Shuwwafat and Community in Morocco

The experiences and course of treatment shown by Rausch’s interview of shuwwafat in Morocco correlated closely with earlier readings on the Hamadsha.  Both of these groups in popular religion create a community, establish a new identity and connect to the possession of jinn.  The relationship between becoming a shuwwafa and creating a space for women to connect is especially fascinating in the Moroccan context.

A common theme amongst all the biographical information was the absence of the mother in the life of the shuwwafa.  From amongst the nine case studies included in Rausch’s work, six of the stories related by the women mentioned being sent away at a young age or their mother’s death (119-125).  The absence of a mother, often paired with neglect from the father, greatly affected the life story these women recounted.  Rausch does establish that childhood trauma might be a fiction meant to add to the mystique of the shuwwafa and even if it is just a story what can account for the repetition among the sources (127)?

The answer which Rausch does not explicitly mention in her chapter lies in the function of the shuwwafat.  Whether the story’s of abandonment, neglect and death are fictional or based in reality the emphasis of all the stories relies on the shuwwafa coming from a place of vulnerability to autonomy, and even power, in their relationship with jnun.  Part of the backlash against shuwwafa occurs because of their transgression of certain gender boundaries in Morocco.  Whether their background is fictive or real the shuwwafa establish themselves as victims who can use their personal experience, and relationship with jinn to help their clients.  In helping their clients to cope with their own jinn, the shuwwafa create a community of support meant to replace their clientele just like their relationship with jinn in their stories made them independent.

 

Possession and the Taboo

In this most recent reading I became very interested in the frequent occurrence of a troubling past of these shuwwafa. In almost every case study these women had a dead mother, an absent father, a stepmother, etc. To me this seemed like too much of a coincidence. I began to associate these traumatic back stories to the reason why these women became shuwwafa. I believe that these events caused the possession that troubled these women and in an attempt to take back control in their lives, they became shuwwafa. Once they became shuwwafa they could not only control their own lives but also help other women around them. This whole process reminded me greatly of sexual abuse victims. Often people who have been sexually abused come from rough backgrounds with poor family situations. Just like these women. After these people have been abused they often feel like they lose control over themselves and their lives. Just like possession. Once, if, these victims of abuse can regain control of their life again they often feel a need to help others like them, just like these women do with the shuwwafa. All of these connections make me wonder if these situations are not just similar but actually the same. Sexual assault/ abuse is a very taboo topic in general, but I would imagine it would be even more so in cultures like the one in the reading. I think there might be a possibility that these women are using possession as a way of dealing with abuse. This could be their way of dealing with the trauma dealt to them in a safer way.

Gender Roles in Spirit Possession and Healing

The idea that jnun/zar possession can be passed down throughout generations of women is fascinating, especially since we discussed sainthood being hereditary in men. Both ultimately give men and women more power, since sainthood and overcoming jnun possession leads to healing powers in most cases. I found the stories of Fatuma and Fatna in Chapter 4 of Rausch’s Bodies, Boundaries, and Spirit Possession to be very interesting. These women had a family history of jnun possession and saw their “entry into the vocation of shuwwafa utimately as the will of Allah” (Rausch, 117).

Although our past readings and class discussions have not mentioned women being jealous of men’s powers regarding sainthood, the topic of men being jealous or suspicious of women following jnun/zar possession and becoming a part of the shuwwafa has risen. For example, after Fatuma’s training, her husband accused her of being unfaithful while she was gone (Rausch, 114). Additionally, Rausch mentions in Chapter 3 that the female body is subjected to male supervision. I didn’t think the zar ceremonies were a valid reason for men to feel threatened about their role in society or in their marriages. However, since it was already rare for women to be working, I can see why the role women in the shuwwafa played as therapists caused men to be jealous. These women had a higher social status and financial stability. Women even “visit[ed] the sanctuary to acquire baraka,” which was a behavior typically attributed to men (Rausch, 109). The sense of independence these women had may have threatened their husbands and the men around them.

Because these traits were supposedly passed down, I wonder if the power that women had as part of the shuwwafa became more or less threatening to men from generation to generation. Did the men get used to the women around them being more independent, or did they grow to resent it more throughout time? The contrast of the reactions to the powers men and women received through their family members further complicates the role of gender in religious societies. Since sainthood and roles in zar ceremonies and in the shuwwafa seem to be given to people without a choice, perhaps men were offended that women were given powers similar to theirs as women were seen as inferior.

Role of Women in Shuwwafat

In reading Rausch, what I found extremely interesting is the community which women develop because of, and around spirit possessions known to inhabit women. I initially did not fully comprehend how the shuwwafat became independent, business woman in a society which oppresses women, whilst at the same time being possessed by a spirit. How can these women make an income in their repressive society and why are men not completely restricting them? Even though most men don’t approve of the practice of a shuwwafat and many times leave their wives for practicing, women are not banned by law in Morocco to practice and make an income in this manner.

Women in becoming a shuwwafat break the social and traditional structure by having jobs, which decrease the dominance of the man by earning their own income, and using traditional and spiritual roles by making it into a modern practice of a cash business. From previous readings of the Hamadsha, we see how important manliness is to males in the community and how they need to assert their manhood. In relying on their wives as a source of income and them stepping into the role of a man in this aspect, makes a man in this culture feel inferior and that can be a large reason for divorce among shuwwafat women. However, in contradiction, in one of the case studies of which Rausch speaks, the police protect and allow the women to practice her lila in her house, which shows acceptance by the state of the shuwwafat practice.

The role  of Aisha Qandisha in regard to women is contradictory in that of men. In men Aisha Qandisha is seen as a possessive, controlling jinn which commands men. However, in women, she is the voice of the possession in the shuwwafat and offers guidance, advice and remedies for women seeking help from the shuwwafat. In this context, Aisha Qandisha embodies the healing of women and a new start to their lives from the men they encounter. To me it seems that this jinn is a strong force for women’s needs and an aid creating a community for women in which they can belong.

What seems to be the case among most women in the case studies of Rausch is that becoming a shuwwafat is “the will of Allah” (p122) and is caused by the circumstances of their childhood or marriage which leads them to find a new self identity and purpose in life, to help other women change their circumstances and give them advice in order to enhance the community of women in their culture.

Shuwwafa(t)

The women described by Raush in “Bodies, Boundaries, and Spirit Possession” have a remarkable amount of power in a highly repressive society. The women who often endure possession themselves and undergo a very lengthy treatment process often emerge with much more power and wealth than the very men who raised them in an environment in which they were vulnerable to possession or the husbands who rejected them. For example, in the case of Naime her husband “never approved of her vocation and still tries to discourage her form practicing” however he eventually became possessed himself and Naime “has become extremely successful and owns and lets two houses” (Raush, 123). Many of the women who become Shuwaffa are able to at least live “relatively comfortably” on their own or with their children after they husband leaves them, most commonly because they do not approve of the constant liyali in the home (Raush, 122). The shuwaffa in chapter 3 also owns her own property, which from my understanding is fairly rare in this culture.

I see the fact that many of these women have more power than they would if they did not become these healers as a wonderful thing of course but I think it should not be overlooked that many of them had incredibly painful childhoods and marriages. This new power and place in society is a small reimbursement for the very traumatic suffering they endured, but it is remarkable that this power has allowed them to overcome their own past in the place of treatments or medications that would be prescribed in the identical situations in the western medical world.

The Role of Shuwwâfât

According to the reading this week, women in some Muslim communities have been described as shuwwâfât, or spirit healers. In chapter three of Bodies, Boundaries and Spirit Possession, Rausch describes shuwwâfât as healers and mentors to women, an idea comparable to a modern day therapist. These women helped advise other women on problems in their relationships, focused on husbands and fathers.  What I found particularly interesting in this article was the distinction of these women’s roles that was not found in any other aspect of Muslim culture that we had read about before.

These healers had privileges in the community and a sense of freedom both socially and financially. Unlike any other category of women we have read about, shuwwâfât make their own paths and don’t require having a male figure in their life to support themselves.  As I learned more about shuwwâfât in chapter four, particularly about their place in society, it became apparent that their role was very controversial. While they play an integral role in society by helping other women with their relationships and possessions, they also defy gender roles in a very strictly gendered society. I thought it was interesting that all the women described in chapter four had encountered some form of possession themselves during childhood. Most of them highlighted this possession as an integral part to their journey to becoming a shuwwâfât.  To me this looked as if the women who were identified as the healers used this possession to verify their credibility as a shuwwâfât.

Through the combination of both chapters of readings there became a very obvious dichotomy in the role of shuwwâfât. While the community allowed a woman freedom, they also brought shame to these women and their families. Women who were married often lost their husbands when they chose the profession and became financially independent. I recognized the comparison in the zâr ceremonies we read about last week, because the role of the shuwwâfât seems like another way of maintaining order in society. While some people did oppose the zâr ceremonies, there seemed to be much more hostility directed towards the shuwwâfât even though the roles of the women are very similar. One reason for this hostility could be that unlike zâr ceremonies which are community-wide events that are mainly controlled by men even though they are centered around women, shuwwâfât are more personal relationships between women that can seem more secretive and therefore threatening to men and their control.  The discussions and practices were much more like a therapist and patient rather than a community ceremony. Therefore, the women appear to have more power and are attacked by men in the society whom are threatened by their power.

Stigma of Becoming a Therapist in Moroccan Female Ritual Practices

Entering the final weeks of the semester, the class has been comparing perceptions of male and female ritual practices within Africa. Interestingly, the practices do overlap based on the types of client conditions and the treatment implementation (e.g. ceremonies that involve trance, jnun communication, and use of amulets and other objects to help with protection from harm). However, there is a key distinction that separates the acceptability of the practices based on gender. When the practices are deemed unacceptable, it causes social problems.

For men, it is encouraged to seek out ritual therapy (brotherhoods) when inflicted with a jnun-caused illness, since it instills confidence that a man can fulfill his societal roles. It rejuvenates his sense of self by giving him a stronger identity recognition. As for women, there is a discouragement to consult the zaar and shuwwafat for treatment due to community fears that those two sources give women a sense of power that allows them to break societal norms and upset community balance. Specifically in the case of therapy done by shuwwafat, it is monitored by the Moroccan police, thus it is considered a public threat to cultural stability (Rausch, 136). Shuwwafat practices are highly regarded as non-Islamic in the sense that it is moving away from tradition. The issue of public discouragement causes stigma to exist in the actual practice. Is it truly worth getting involved?

In previous thoughts, it seemed to me that there was little mental health stigma presented in Moroccan culture, which is true for the female patient, but not the female therapist. Therapist stigma goes against the external locus of control theory that seemed to be prevalent in Moroccan therapy, but not apparent in all parts. This stigma evolved from the existing four negative stereotypes of shuwwafat (Rausch, 137), that a person is responsible for becoming a therapist (internal locus of control). There is not an acceptance of them into the community due to the possible power threat. The definition of power described by Rausch implies that women are not only trying to fit into the Moroccan community, but also, are trying to gain control of the public sphere.  Some of the shuwwafat have an aim to commercialize their practice (seen in type two shuwwafat category), therefore, they have a focus on financial gain. Public opinion indicates that a shuwwafa’s main objective is to make profit as opposed to focusing on the well-being of the clients. Also, media does not help the view of shuwwafa, since it uses selective attention to point out negative experiences rather than capturing the reality of the practice.

In order to reduce the stigma behind becoming a shuwwafa, people within the Moroccan community need to better communicate its purpose. Similarly to the zaar ceremony, women do not have the intention of disturbing societal balance. Women who become shuwwafat only get involved because it permits them to cope with their shaky family relations and past possessions by jnun. Additionally, they are releasing their suppressed emotions in a constructive manner. Rather than acting out, they choose to channel their emotions into their therapeutic practices and help other women with similar illnesses. The financial competition aspect should be lessened so that it is not believed to be the main reason for being involved with the practice. The key group that needs to be educated is the male population that hold strong traditionalist views. Usually, better education methods is crucial to reducing any form of stigma.

Mum’s the Word

Margaret Rausch used several case histories of shuwwafat living in Sidi Ma’ruf to illustrate the similarities between almost a dozen different woman who make their living as shuwwafat. Among the similarities that she presents, some of the most apparent are the relationship between the woman and her maternal uncle and/or her mother, as well as a history of spirit possession during childhood, which may or may not have been treated at the time. However, Rausch does not just present these similarities unquestioningly; she also asks if some of the similarities might be fictitious, crafted by the shuwwafat to lend credence to their claims of abilities.

The maternal uncle, as described by Fatuma, Fatna, and Khaduj, was often associated with some form of neglect or cruelty, often at the hands of the maternal uncle’s wife. Fatuma, Malika, Naima, and Latifa all experienced problems in their relationships with a mother, stepmother, or a father’s wife. The tension between all of these shuwwafat and a mother-figure or relative closely associated with the mother does not seem to be coincidental. Additionally, many of these women experience phases of possession as children. Such similarities between these women, all of whom became shuwwafat (to varying degrees of success), could have several causes.

First of all, tension between a mother/person associated with the maternal, could lead to spirit possession, both as a child and an adult. This cause is the simple, literal explanation that would be assumed if one took these women’s stories at face value. However, a second cause, and one that Rausch suggests, is that some of these women are exaggerating or outright lying about their backgrounds, in order to fit with some overarching image of the shuwwafat.

A third possibility, and the one that I find most intriguing, is that there could be a certain degree of mental illness and/or childhood trauma at play. Abuse, neglect, or even just a lack of warmth and empathy at a young age can affect a child for the rest of her life. A child might act out in a manner that could be termed “possession” in a certain culture, and if a young child became convinced that she was possessed at that time, then as an adult, she could be more likely to either a.) believe that she was possessed by a spirit again, or b.)pretend to be possessed in order to gain attention, power, and/or freedom.

While the similarities between these women’s case histories might be obvious, the causes behind these similarities are less so. It is nearly impossible to determine which of the three causes discussed here are responsible for the similarities (or if it is another cause altogether). However, it is still helpful to examine this phenomenon through multiple lenses, rather than making an erroneous assumption.

Women in Public and Domestic Spheres

A woman possessed by a zaar is a lot less threatening to her husband than a shuwwafa. Shuwwafa break into the public sphere, the man’s domain, while women possessed by zaar do not affect their husband’s image in society.  Most Islamic societies are conservative and traditional which means that women are expected to stay in the home. As long as women remain in the domestic sphere men can continue their role in society without hindrance from their wives.

A woman possessed by a zaar has the ability to make demands of her family, including her husband. Her various demands help her to regain control of her life and give her agency. However, the rituals mostly take place in the home and do not intrude into the public sphere. Even the demands she makes of her husband will usually not affect his role outside the home. He has the ability to listen or not, though it seems he usually does, and no one will know if his wife has power over him. Thus, he can still travel outside into society and assume his position as a man.

The shuwwafat threaten men’s position in society. In traditional societies, as mentioned above, women mostly reside in the home. However, the shuwwafat are business women similar to men. They earn money on their own which not only makes them independent, but also makes them full participators of society.  In her book, Bodies, Boundaries, and Spirit Possession, Margaret Rausch interviews various shuwwafat. She notices that an inordinate amount of the shuwwafat had trouble with their spouses not accepting their professions. Rausche writes that “of the 11 shuwwafat…five out of the 11 were rejected or divorced by their husbands shortly after they began practicing” (Raushe 143). The men most likely felt intimidated because she became a possible breadwinner of the family and encroached on his role as the person who works outside of the home. In some respects, she emasculated him.

Zaar, Nushu, and mental health

The idea of zaar possession, especially of women, has many parallels with the mental health culture of the modern western world. The very basis of comparison is that “The symptoms that nubians interpret as zaar-induced would in western terms be classed primarily as various forms of anxiety reactions, hysteria, and depression, although more severe problems like schizophrenia are sometimes treated as zaar possession” (Boneham, 64). Mental health conditions have a colossal spectrum in both cultures, but they do differ in what causes them to appear. In western medicine, an inbalance in brain chemistry or genetics is most often to blame, instead of something dealing with spirits or genies as it is with zaar. When the locus of responsibility is so external (this is something we have talked about for the last month or so in terms of disease), it removes much of the accountability from the sufferer, which can prevent stigma or judgment from developing in the people around them. This is the premise of the argument I have made in multiple blog posts, however Boneham presented a new side of the argument that other authors we have examined had not. She includes the amount of power that the zaar ceremony gives to the woman (the victim) and that they may be accused of manipulating that (Boneham, 71). This argument has a strong foundation especially because of how powerless women are in this society. The day of this ceremony they are practically worshipped the way they were on their wedding day and they are given basically free reign on their words and actions. This power is important especially when considering that many women are not capable of leaving husbands despite being unhappy and this does give them the benefit of guaranteed attention and expense.

This explanation for the ceremony makes me uncomfortable because logically the idea that women are doing is for attention does have some foundation in a society that is deeply repressive. However, as someone who has seen many people close to me suffer from serious mental illness I would never want them to think that I am simply assuming they are doing it for attention and that I don’t care deeply about their well being. I think that while there are absolutely some people who may manipulate the system, it is important to treat mental health as an illness that has effects on many different facets of a person. If a woman feels so repressed that she is willing to use this ceremony to her own advantage then that itself is symbolic of something being wrong and a request for help.

Another comparison I wanted to make about the zaar ceremony following our class on Tuesday but we ran out of time is the fact that many cultures had rituals and ceremonies performed by women that exist as an underlying current to what the men do. It is not necessarily that it is a secret, but things like nushu script in chinese culture was only written and read by women. It is important that things like this exist and while it could be said that it represents the power women have that the men don’t put a stop to it, I don’t feel that is the best explanation. I think it is much more likely that this ceremony has been allowed to continue despite significant repression because of extreme apathy on the part of the men and a willingness to allow their wives to be handled and maintained by other women in order to lessen the work they are expected to do.