Before starting Sheila Webster Boneham’s “Empowering Spirits: Women and Zaar Spirit Possession” I was imagining a reading about how women were an unruly gender that got themselves in trouble and therefore were possessed. I thought that the women would be blamed for their possession and that this reading would highlight the inequality of the sexes when it came to possession. This isn’t however how the reading was. Instead of highlighting the sexism in possession, it talked about this wonderful community of women who came together because of their time being possessed. This threw me for a loop. Before this reading, I had thought that women in these folk religions were treated like uncontrollable wild beasts that the innocent and devoted men had to deal with. Now, after having read this my whole perspective has changed. I could have never imagined that these women would form a bond with one another over their experiences, let alone one that would be used in a way for the women to get more power in their lives(by having their husbands purchase jewelry for them, etc). By reading this piece I have completely changed how I see and read women in the context of religion. Though it might seem like women are simply victims to a patriarchal religious system, there is more to it. Overall, this reading completely changed my view on a woman’s role in popular religion and therefore has changed my whole thesis for my upcoming research paper.
In class Tuesday we talked about Zar and the connection to feminism. Zar is the process of healing that usually involves mostly women. This is a special event for women that live in a male dominated society. During the Zar there is an identified patient in a group and the process involves singing, dancing, trance, sacrifices, and lots of eating. Zar is the spirits possession of a female and its an external locus, force that ascends themselves among the patient. Each ritual gathering must have specific people including; family members, drummer, and women that have been successful in overcoming or maintaining their Zar. During this time there is usually only women. The patient is supposed to be a bride. Bride is a metaphor that brings back the beauty and the attention one would get on their wedding day. The male dominated society on a daily bases diminishes the women’s integrity. The metaphor of the bride also relates to the fact that she is entering this new union with the zar that is upon her. Throughout the ritual the bride will become over run by the zar and her dialect might change and the zar will make requests in return of living civil within the woman. These request can be for food, money,etc. The second reading we had this week mentioned that the one must learn “through ritual how not to resist a spirits attempts to enter he human realm through the vehicle of her body”. Once the requests are made then sacrifices are made and they use the blood in many different ways, from drinking it to putting it on their clothing, the blood is believed to have great healing properties.
When first learning about zar my first thought was that this is a great way women could exploit their controlling husbands. They would be able to hide behind the “zar” and request things they would want for a better life. But shortly after if the requests were too grand for the husband, some husbands would beat the zar out of the woman. The over all ritual is too time consuming and rigorous for anyone to do it just for some more jewelry or money. Once you participate and are successful you must come to all events after, you inducted into what is like a sisterhood. After looking at zar this week I am left with a few questions; are there statistics on whether or not one is more likely to become possessed by zar genetically? Are there reoccurrences within family? Can an individual go through the healing process more than once?
In reading Sheila Boneham, what I found extremely fascinating is the role of women in Muslim, North African society and the relation it has with the zar. Initially I did not quite comprehend why these possessed women had such a large community supporting them and why the ceremony required so much commitment, financial and time. If the zar comes from the saint spirit world as the jinn, and the symptoms are the similar to jinn position, why is the ceremony and trance completely different for what we have seen with jinn posession in men? This difference between the zar ritual for women and jinn ritual for men in previous readings constitutes the societal difference between men and women in these cultures.
Women in Islam, in the Middle East are seen as inferior to men in many aspects and have less equality and rights than their male counterparts. Zar possession allows, thus allows a woman for a certain period of time to have some power and control in society, maybe even more power than their husband or father, and they cannot be blamed for this shift in the power dynamic because the cause of their actions is from an external locus – the zar. In addition, this possession gives the women a chance to voice their inner needs and feelings without being suppressed or having to be submissive to the men in society and to also be integrated into part of a sisterhood and community with other women associated with the zar. This gives women a purpose and an experience of being a part of something bigger than themselves which they may not have been able achieve had it not been for the zar.
The zar ceremony puts the possessed woman in the center of attention and last much longer than would extracting a jinn from a male – from 3 to 7 days. 30 to 100 people attend and it constitutes of a great financial investment. The woman is dressed up as a bride to signify purity and importance, there as to further raise the woman on a hierarchy platform. The people attending the ceremony are mostly all women which signifies the importance of females in the societal role of the zar and gives ladies the opportunity to be equally important in the process of healing, contrary to their everyday lives with men.
We thus see the significance that the zar plays in the role of women in this culture and how it can be seen as something beneficial rather than destructive as jinn is mostly seen as in men. Women come out the other side as a new self-identified person, connected to a bigger community, whilst still tapping into the power of thezar spirit world, and have a place in society, where they previously felt suppressed and demeaned.
We haven’t discussed women in relation to the jinn much this semester, so the readings this week were very interesting. In a society that values men and masculinity, it is interesting to see how women use the zaar ritual to gain more control. As Boneham discusses in “Empowering Spritis: Women and the Zaar Spirit Possesion”, during the zaar ceremony, the spirit speaks through the possessed woman, often insulting and demanding things of the husband (68). This is therapeutic for the woman because it momentarily gives her an opportunity to broadcast her needs and desires, which she normally keeps to herself. By being connected to the zar spirit, the woman can tap into the spirit world and gain control over another world of power.
Another reason the zar ritual is therapeutic for the possessed woman is because she is surrounded by a group of women who have gone through similar experiences. As Boneham points out, the ceremony is performed like a wedding, where the possessed woman is the bride. Having a group of women who have gone through a similar experience is therapeutic because it provides a support network for the woman. The idea of the ritual being similar to a wedding is also interesting because it shows a lot about the role of women in society. By being possessed by the zar, the woman has essentially fallen apart. With the ritual, she is put back at the center of attention by being seen as a bride. By essentially marrying the zar, the woman cements a relationship with the spirit so it will not have as much control over her.
The zaar-spirit possession of women in Egypt and Sudan, as discussed by Boneham and Boddy, respectively, served similar purposes in both societies. In these cultures, women generally have fewer rights and less of a voice in society than men do, but the zaar ceremonies allow women a temporary freedom and a chance for self-expression–or as, Boddy writes, a chance for an “opening.”
The women of Egypt and Sudan are usually kept enclosed within their homes; the domestic sphere belongs to them, while the public sphere is of and for the men. The concept of women as being enclosed also connects to the practice of female circumcision and genital mutilation. Female circumcision serves to literally enclose a woman’s genitals, but it also serves as a form of social enclosure. Because female circumcision generally eliminates the possibility of a woman experiencing pleasure from a sexual encounter, this practice would likely reduce the possibility of a woman committing adultery. Thus, she would be further confined to her home and her responsibilities of a wife and mother.
In the zaar ceremonies, the zaar spirit speaks through the woman, hurling insults at her husband and making demands. The only time that a woman’s voice matters is when no one sees the voice as being hers–rather, it is the voice of the zaar spirit.
In this weeks reading, I was really interested to learn about the relationship between the zâr and jinn. They are seemingly very similar, and play very similar roles in Muslims society, with the major difference being that the zâr mainly effects women. I found it interesting that a society so focused on men had an entire different set of traditions and spirits relating to women. While the zâr are not something that help women per say, they do give possessed women a voice in an oppressive society. It seems that they are an outlet for women to express their unhappiness or negative feelings, without being blamed as an individual.
In the reading by Boddy, she discusses the negative attitudes by the orthodox and religious leaders towards the zâr and zâr rituals. She says that many consider the practices ‘unIslamic.’ I found this interesting, yet confusing at the same time. I can see how the extremely religious might be against the idea of zârs and the rituals that accompany them, as they are not directly mentioned in the Qur’an. However, it seems extreme to call them ‘unIslamic’ since they are essentially just jinn, who are widely accepted as spirits and are mentioned in the Qur’an.
This seems to relate back to the role of gender in Islam. It is hard to argue that the only problem the ultra orthodox have with the zâr is the lack of description in the Qur’an, since one could argue that they are just another variety of jinn, who are known to have many different names. The real problem seems to be the power of the zâr to bind a community of women and give them power in a society where they are essentially powerless. This seems to be a point of contention in the religion. On one hand, although the zâr gives women more power in their relationships then they would normally have, it also seems like a tool to used to maintain balance in society. Zâr ceremonies require a certain amount of commitment both financially and as a community that they are not a common everyday occurrence. It seems to me, that these ceremonies provide a necessary outlet in society for women to have power in a controlled setting. If there was no outlet given to these women to express their frustrations, then the society runs a risk of collapsing on itself when the women reach a certain unknown level of distress. While individually they hold no power, as a whole they could cause a rebellion. Zâr ceremonies are an easy way to control this risk. While they give some power away, it is still highly regulated.
Throughout our study of the zaar and their effects on women of Islamic North Africa, I have come to realize the positive effects that the zaar have on the women that they effect. While zaar are considered jinn, spirits normally associated with illness and possession, the zaar seem to empower and connect women to the societies in which they live.
In these societies women are looked down upon. They are expected to be in the home, taking care of their assigned husband and children they gave birth to. This social norm is seen in the practice of infibulation, where the women’s womb is enclosed and she is essentially concealed behind courtyard walls where she is expected to remain (Boddy 116).
When afflicted by zaar, a woman is said to have broken a social norm or barrier thus allowing the spirit to possess her. However, instead of being seen as mentally ill or crazy, the possessed woman is only viewed as a victim of the spirit, preserving their reputation as a normal member of society (Boneham 71). This concept allows women an excuse to act out of the social norms of society while not having to deal with the consequences of being labeled an outcast.
When possessed by the zaar, women are often treated in a ritual trance ceremony. Within this ceremony, the spirit speaks through the woman’s body, often demanding material goods. Despite what the spirit demands during a trance, the woman is always demanding attention to her needs during this time. When possessed, a a woman is the center of attention, an idea that is not common in these societies. There are some individuals, according to Boneham, that believe that women use the zaar as a means of exploiting men to give them material goods and attention (71).
In these societies of planned marriages, usually to a member of their kin, matrilineal lines become extremely tangled along the way. Possession by zaar allows women to get a sense of her matrilineal line because it is said that the same spirits affect members of the same family line. In one particular case, a woman had the same spirit possess her that her maternal great grandmother had, allowing her to open up and explore her maternal line (Boneham 125).
While possession by spirits is often associated with negative connotations, the possession by zaar in women can be viewed as positive. These spirits can empower and connect women to societies in which they have been limited to very little social status.
Middle Eastern and Muslim women have more agency then the West gives them credit for. The picture of a woman heavily shrouded and kept from the public eye by her jealous husband is the news’ favorite image to show. However, each day women are finding ways to circumvent any situation that they find unfair while still working within societal norms.
When a woman becomes possessed, the jinn must be appeased and it asks for various things to become so. Once it is appeased it will always stay with the woman and the woman and her family must obey the jinn so the spirit does not repossess the woman. Boneham notes that “the zaar spirit, speaking through the victim, can demand material goods or attentive, emotionally rewarding actions from those who are made accountable, thus possible alleviating some of the pressures that brought on the attack” (Boneham 710). This is a chance for women to take control of their lives. They know what they need in order for them not to become possessed again, and this could be different treatment by her husband and society. In this way the woman can make demands that she usually cannot and it will be socially acceptable. In some situations she can stop unjust treatment against her all while working in a framework that is accepted by society as legitimate.
This article by Sheila Boneham reminded me of a movie on Iranian divorce court that I watched for a class. Although it is hard for a woman to get a divorce, she can still do so by making claims against her husband such as abuse or impotency. Women go to courts and loudly make these claims, even if they were not true, to get a divorce from their husbands. They were not wilting flowers and they pushed their arguments until they usually got what they wanted. In this situation women worked within Sharia law and made a legitimate claims. They were not held back by society or men.
The Jewish Torah lays down the law for men to participate in daily prayer that is called the Minyan, and it happens at least three times a day. I found this interesting because women only need to pray once a day. It was really interesting to me how men have a lot more demands and priorities then women do. A Jewish man is supposed to pray once in the morning, once during the afternoon, and once at night before bed. There is a special prayer that everyone participates in during holiday seasons. This prayer is known as the Mussaf. I found this interesting because as a follower of the Roman Catholic religion we do not have any specific times during the day we must pray as men, but instead prayer is when you are at church or on your time. Prayer is very important in my religion but it is not more demanding to a certain gender. I also found it interesting how Jewish men wear a certain article of clothing called the kippah while praying. That is also not something practiced in my religious faith. I found this topic to be interesting because women do not necessarily receive equal activity in the Jewish religion. Men completely dominate the religious practices and beliefs. Even though women are allowed to read the Torah in modern-day synagogues, many orthodox Jewish synagogues do not allow women to participate in some activities like reading the Torah or leading prayer.
I find gender roles in religions to be extremely interesting because my religion is so different that reading this material really caught my eye. A man’s role usually is to support and provide for his family, and in the Jewish religion they completely dominate the religion, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
I thought that the relationship between genders in regards to Aisha was interesting. The idea that men need to receive Baraka as a woman in order to become a man supported by Aisha is fascinating. These men are not the same men as when they started out, but are something better and more fully realized. Hamadsha therapy as a healing process has some very interesting connotations.
The men receiving this form of therapy are basically being inseminated with Baraka and have to undergo womanhood to do this. He is then able to become a man better than before and supported by Aisha. Undergoing this process requires both a trance state and certain acts of self-mutilations, such as with a cactus.
This helps perpetuate gender roles. The problem with these men are because they aren’t able to fully become man. Their illness is seen as feminine and they need to be cured of it. Through doing this, they are able to once again be on top, fully man, with a new social status. Genders are polarized, women are seen as treacherous and untrustworthy, and are shown through Aisha. Men need to conquer Aisha and become superior once again.