The making of a witch

Aziz Ali Dad

Witches are believed to be creatures who live among human beings as representatives of evil spirits in human form. Since the dawn of civilisation, we have been surrounded by eerie tales of witches. These are visible in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology and medieval folktales.

Even in Shakespeare’s work, the role of witches is palpable – especially in his play, Macbeth. The European witch-hunt during the early modern period and the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in colonial America still have an abiding appeal for sociologists and historians. In modern times, Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials in his play ‘Crucible’ to express his moral outrage at the persecution of communists in a witch hunt spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the US of the 1950s.

The concept of a witch is not specific to the above-mentioned areas, but is prevalent in different societies in Asia as well. In the cultural milieu of Gilgit-Baltistan, the idea of a witch has determined the contours of womanhood in society. Even now Gilgit views witches as alien spirits that are capable of evil and, therefore, deserve a befitting punishment that is proportionate to this evil. Owing to this, women in Gilgit-Baltistan have suffered for centuries. But this has hitherto remained an unexplored area because of social expediencies, taboos and lack of moral courage to expose the rotten state of the social mind.

Any worldview emerges within a particular social context and expresses itself through language. It is language that constructs metaphors to define the world through subjective experiences and collective thinking. Only a weak society tends to develop weak metaphors in bad faith. Gilgit’s social fabric appears to be weak as it does not have courage to address reality with terms that would reveal the reality, not conceal it. As a result, the idea of witchhood in Gilgit can be seen as an attempt to conceal and protect the weak social ethos and parochial norms from ‘dissenting women’.

The idea of witchhood is used instead of witchcraft because witches in Gilgit do not possess any magical powers or indulge in magic rituals. A salient feature of the concept of witchhood is that men do not have a biological role in making a witch. However, they play a strong role in the social construction of witchhood. An old witch transfers her ‘evil’ soul to her daughter or granddaughter. This ‘evil’ genealogy therefore remains essentially matriarchal on the one hand and the concept of ‘good’ remains patriarchal in society.

The process of making a witch out of a woman is intertwined with the social location of women, power relations and the overall structures of social imagination prevalent in Gilgit. In the traditional social structure, local kings wielded absolute influence in every sphere of society and state as they were the ultimate embodiment of the law. But men were given leeway by kings to kill women who were believed to be witches. The social imagination is controlled through practices and institutions which define deviance, conformity, and the ideas of good and evil for the entire populace.

Working in a diverse tribal milieu, the indigenous system of thought and control succeeded to solely attribute the qualities of witches to women. Through this social imaginary, society devised a system of signs and symbols whereby a woman is labelled a witch. As a result, any expression of a woman’s body and sexuality is suppressed at the outset by controlling the soul.

That is why women in Gilgit are not allowed to do certain things which are attributed to witches. There have been countless cases in the region where wives were brutally beaten or injured because they expressed themselves in ways that were typical of witches. In other cases, women were killed after they were accused of acting like witches.

While discussing witchhood in the particular social setting in Gilgit, it is imperative to take into account the social conception of day and night in relation to women. Before electricity or lanterns were introduced in the region, the nights in Gilgit were covered in pitch darkness.

The night was deemed as a time when evil spirits roamed. As a result, women who went out at night were liable to be killed. There are numerous stories in Hunza, Nagar, Gilgit and Puniyal where men boast about the number of witches they had killed. Instead of being punished, they were considered to be brave men who purged society of evil entities.

Another trait of a weak society is that it remains in denial of a practice within society that lies outside the sanctified ethos. Within the tribal milieu and closed society of Gilgit, a good woman was defined in terms of or in relation to her father, brother, family and tribe. Any role that fell outside these domains is deemed as the work of a woman who has an evil spirit. The traditional society Gilgit did not approve of love between men and women.

Till the late 1960s, in Hunza any woman who eloped with her lover was lampooned and disgraced publicly. In popular folklore and in general terms, it is believed that a witch keeps an intimate henchman with her who is called mitto or fanis in Shina and Burushaski, respectively. His duty is to distribute the hunt of witches among them. He was basically the paramour of a woman, but was termed a witch and an accomplice of a witch.

Interestingly, Shina and Burushaski do not have words for lover and beloved. When those who were accused of being witches are analysed in the social location of a closed society, they appear to be the protofeminists of Gilgit.

Changes in the status and role of women are related to broader historical shifts when society experienced an existential crisis and faced uncertainty. In such circumstances, it is normal among decadent societies to find a scapegoat. Women were therefore chosen as scapegoats in Gilgit. This was done by inverting the morals in which all scared symbols were either genderised or women were held responsible for the downfall of Gilgit’s society.

The famous statue of Kargah Buddha illustrates the inversion of sacred symbols into evil. After the decline of the Buddhist rule, the gender of this statue was changed to a woman and it was named Yacheni (which means female witch). Even now, yacheni is deemed a witch who stood at the mouth of the valley to eat people. Ultimately, she was controlled after being nailed to the rock by a male pir. As a result, a holy symbol was turned into an evil spirit.

This resonates with the attitudes of today’s society in Gilgit that favours the incarceration of women within the boundaries of the home. Similarly, the downfall of the famous cannibal king of Gilgit, Shri Badat, is attributed to his daughter who colluded with an outsider to kill her father. These famous folklores still inform popular perceptions of women.

The traditional structures of social imagination still operate in Gilgit. While choosing brides for their sons, families still examine whether a girl has a genealogy of witchhood. Such girls are usually treated as evil incarnate. A woman who dares to argue with men is defined as a witch. This shows the unconscious fear among men about the emancipation of women.

With the opening of the Karakoram International University, women got an opportunity to study and interact with men. But the conservative mindset still labelled them witches.

Honour killings and suicides in Gilgit-Baltistan are a consequence of a wicked male mind that still sees the presence of women in public spaces in broad daylight and their interaction with men as an evil act of witches.

This suggests that witches reside within the patriarchal mind. To de-witch the mentality of men in Gilgit, women need to assert themselves in social spaces where men fear them the most.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.

Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

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