The Nexus of Exorcism and Empowerment Among Pashtun Women

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

The belief in superstitious customs and traditions is not unique to the Pashtun culture; as a matter of fact, they are a common phenomenon. These superstitions are a product of historical, regional, economical, and social conditions that have evolved over a significant period of time, thus becoming so embedded in the culture and the day-to-day lives of Pashtuns that it has almost become customary to adhere to them. Such superstitions include utilizing amulets, charms and talismans to ward off the evil eye (“tor nazar”) to protecting and ridding themselves, and their loved ones, from demonic possession and supernatural beings (“jinns”) either through religious readings/prayers or — in more extreme cases — the antediluvian practice of exorcism. Exorcism is a practice that involves a series of chanting, singing of traditional songs, and dancing called “the dance of the possessed,” in which the “possessed” woman attains the opportunity to directly, or indirectly, express her inner feelings or turmoil that she would otherwise never convey in a normal situation. And while there is a cornucopia of superstitious beliefs in the Pashtun culture that could virtually fill volumes, it is this intriguing practice of exorcism that is of keen interest, especially among Pashtun women, and the ways in which this method of healing empowers them.

Historically, it was believed that within Pashtun-dominated regions, as well as its surrounding areas, supernatural beings, or jins — as they are called — caused numerous adversities, of which included an intricacy with mental illness. Yet, the belief in jinns is not only limited to the past, for, it also leaks quite extensively into the present time, especially in highly repressed and conservative societies. Pashtun women, in particular, are more than often inclined to believe in such superstition due to the reason that their way of living, outside of the immediate family, is vastly limited. Lack of education and exposure to the ‘outside world’ further limits women in their capacity, as well as ability, to comprehend and identify illnesses; particularly those that are psychological in nature. Some are completely unaware that there are modern medicines available, which aid in either curbing or completely curing mental illnesses. As a result, these women seek alternative methods of therapy — self healing, so to speak — to rid themselves of evil spirits that they believe is causing them this supposed “mental illness.” This is achieved through Hujra sessions — Hujra is a Pashto word, which means “a place to sit” — in which a group of women gather to participate in the exorcism of evil spirits. These all-female Hujra sessions serve two functions: the first is that of a healing function for the treatment of psychosomatic illnesses (or, in other words, ousting the jinn that has possessed a woman); the second is that of a social function of providing an opportunity for women, who observe purdah (which literally means ‘modesty’ and refers to the seclusion of women), to get together and share their feelings of hopelessness and distress.

These women grow up in a society knowing, from very early on, that their whole life will be limited to the narrow confines of their family’s homes. Their rights are even further limited when they get married — more so than often at a very young age — to live with their in-laws where they may practically have no rights at all. And although some may have husbands with whom they are very happy, others are married to men much older than they, who could end up restricting them further, depending on the man’s lifestyle/beliefs. It is no wonder that these Hujra sessions serve as a form of ‘group therapy’ — a means for these Pashtun women to escape from the troubled realities of their daily lives, guised in the form of “healing from demonic possession,” where they have the freedom to act out their feelings, while at the same time find socially sanctioned solutions to their problems. This, hence, serves as a tool of empowerment where, for once, women feel like they are in power and are taking control of their own lives — albeit secretly–serving as a sort of resistance.

Nevertheless, the notion of empowerment is understood quite differently in this context. It appears that healing mental illness is the main force and driver in mobilizing modes of power, which aids the individual’s — the woman’s– sense of personal empowerment and self-actualization. Also, mental illnesses in such highly conservative societies have become closely tied with issues of power and authority, where the “dominant,” modern medical system seems to have played a significant part in the tacit disempowerment of the supposed sick — or the “possessed”– whereas healing movements, like exorcisms, represents a counter-statement against this feature of modern medicine, which is that of empowerment. Thus, the nature of ‘power’ in this context takes a shift from female dependency on the male to females relying on each other for emotional expression and comfort. These Pashtun women are free to express themselves, in any way they want, while under the supervision of other fellow women–from outside the family circle–who, too, have gone through similar experiences and tribulations. These women, hence, empower and support each other, becoming like an empathetic family, and all being from the same sex. Additionally, these Hujra sessions attempt to create a sense of belonging for these seemingly deprived women and instill hope in their otherwise bleak lives.

Conversely, it is important to note that this custom of holding women-only Hujras to carry out exorcisms is gradually disappearing in many parts of the Pashtun region throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan; especially now that more women are becoming educated, as well as becoming more mobile, especially in the cities, i.e. Peshawar. These women are also becoming more aware of new scientific inventions and discoveries, especially through radio and television, and have further come to realize that mental illnesses are not a result of demonic possession, but are instead actual sicknesses that require treatment through modern science.

However, at the same time, it continues to be practiced in some, rather highly remote and conservative, areas — especially those areas that are yet to be exposed to more modern and/or progressive means of livelihoods. Yet, due to the lack of literature and research on the nexus of exorcism and empowerment amongst Pashtun women, this is indeed a topic that will require further research and exploration, for it is an important one, considering that superstitious beliefs are still vastly prominent amongst the Pashtun populace.

2 responses to “The Nexus of Exorcism and Empowerment Among Pashtun Women

  1. Great article. When I was a kid, we would visit Pakhtunkhwa every summer. It was very often that some woman would get visited by ‘piryaan’ (or jinns in Arabic); it was a fascinating thing. All the women would surround that particular woman and talk to her about things; some ‘piryaans’ were bad-ass and would ask for a smoke, which was provided promptly. Most women were interested in asking questions that were related to family, like for instance, “How come nothing is going well? Who has ‘thaweezed’ (‘bad luck’) us?” The woman visited by such jinns would then answer all their questions.

    Now a grown man, looking back, I laugh at the naiveness of our people. Anyway, as a child, only once I had witnessed the exorcism of a woman. Random verses from the Koran were recited, where the ‘supposedly’ possessed woman shook violently; the female-exorcist asked the “possessed” woman to recite the ‘shahadah’, and, at the end, all was calm.

    Another common thing among Pakhtuns is ‘khapasa’. Today, thanks to Science, we know that it is actually a condition called sleeping paralysis; but in Pakhtun culture (probably even originated in pre-Islamic era), it is believed to be some sort of a nose-less spirit that overtakes your body, and because she has no nose, the person she has possessed is able to breath but the rest his/her body is unable to move. Till this day, people who experience ‘khapasa’ are suggested to recite the ‘shahadah’, so that this khapasa can be chased away.

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