• February 23, 2024

Salem witches and global trials

What do you know of the touch test, witch cakes and spectral evidence? An answer would take us to 1692 colonial America. The New England settlement was still young, obstinately religious and growing. In January 1692 Salem village (now Danvers)’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, a man reviled by the local populace for his rigidity and greed, complained that his 9-year-old daughter Betty Parris and his 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams were exhibiting strange behaviour. This strange behaviour included throwing things, making odd noises and contortions. The two kids would also complain about the sensation of pinpricks. This was attributed to witchcraft. To find the perpetrators two tests were devised. When the suffering child was going through the height of pain people were asked to touch her one by one. If your hand was on the girl when the pain stopped you were a witch. Ergo the touch test.

A witch cake was another incredible device. Rye meal baked in the possessed child’s urine was fed to a dog. If at the very moment you were unlucky enough to feel pain in your body you were a witch. Predictably three culprits emerged. The Caribbean slave of the Parris family named Tituba known for her prolific storytelling skills about witchcraft and sorcery; Sarah Good, a poor homeless woman; and Sarah Osborne, an old destitute woman. Both Good and Osborne professed innocence but Tituba cracked and confessed to selling her soul to a black man who ostensibly was a crossroads demon. Good’s four-year-old daughter Dorothy was also interviewed and her naive replies were interpreted as confessions.

This kicked up the storm of mass hysteria. More people complained of being possessed. Around 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Summary trials were arranged. Given the supernatural nature of accusations dreams, feelings and irritations were also allowed as evidence. This is called spectral evidence. In the end, 20 people, mostly women, were put to death.

What caused this mass panic? One clue just passed above. It was a rye consuming settlement. Rye is susceptible to ergot fungus growth. Ergot gives LSD and ergot poisoning can cause hallucinations and pain. If the kids were not just pretending, could they be suffering from ergot poisoning? That’s one explanation. A simpler explanation is staring you in the face. Look at the accused. A slave woman with storytelling skills. A homeless beggar with a bad reputation. An ageing woman who did not go that often to the church. As the accusations spread most of the women that came under the suspicion were those who did not conform to the patriarchal society’s stereotypes or at times even fashion sense. In short, a woman who could think, choose for herself and refuse to be bullied by society was a witch. So, these trials powered by spectral evidence were a paranoid society’s way of sorting them out. Three centuries and almost a score later many of these victims have still not found true justice.

Fast forward to today. After this much time, things must have improved significantly. We often hear about women emancipation, don’t we? They say the proof of a pudding is in its eating. Shall we?

For a brief period, it looked like women may finally get their rights. Women world leaders were emerging every day. A woman’s right to her body was being accepted. She was being seen as an equal citizen and not as a vessel of family honour or an instrument of population growth and domestic comfort. But then something went awry and the worst instincts and insecurities of men woke up. Now what we witness is a systematic erosion of gains made over decades and this collapse is nearly universal.

Do not for a second believe that I will cop out and not talk about the local context. I will and that is precisely what is driving this conversation. But I want to focus first on the globalisation of misogyny. And this discussion starts with one mass shooting in the English town of Plymouth last month where Jake Davidson, a 22-year-old man, first killed his mother, his father, a 3-year-old girl and went on a killing spree ending in a suicide. Initially, the authorities refused to classify it as an act of terrorism. But then video clips started emerging in which he can be heard spouting misogynistic hate and sympathising with Incels.

Incels or involuntary celibates is a burgeoning internet community of male cry babies who blame women for own refusal to grow up and find a date. They believe women are shallow, always driven by greed and uncontrollable animal instincts. In their worldview warped by self-pity and inferiority complex, there are three kinds of men. Chads (the muscular, athletic type lookers), Betas (ordinary men often with deep pockets) and they (the untouchable Incels). Women marry Betas for financial stability and then cheat with Chads. Because the Incels can’t find love or companionship the state should force women to mate with them. This putrid worldview often leads them to violence and therefore there has been a steady increase in terror attacks by them.

Corollary to this infestation is the growth of racist groups around the world. Ever wondered why white nationalists speak of alleged falling white birth rates and conspiracy theories like the great replacement? It is all about women. They want white women to themselves. Women without agency. Women part of their online fantasies called cottagecore.

But that is a bunch of weirdos. Surely, we are better. Right? Religions claim to emancipate women. Democracies claim to guard against the attacks on their freedoms. Then why is it that all conservative movements from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Republicans in Texas want to control female bodies? One Republican leader even called women the host bodies. In India, the BJP supporters have a problem with women wearing ripped jeans with their knees visible.

In Pakistan, three tragic incidents show you what has gone wrong. The motorway incident, the Noor Mukadam murder and the Minar-i-Pakistan incident all began with the victim-blaming. So, women should not go anywhere because men cannot control themselves? Will it be some kind of society then? Shouldn’t the state and the society treat every citizen as equal and safeguard their lives? Is it not what a social contract is about?

I will not pretend to know what women go through. Only their voice is relevant here. But as a father of two girls, I think I am within my rights to share my distress that the promise I made to myself and the core of my social contract that they will grow up as equal and free citizens is facing a grave danger. We need to prove that we deserve daughters and stop playing with their lives. This globalisation of the Salem witch trials needs to end now.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2021.

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