‘Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.’ Bertrand Russell
Imagine your mother or grandmother being forced out your home and being physically beaten and browbeaten on the streets, and made to eat her own feces. People join in to participate in this grotesque, horrendous social spectacle simply on the basis of a malicious rumor spread by fear-mongering and superstitious neighbors. If this were to happen in the capital or a handful of other metropolitan cities of the world, swift action in the form of bystander intervention or police intervention would, hopefully, be seen against such blatant violation of personal rights and dignity. This is unfortunately not the case with some districts outside the valley of Kathmandu, some even as close as 40 km from the capital.
Census data on education and other developmental reports make it evident that most of the country has yet to go through a social and educational reform of the sort that is evident in the capital and some other metropolitan cities. The practice of witch-hunting, an anachronistic vexation that should have been abandoned long ago with other such heinous traditions like ‘sati’, occurs to this day. Just like sati, witch-hunting is a culturally entrenched norm espoused by the – mostly poor and illiterate – masses.
The practice systematically targets women – who are more often than not financially and socially incapacitated – and are consequently, a detriment not only to the broader collective cause of gender equality but also to the moral progress of the people. It is especially hypocritical considering that countries with attitudes treating foreigners as gods (atithi devo bhava) demonize their own brethren as subhuman.
The broader problem however, lies with dogmatism and cultural superstition fueled by illiteracy, and the morally unscrupulous inclination of some individuals to take advantage of the fears and doubts of these mostly illiterate, impoverished men and women. A second tributary to this Acheron is the systematic subjugation of women – especially those who are socially and economically vulnerable. This applies –as has always applied more so in this subcontinent- in greater strength particularly to those who are identified as ‘low-caste’ or untouchable.
With the pre-condition of a disparate lack of recourses to help fulfilled, these women are easy scapegoats for local ‘spiritual healers’ called jhakris, and are therefore, at the receiving end of the social injustice stick for any apparent misfortune in the community. The physical and mental suffering, the shattered dignity and above all, the associated social stigma and ostracization of women who face such injustice has astronomical consequences on their families –especially children, to their communities and to their nation at large.
In all South-Asian countries, there is an implicit overarching taboo on criticizing national and cultural values. Indeed many will vehemently challenge even the slightest indication of impingement on their cultural values, regardless of the extent to which these values inculcate socially damaging consequences and regardless of the lack of evidence for any supposed supernatural causality.
They will be tempted to ask ‘What’s wrong with witch hunting? After all, it has long been a tacitly accepted part of our culture, our heritage, and we’ve been doing it since before the time of our forefathers. And who are you to impose your ideas of basic human dignity and notions of social justice upon us?’ This line of thought –amusingly applied to the practice of Sati (widow burning) before – is both dangerous and divisive. If we had accepted this pearl of wisdom on the topic of sati, we would still be burning widows – our mothers, sisters and daughters – left, right and center.
Whether it is underneath a gunyo cholo, saree, shalwar kameez, tank tops or a three-piece suit, women are still subordinated and suppressed across the subcontinent under a myopic vision of a discriminatory society. The disconcerting discrepancies in opportunity and treatment between genders is more pronounced in value-laden rural corridors of these countries. This problem extends far deeper than just the mental health of people. It reaches and erodes physical and social well-being too.
The governments of South Asia are certainly making progress on these and similar issues – the Government of Nepal’s Anti-Witchcraft Bill of 2014 and All Pakistan Ulema Council’s denouncement of ‘honor killings’ being stellar examples of reformation. However, the enforcement of such acts is simply not forthcoming with the alacrity and precision demanded of an elected body of officials in the former case.
On the other hand, the denouncement comes as a beacon of hope especially after Reuter’s ranking of Pakistan as one of the worst countries for women to live. Other countries like Bangladesh are mightily struggling with gender issues given that 65% of girls are married before they are 18. The local officials in the areas are to be blamed too. Instead of recognizing core issues, most governmental bodies are keen to delegate the task of solving the situation to the hands of the community members themselves- the same community which engages in such practices. As a consequence, they are indirectly empowering and protecting criminals who oppress, harass, torture and murder ‘witches’ and incite others to do the same in a dizzying fervor of mass hysteria.
The time for respecting corrosive beliefs of this sort is long gone. These aren’t questionably moral things. These are unquestionably immoral practices that are thankfully, perfectly preventable. As such, this is absurd stupidity on our part. It is a criminal negligence of the sort that we would not tolerate in any other context and yet, these jhakris who deem innocent women witches, can’t be criticized to the degree that they should in the affected community. But the glaring fact of our inability to mobilize resources and information to prevent such fatalistic practices swiftly and effectively, indicates a far greater and a far more nuanced problem – cultural indifference.
As much as religious figureheads at various levels of society may disagree, we as rational humans and especially as socially concerned citizens are the guarantors of our own morality. It requires no extraordinary leap of logic to conclude that had the proliferation of secular values and democratic governance not eroded away the incredibly barbaric practice of sati through widespread social and legal reform, most of us would still be burning our widowed mothers, sisters and daughters because ‘it is part of our culture’.
Certainly, culture is important to us; it provides a shared identity and heritage, a commonality with ages past and a distinction of where we stand in the world. It is the collective taste of the land, the symphony of its stories and legends told by homely grand mothers and fathers underneath shaded trees to wide-eyed children, the phantasmagoria of concrete jungles, cow sheds and subaltern futures, and of course, the smell of dal over the crackling fire. It is the S.I. unit of diversity!
And, I will happily let my subcontinental sisters tie threads around my arms with promises of protection and love, watch Sakura trees bloom over picnic with friends, share in the fast and feast of Eid with my neighbors for the bounties of the world, lie to my nieces and nephews about a fat bearded man in red clothes who will come down the chimney and give perfectly wrapped gifts with handwritten notes in the only language they happen to know.
After all, it is especially because culture is so endearingly important to us that we cannot let norms like witch hunting exist in this age, in the same sphere we cherish and call culture. We need to burn the practice of witch-hunting on the same funeral pyre where we have burnt other nonsensical socially damaging cultural norms. There is, after all, no better proxy of a community’s progress than by the progress of its women in the community.