On this All-Hallows Eve, witches will be painting the town black. People will be watching witchy movies, decorating their houses and gardens with witches to delight trick or treaters, and dressing up in some of the most reliable Halloween costumes: the spooky or sexy witch.
The recent success of TV shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (watch it for its shameless celebration of feminism and focus on gender!), American Horror Story’s Coven, books like Stacey Hall’s The Familiars, and literary characters like Hermione Granger, have brought witches – good and bad – back into the mainstream with a veritable bang!
But while witches continue to fascinate as feminist symbols, the history of the witch is also bound up with a history of misogyny that still persists today. The Guardian recently published an excellent article entitled From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are labelled as witches. In it, the author, Madeline Miller, writes how witches were feared because they transgress norms of female power and female sexuality. She details the types of women who were typically labelled as witches: older women and widows, foreign women (fears of witches are often grounded in racism), as well as women with political power like Joan of Arc and Anne Boleyn. This “othering” process conveniently served to root out women from society who were different and were seen as threats for various reasons. Fast forward to 2016 and the depictions of Hilary Clinton as a witch during the U.S. election campaign illustrate that the term “witch” is still a powerful label used in an attempt to subjugate women who are seen as usurping the status quo.
Silvia Federici’s seminal book Caliban and the Witch considers how capitalism as an economic system helped to transform ordinary women into witches. Federici discusses how the transition to capitalism helped divide people along gender lines and how anger over the system was channelled into forms of misogyny that would set the stage for the witch trials in Europe. She writes that the witch hunts were a major political initiative – as well as a religious one – to control women’s bodies as “a means of production and reproduction”. Whether or not you agree with Federici’s theories about capitalism, there is no doubt the witch hunts represented a form of state and church-sanctioned gendercide or feminicide whereby tens of thousands of women were literally hunted down and killed.
And while it might seem that witch trials and witch hunts are ancient history, this is unfortunately not the case. In the last decade, UN officials have reported a global rise in the number of women killed as witches. In India, older women are targeted as scapegoats or as an excuse to seize their lands and goods. In Saudi Arabia, witch-hunting is fairly institutionalised and women have been convicted of practising witchcraft by the courts. In Ghana, women suspected of witchcraft have been exiled to “witch camps”, as captured in Rungano Nyoni’s excellent film, I Am Not a Witch. In the US, a survey found that 21% of people believed in witches of the “evil” variety.
So, while donning your pointy hat and stripy stockings this Halloween, it is important to take a moment to consider the misogyny that still permeates women’s lives – both in the form of severe human rights abuses but also in the casual everyday sexism whereby “witch” is still wielded as a pejorative term to suppress women’s agency by men who feel threatened by their power.
Happy Halloween Witches!
Photo on Max Pixel
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