The Sexist Rhetoric of Witch-hunting
Remember when feminists on Twitter were referred to as a “coven of witches”? This strategically positioned accusation of witchcraft has been used to oppress and harm women throughout history. The reclamation of the title “feminist coven” by women doesn’t make the weaponisation of the title any less harmful and evil. In accusing feminists of being witches, the age-long ploy of demonising women in an attempt to silence them was once again reborn through the rants of an embittered man.
In the early modern period, witch hunts were a relatively common occurrence. An estimated 80,000 women were put to death in Europe on suspicion of witchcraft. Women who did not conform to the prescribed behaviour for women even in the slightest were accused of witchcraft and put to death, usually by burning. Women were accused of being witches when they stepped outside their prescribed roles (as defined by the church and the deeply patriarchal society built around the church).
The Malleus Maleficarum (the hammer of witches) was written by a Catholic clergyman in 1486. It combined theological and legal theory and endorsed the extermination of witches, from identification to torture and even killing. This book was very impactful on the culture of the time and fueled many witch-hunting campaigns. The religious belief in machinations of the devil such as witchcraft and sorcery gave birth to these practices; the manufactured problem of witchcraft and the artificial solution of murderous cleansing to abate it.
Today, accusations of witchcraft are still used to oppress and harm women. From likening feminism to witchcraft in an attempt to delegitimise the cause to accusing older women suffering from dementia of witchcraft; these point, shame and kill practices are not obsolete.
Chidera was just 13 years old when she was accused of witchcraft at her secondary school in Lagos. “When I was in Jss1, a classmate of mine fainted and because we had an altercation earlier, somehow I was blamed for it.”
Chidera’s classmate was a well-liked, popular kid who ticked all of the social boxes and in comparison, Chidera was not.
“They said I was a witch who caused the girl to faint even though I was not present when it happened. I had to live with that tag for a long time and it came with bullying, shaming and ostracism.”
For Nneka, the violence was physical as well.
“When I was done with university, I spent my service year in Calabar holed up with a woman who made my life miserable because she was convinced that I was a witch. This woman assaulted my friend and housemate but somehow, it was I who was the witch.”
Mental illnesses are commonly attributed to evil forces and the women who live with these often undiagnosed conditions are accused of witchcraft. Jumoke, even with her diagnosis, was still accused of being possessed by demons.
“I was about 18 when I got diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder. Definitely, it means I have depression to contend with, plus mania and psychosis. I told my parents about it and they insisted it’s spiritual. The fact that I’m not religious didn’t help matters. I remember having a depressive episode in church recently. I burst into tears in the middle of praise and worship and had to go to my dad’s office (he’s the pastor) to prevent church members from seeing me cry. Long story short, he prayed for me and said I was possessed by demons. He pointed to the part of the bible that says demons possess anywhere that isn’t occupied and said that being an atheist means that my heart isn’t occupied by the holy spirit. And that’s why the demon of bipolar disorder entered me.”
This practice mostly targets the powerless and defenceless which is why today, older women and young children are the primary recipients of such accusations. On many occasions, women are upholders of the structures that are capable of oppressing them too. Women themselves have been tasked with casting the first stone in enforcing oppressive, patriarchal ways. One thing is clear, the rhetoric of witch-hunting is a control tactic. It is historically baseless and senseless, to say the least. Witchhunts only seek to silence and harm women for daring to seize individuality.