New Internationalist

I put a spell on you…

Issue 436

Zuhra Bahman exposes the sexist workings of sorcery in Afghanistan and invokes the djinn of human rights

There are sorcerers, fortune tellers and holy men in every corner of Kabul conning women.

Gulbuddin Elham / Aina Picture Agency Afghanistan
Even educated women in Kabul consult street sorcerers. Gulbuddin Elham / Aina Picture Agency Afghanistan

Since these conmen make women believe that any misfortune that befalls them is caused by sorcery and any cure is in sorcery too, women go to them when facing a wide range of problems such as childlessness, illnesses, domestic violence, poverty and more…

Through ‘praying’, reading palms, numerology, astrology and by simply asking their djinns and ghosts these con-merchants declare that only they can solve the problem.

Their solutions include extended praying: issuing taweez, pieces of paper with verses of Qur’an written on them which are wrapped in layers of fabric and leather and worn under clothing; or showest, pieces of paper with verses written on them which are put in water and drunk.

If women started trampling over these taweez, the conmen would have to close up shop

In exchange, these men get money and livestock from women. The loss, however, is not only monetary. This con pushes women into an irrational space, away from the rational world of science, expression, politics and social activism. In this world of sorcery and fortune-telling, the conmen – and they are men – hold the power to interpret women’s lives. Women have no control over their destiny and cannot trust other women. Women seeking explanations for their misery in sorcery are unable to seek explanations in the rational world and are therefore unable to perceive the unfairness of the social system in which they live.

One of my own family members is a prime example. When her husband refused to allow her to take off her burqa after the fall of the Taliban she went to the nearest mullah and asked for his help. The mullah said that the reason why her husband was not agreeing to her going bare faced was that there was a woman in her family who had put a curse on her. She paid the mullah to get the curse removed and he gave her a taweez to wear discreetly under her burqa.

Needless to say, there was no change in her husband’s behaviour and he continued to force her to cover her face. When I asked him why, he said that it was the decision of his tribe to ensure that their women remained covered in post-Taliban Kabul.

The situation had nothing to do with sorcery. It was a simple case of men making a collective decision about a woman’s life while she was given sorcery to play with.

Evil, scheming women

Another case related to a woman I met who was fed up with coming home from work every day to look after her husband’s sheep. She tried to talk with him about it but it didn’t work, so she went to a mullah and got a taweez, hoping that her husband would change his mind. She continued looking after the sheep while waiting for the taweez to take effect. While she told me the story, she was laughing at herself. She knew that what she was doing was irrational but she felt good that she was doing something, albeit something useless.

Maybe if sorcery were not there, these women would go to the real cause of the problem and try to solve it through discussion or even a healthy dose of argument with their husbands. Maybe my relative would gather the rest of the women of her tribe and try to persuade the tribal elders not to impose the burqa. This is not an impossible idea. I myself participated in that particular tribal meeting and my views were at least listened to.

Sorcery divides and rules women. In almost all cases of sorcery that I came across, the perpetrators were declared to be women. In the sorcery circles, women, especially sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law and co-wives, are portrayed as jealous and unable to see another woman happy.

When a family friend’s husband took a second wife, she blamed her misfortune on a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper placed inside a dough ball and hidden behind some ornaments in her house.

Once the cause was clear she set off to find a cure. The antidote was recommended and administered in exchange for cash. Soon after that, the husband and second wife had a violent argument and she left the house, beaten and pregnant. The husband returned to his first wife.

Order was disturbed and then restored through sorcery. The husband came out of the situation with his reputation intact; the villain of the piece was the second wife.

Radu Sigheti / Reuters
Afgan women are conditoned to mistrust each other. Radu Sigheti / Reuters

In this, and many other cases, women are made to see other women as threats, as evil and scheming. Men are seen as neutral or as the victims.

At a household level the mistrust sown in the minds of women makes them unable to co-operate and support each other. I witnessed this when I got married. Many women, both educated and illiterate, told me never to eat anything prepared by my mother- or sister-in-law, never to wear anything they gave me and to wash any jewellery they gave me with water from a pipe or with the urine of a dog!

When I did not comply and suffered from a bad case of typhoid, every woman scolded me and blamed my in-laws for my illness. One acquaintance even got me a taweez to counter any sorcery that had caused my illness.

This fragmentation of women at the very basic level makes the job of women’s activism very hard, as any feminist movement needs a feeling of unity and sisterhood amongst women.

Unfortunately, women from all strata of the society are involved in this illogical activity. I was first introduced to a sorcerer by an educated woman. During my first visit the poverty of the sorcerer, the cheapness of his service and the generality in the way he predicted my future invoked in me a feeling of pity for him, at best. The educated woman who had taken me there, however, came out with a bunch of taweez to address a range of issues, including forcing the powers that be to grant her a visa to get out of Afghanistan. It is rumoured that many female parliamentarians, social activists and even the wife of Hamid Karzai believe in these illogical activities.

If women started trampling over these taweez and showest, and were vocal about their irrelevance to the modern world, these conmen would have to close up shop. Alternatively, maybe I should start a new movement where I should speak with the djinn of human rights and the ghost of rationality, and advise women to question their situation a bit more deeply; and see the evil in germs, in viruses and in the society run by men.

Zuhra Bahman is an Afghan writer and regular New Internationalist blogger.

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  1. #1 zar 27 Dec 10

    Very interesting, but not new.
    One thing that Ms Ludin forgot is that Afghans are spiritual-cultural Muslims, and the majority (even the most illiterates) do not suffer from shamanism or fanatism. However, from this piece a non-familiar-with-afghan-imperatives reader will get exactly that same impression. The message is vague. Was the message to invoke a thought on permittivity of afghan society and voodooism that entrench the social relations in that thrown-back-to-the-stone-age war-torn country (albeit the war is supposed to be perceived as the ?Holy?)? Or it was a call for the need to foster and impose civil rules and solutions for problems that are the nightmare of any conscious social and human right activisit? This was not clear from Ms Ludin?s messages.
    The hope is that such brilliant mind of afghan society such as Ms Ludin will stop being journalistic and move on to put their transnational political and knowledge stocks in action.

  2. #2 Mimi 25 Jul 12

    Dear Zuhra jan,the flip side of your story is that the taweez gives these women hope. It is a apart of semi healthy ritual that makes them feel better. In the afghan tradition, it's always better for someone else to pray for you; the thswab seems to be more if others are praying for us. the taweez is nothing more than a prayer in written form. You are correct to say that it is a scam where these women who probably can't afford to buy a piece of bread, pay a mullah to make them a taweez. I concurr, however; for the women,the psychological effect outweighs the monetary loss.

  3. #3 Kevin 02 Sep 14

    As a western male I had virtually no interaction with Afghan women in Afghanistan. I did however have the opportunity to get to know a number of Afghan men.

    The tradition of using Taweez are certainly not unique to women. Many of the men I encountered used Taweez to ward off sorcery and evil spirits.

    I even know for a fact that one of our interpreters who was born and raised in Afghanistan but had lived in the United States for many years wore a Taweez.

    It would be interesting to note that similar traditions exist in Christianity. Some traditional Roman Catholics today wear a religious icon called a Scapular which can be endorsed with religious indulgences by the Holy See including liberation from purgatory.

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This article was originally published in issue 436

New Internationalist Magazine issue 436
Issue 436

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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