From Superstition to Savagery

The Washington Post

Women Accused of Witchcraft Face Violence in Rural India

By Rama Lakshmi

Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 8, 2005

PALANI, India — At sundown, Pusanidevi Manjhi recalled, nine village men stormed into her house shouting, “Witch, witch!” and dragged her out by her hair as her six small children watched helplessly.

“This woman is a witch!” the men announced to the villagers, said Manjhi, 36. She said they tied her ankles together and locked her in a dark room.

“They beat me with bamboo sticks and metal rods and tried to pull my nails out. ‘You are a witch, admit it,’ they screamed at me again and again,” Manjhi said, tearfully recalling her four days of captivity in June.

“They accused me of casting an evil spell on their paddy crop that was destroyed in a fire. I begged them and told them I was not a witch,” she said, showing wounds on her legs, thighs, hips and shoulders one recent morning in this village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

After a police investigation, the men who attacked Manjhi were arrested. An official said that the attack was spurred by a powerful landowner who owned rice paddies in the village and used local superstition to mask his attempts to maintain control.

Threats and charges of witchcraft occur in a number of Indian states that have large tribal populations with traditional beliefs about witches. Indian newspapers periodically publish reports about women who, after being accused of being witches, have been beaten, had their heads shaved or had strings of shoes hung around their necks. Some have been killed.

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

“Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms,” said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.