“It is only in losing to men that women can win; only in losing, and losing judiciously, that they can activate their fertility, pursue reproductive careers, and attain their social goals. Women who wield power must do so implicitly, leaving the appearance of power to men (Bourdieu 1977:41). Through strategic compliance, women might negotiate their subordination” (Boddy 1989: 185).
I figured now would be a good time to revisit one of my all-time favorite books, “Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zār Cult in Northern Sudan”, by Janice Boddy. This book accounts for nearly two years of ethnographic field work in the Muslim village of Hoyfriat in Sudan. Boddy’s study offers a multidimensional interpretation of the “zar” (spirits) that is grounded in anthropological theory, observation and her own authorial self-description, which is nothing less than fascinating and delightful.
Generally, spirit possession is a phenomena that primarily affects women, and specifically women after they have been married, and often when they are experiencing fertility or marital problems. Some believe, (such as I.M.Lewis) that spirit possession is intentionally invoked by marginal members of society, to make up for a lack of personal power. Once a person is deemed as “possessed” they are removed from their social role and placed into the care of a medium. The medium acts as a negotiator between the spirit’s demands and the family member (usually a husband) who must meet them, in order to have their person returned to the domestic role they serve. The Zar sprites are always described as liking or coveting all ‘the good things,’ all the things in fact which every wife hankers after, such a fine perfume, chocolate and jewelry.
Through her observations, Boddy was continuously struck by the vast differences between men and women. In terms of almost every practice, there were tremendous gaps. Even the language they used was different. These differences ultimately favor the men. Women are generally regarded as “wombs,” with their primary purpose simply being for childbearing. Marriage is a significant and often traumatic, defining moment, where women leave their coveted virginal status behind. It is a complicated process to be a successful wife, and in a culture that practices polygamy, being a “first-bride” is hugely significant for a woman’s success. The marriage process marks the entrance into the treacherous world where she must delicately balance the madonna-whore dichotomy, while also providing neither too many nor too few children. Fertility is so important that if a woman has a dysfunction in this sphere it can easily be grounds for divorce. And if she does divorce, while she can re-marry, she will never again have status as “first bride”.
Perhaps the most apparently brutal moment of a woman’s existence is pharonic circumcision, which is considered an important and necessary rite of passage. “Which is better,” several women asked, “an ugly opening or a dignified closure?” (ibid., 52). The stigma of a female’s orifice extends to even their mouths, and women avoid having their pictures taken smiling or laughing (ibid.). Body orifices are considered threatening, not only because they represent a woman’s sexual power, but also her point of vulnerability, and act as potential entrees for possessive spirits (ibid., 117). Great efforts are therefore made to guard the Hoyfriati female from potential invasion: “their bodies are protected by a battery of physical and ritual defenses designed to reinforce the Hofriyat world at its most significant but potentially weakest point, the vaginal metus, where alien others – non-Hofriyati humans and zayran – threaten to intrude” (ibid., 141).
However, these safeguards fail to protect the women from possession or “invasion” from spirits. The ceremony itself is an extension of the forbidden entry, as it can entail: “smoking, wanton dancing, flailing about, burping and hiccupping, drinking blood and alcohol, wearing male clothing, publicly threatening men with swords, speaking loudly lacking due regard for etiquette, these are hardly the behaviors of Hofriyati women for whom dignity and propriety are leading concerns. But in the context of a zar they are common and expected” (ibid., 131).
It may be that we never know the true nature of what Zar spirit possession is all about. Is it a manipulative technique brought on by secretly badd-ass women to negotiate their world on their own terms? Is it a sign of madness? Or is it, as Boddy suggests, a “broad term referring to an integration of spirit and matter, force or power and corporal reality, in a cosmos where the boundaries between an individual and her environment are known to be permeable, flexibly drawn, or at least negotiable” (Boddy 1994: 407). This definition could then be extended to see the human and spirit worlds as parallel realities, nether feigned nor fallen prey to. Regardless of the answer, any activity where it is acceptable for the womenfolk to wear male clothing and publicly threaten men with swords, sounds pretty cool to me.
Boddy, Janice. 1989. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women and Men in the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan, Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Lewis, I. M. 1969. ‘Spirit Possession in Northern Somaliland’, In Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa (eds.), pp.188-219. J. Middleton & J. Beattie. London: Routledge.
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