The Function of Female Jinn

After yesterday’s class, I continued to think about the importance of gender in the articles (and chapters) we’ve read so far. What I found particularly interesting about yesterday’s discussion was the connection between female jinn and water. Professor Staub’s explanation that malicious male jinn were not recorded because women could not travel alone like men were able to, made the lack of malicious male jinn much easier to understand. However, I was still struck by the specificity of water. I began to think of the similar associations between “water” and the stereotypical perception of “women.” For Egypt, the Nile River is the source of life in an otherwise barren and arid landscape, just as women are the “life-givers” of a society. Yet, water can be deceivingly dangerous, especially during floods (which are common around the Nile) and men in patriarchal societies tend to point out the danger associated with a woman’s tempting beauty.  I wonder if there is any connection between the interpretation of both water and women as “life-givers” yet mysterious and dangerous entities and the correlation between female jinn and water jinn.

I’ve also thought a lot about the function of spirit-possession (and jinn) as a way of addressing non-normative behavior in these societies. What I’ve found to be one of the most striking aspects is that the person is considered “innocent” and is not responsible for his or her actions while possessed. This clearly has significant consequences for a society. What I found to be most interesting was the occurrence (and the subsequent condemnation) of Zar possession. This practice not only allowed an adult woman to share her concerns and anxieties about her home life, but also to have these concerns addressed and, seemingly, resolved (El-Shamy, 92). Here possession allows a woman to express her issues with her home life and, perhaps even, the patriarchal and oppressive societal environment of the village. Possession gives a voice to those who were otherwise unable to speak without the worry of consequential punishment. This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of spirit possession for me – the person is not held responsible for their actions during the possession. Thus the spirit is to blame for the unacceptable behavior, not the person.

In my first blog post, I mentioned that Religious studies scholar, Robert Bellah, argues that each culture is impacted by those which came before it. Cultural practices carry on from society to society, and while they may undergo various transformations from one culture or generation to the next, these practices generally do not go away. This is something that Professor Staub also mentioned in class. I found this to be very interesting and I’ve been reflecting a lot about it while reading about spirit possession and its functions in the societies we’ve been reading about. I began to think about different ways we account for unacceptable behavior in our modern society, when I thought of an expression we use when a person acts out in a fashion dissimilar to their normal persona: “he/she isn’t his/herself today.” Clearly this expression does not imply that this person is possessed by a spirit or jinn. However, it does still provide a method to “scapegoat” at least some responsibility for one’s actions (whether perceived warranted or not). The person is absolved of some of the responsibility and understanding or compassion is typically extended to this person. Here the scapegoat is not an invisible spirit, but it is still external, environmental situational factors which influence the bad or unacceptable behavior. Maybe the reasons why we shift blame away from ourselves in our modern society is different than the reason jinn were often scapegoats for bad behavior, but it’s an interesting connection I’ll continue to think about.

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