain?
("And Howe": Also for Mother's Day, the radical feminist who conceived Mother's Day.)