Up until the 70s, witch hunts, also known as witch trials or witch purges were legal in many parts of the world, including the most developed nations of today. Execution as a punishment for “divination, sorcery and malevolent magic” is said to have reached an all time high during the European Wars of Religion (16th to 18th century) when an estimated 50,000 people were burnt at the stake out of which roughly 80% were, you guessed it, women.
Usually labelled as the cause behind (or to take the light away from) socio-political turmoil, conflict between religious sects and natural disaster such as war, famine or disease, women were accused of satanic rituals, hounded and burnt at the pyre.
Often turning out to be ‘jackpots’ for eminent members of society such as Witch Doctors who’d charge for an exorcism or sell body parts of the deceased, all trials evoke the same image: an accused woman, an angry mob with pitchforks, a demand for her blood. And while we may think that the hunger for Witch hunts has been satiated, the advent of modern technology and pop culture has only pushed the idea forward in a newer way that’s more inclined towards character assassination. Tabloids, paparazzi, sensationalist media and perverse men in positions of power continue exploiting women, damaging their reputation and blaming them for the downfall of men.
Recently, we saw the vilification of actress and VJ Rhea Chakraborty on multiple platforms over boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. This is not a recent phenomenon. In the recent past, women were made scapegoats by the media mostly owned by corporates in order to divert our attention from topics crucial to our knowledge and existence. We can draw parallels between Rhea ‘Vishkanya Gold digger’ Chakraborty and yesteryear’s ‘femme fatale’, Rekha. In an excerpt from Rekha: The Untold Story by Yasser Usman, then rising entrepreneur Mukesh Agarwal and Rekha got married within a month of knowing each other. However, it was after the wedding that she learnt he suffers from chronic depression and despite being a die-hard fan, he was not very happy with the nature of her profession. Soon, the relationship became tumultuous as his behaviour became erratic and possessive and seven months later, he took his own life, using her dupatta as a noose.
What followed was a national witch hunt where Rekha was labelled a ‘man eater’, ‘vamp’ and ‘homewrecker’. Agarwal’s mother cried: “wo daayan mere bete ko khaa gayi” (that witch devoured my son) and the nation followed suit. Director Subhash Ghai said, “Rekha has put such a blot on the face of the film industry that it’ll be difficult to wash it away easily. I think after this any respectable family will think twice before accepting any actress as their bahoo.” Anupam Kher also gave his two cents on the matter, saying “professionally and personally, I think its curtains for her” and that he wouldn’t know how he’d react if he ever ‘came face to face with her’.
The same incidents resonate in the stories of Megan Fox, Sridevi, Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, Parveen Babi, Janet Jackson, you name it. And in case you think it can only be a national phenomenon, miniscule witch hunts take place everyday as schoolgirls, college girls, the girl from your neighbourhood who wears a crop top and has male friends, working women, divorced women, single mothers and ex-girlfriends are ostracized, looked down upon, labelled sluts, vamps, gold diggers, bitches and are sexualised in private group-chats. Over 3000 mentions of the word ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ are registered on twitter everyday with 61% of them coming from female tweeters.
We as a nation are obsessed with women who are independent, ambitious, successful, sexual. We get off to their leaked private photos but cry whore on social media. We take avid interest in their personal lives and then use it against them. We find it easy to believe that a woman that does not fit the norms set for her is a daayan, that men are naïve children that can be led astray by a woman and her calculating ways. Tomorrow, it can be you, me or any woman we know. And whether you are a poor woman or an independent superstar, justice will be equally non-existent for the both of us. At the end of the day, society will find a way to put a woman on trial, and burn a witch at the stake.
Sania Ansari is a student pursuing English Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Nidhi
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.