The “witches” of Pattharghatia

The Muslim cleric and the village women in India who recently labeled five widows as witches played the role of self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, condemning their victims to a savage beating. Widows are popular targets because they may possess money or property, however paltry, which their neighbors have a covetous eye on. And the law fails to protect them, leaving their fate to be determined by local patriarchal interpretations of tradition, custom, and religion.
On October 18, five women in Pattharghatia, India were paraded naked, beaten and forced to eat human excrement. And what was the crime which demanded such horrific punishment? Witchcraft. A local cleric branded these five Muslim widows as witches and certain village women, who were believed to be possessed by a spirit (jinn) which can root out those who practice witchcraft, supported the cleric’s condemnation. Villagers then gathered to dole out the punishment; an unruly mob broke into the women’s huts, dragging them out to a playground where hundreds had assembled to watch the ghastly incident.

Not a single person came forward to offer help as the gang proceeded to strip and savagely beat the widows. While there is a dearth of information on the religious background of the perpetrators, one website reports that the men and women who attacked these five widows were primarily Muslim. By the time police arrived, most of the perpetrators had fled but four people have been arrested in connection with the incident. Armed police have since been deployed to the area and the victims are now under police protection.

This incident is not an anomaly; in fact, the abuse of widows in the Indian subcontinent is surprisingly common with over 700 reported cases of widows who have been accused of practicing witchcraft. It is the rare footage of this particular incident that has prompted outrage across India. In India (as well as in African countries) widowhood represents a “social death” for women. The women do not merely lose their husbands, the primary breadwinner, but widowhood robs them of their status and consigns them to the very margins of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination and stigma. The law fails to protect these women, leaving their fate to be determined by local patriarchal interpretations of tradition, custom, and religion. While unmarried women are under the guardianship of their fathers, married women are shielded by their husbands. Widows are in limbo and no longer have any protector.

It is unfortunate at best and criminal at worst that such is the sad status of widows in much of the Indian subcontinent, home to 30 percent of the world’s Muslims. The disparity between the abuse that we are seeing and the status of honor and dignity that Islam assigns widows is striking. A number of verses in the second chapter of the Qur’an are dedicated to delineating the rights of widows. For example, a widow is free to remarry after waiting the appropriate amount of time (four months and ten days) to ensure she is not carrying her deceased husband’s child. In seventh century Arabia, social custom did not permit a widow to remarry but the Prophet encouraged Muslims to wed these women and not dismiss them out of ignorance as somehow being tainted. In fact, most of the Messenger’s wives were widows. The Qur’an also insists that a Muslim man prepare a year’s maintenance and residence for his wife in case of his passing. The following hadith encapsulates the respect and special care apportioned to Muslim widows.

Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet said: “One who makes efforts to help the widow or a poor person is like a mujahid (warrior) in the path of God, or like one who stands up for prayers all of the night and fasts all of the day.”

It seems that not only have communities, particularly those in developing countries who are deeply entrenched in local custom, veered from the Qur’anic decree and the Prophetic example when it comes to the treatment of its widows, but they have drawn a bizarre connection between widows and witchcraft. There is no doubt that the concept of the dark arts exists in Islam. When the Prophet’s most vehement opponents resorted to black magic to bring about his downfall, Allah revealed the following chapter as a prayer that a person should invoke to ward off the effects of black magic.

Says Sura Falaq (Daybreak): “Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practice secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy.” (Qur’an 113:1-5, translation by Yusuf Ali)

While Muslims acknowledge the existence of black magic, they also recognize that none has powers greater than Allah and Allah alone is sufficient as Protector against the effects of the dark arts. Any person can dabble in the dark arts; there is no evidence to indicate that widows comprise a larger share of those who practice black magic than do not, nor is there any concept in Islam which suggests that a spirit can possess certain women allowing them to identify those who indulge in witchcraft. The latter, in particular, seems especially self-serving and convenient. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the widows did in fact practice black magic, forcing someone to strip, parade naked before their neighbors and eat human excrement flies in the face of human dignity and modesty endowed upon us by our Creator.

The Muslim cleric and the village women who labeled five widows as witches played the role of self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, condemning their victims to a savage beating. As in many such cases, the village had been experiencing rough times and it seems widows who did not have male companions to defend them served as convenient scapegoats. While superstitions are often behind these attacks, widows are also popular targets because they may possess money or property, however paltry, which their neighbors have a covetous eye on. Perhaps satisfying a need to impugn and looking to snatch money or property may be the true motivations behind this heinous crime, rather than any justifiable link between widows and witchcraft.

(Photo: Harini Calamur)
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.

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