The Wicked Within

The last few days I have been tweeting about a set of unfortunate circumstances surrounding young Rubina Ali, the young girl that played the child Latika in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. First, a British paper engaged in some investigative reporting and alleged that Ali’s parents were attempting to sell her off for a high bid (in order to buy their way out of the slums or just out of plain greed). Then it appears that Indian police began investigating this serious allegation. Finally today, a vicious cat fight occurred between Ali’s mom and step mom as the poor girl watched on in tears. This is of course a really sad story born from a seemingly happy one. There aren’t a lot of details I can add to this that you can’t simply read in the three articles I linked above. Instead, the focus of this post is in about a single sentence from the third article which caught my eye:

After seeing Munni [the step mother] talking to reporters, Khushi [the biological mother] launched a verbal attack, accusing Munni of using black magic to control Rubina. [Link]

Allegations of witches and witchcraft are not new to India and at least a few times a year the western media highlights them. They also occur quite regularly in the U.S. and all around the world for that matter. It is a phenomenon that spans borders, cultures, and time. A must-read piece at Slate today highlighted two new books (The Enemy Within and The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village) on the subject of witch hunts and why vulnerable women or young girls are most frequently the victims of these sort of hunts which seek to expunge “evils” from within a group.

The allure of witch hunting can grip any of us if we abandon our adherence to reason and evidence. As a tribal, poorly evolved species, we are very vulnerable to believing that we are surrounded by secretive, wicked people who might seem like us at first glance but who are, in fact, conspiring against us–and must be rooted out and destroyed. John Demos explains how this differs from other forms of persecution: “Witch-hunting alone finds the other within its own ranks. The Jew, the black, and the ethnic opposite exist, in some fundamental sense, ‘on the outside.’ … The witch, by contrast, is discovered (and ‘discovery’ is key to the process) inside the host community.”

We know that witch hunts break out most ferociously at times of trauma and stress. There was no concept of child witchcraft in Congo until the war began and 6 million people were killed. Now a broken and terrorized population has turned on its own children in a desperate, futile attempt to find some way to regain control. The first great witch hunt in Europe came after the Black Death killed one-third of the population. The second came between 1580 and 1650, when the climate cooled and crops failed. Similarly, witch hunting erupted in America–on the dirt-tracks of Salem, Mass.–at a time when 10 percent of the colonists were being killed and all lived in constant fear of the American Indians who were trying to defend their civilization from extinction. [Link]

It should be noted that the author of this article, British journalist Johann Hari, is a self-described Antitheist and that his left-leaning contempt for religiously rooted hysteria is clear in the article:

You might think the spread of science would cure the plague. But literal witch hunting still recurs in the most backward and fundamentalist parts of even the Western world. Sarah Palin has boasted about being blessed by a Kenyan preacher called Thomas Muthee, who called on Jesus to protect Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft.” It turned out Muthee took this very literally–he boasted of driving elderly “witches” out of their communities back in Africa. The Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, drives out “evil spirits” himself. In the Catholic journal New Oxford Review in 1994, he claimed that a “demon” possessed his “intimate friend” Susan–and that he personally cast it out through a process of prayer and exorcism. He even wondered whether, in the process, he cured Susan’s cancer. [Link]

IF in fact the disturbing allegations surrounding Rubina’s family are true (the father denies it), then her parents will be publicly shamed. Shame heaped on top of poverty in a situation where talk of “black magic” has already been broached is an explosive combination and may make the family desperate:

The witch-killers always describe a feeling of sweet relief. All the guilt they feel–for snatching food from their starving neighbors, for taking part in atrocities–is channeled outward. The evil is somewhere else–in that child, in that old woman–and it can be killed. But there is always a nasty irony: They believe they are expunging “evil” when in fact they are enacting it.

Yet this doesn’t explain why witch hunting keeps taking the same form every time, with only mild variations. Why, in particular, is it almost always targeted at women? In 1486, a witch-killer called Heinrich Kramer wrote Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a staggeringly popular guide on how to identify, torture, and kill the female fiends. Every page drips with misogyny. It says a woman has a “slippery tongue” and is “a liar by nature.” Her “carnal lust … is insatiable,” and she will indulge it with Satan eagerly. [Link]

Let’s hope that things turn out ok for little Rubina. I definitely don’t want to see a movie about her life.

29 thoughts on “The Wicked Within

  1. Interesting post Abhi – from one sentence spewed by a desperate woman looking for any reason or excuse to make her case, you have touched on something which still affects many people today. Have also read about incidents in war torn African countries where ‘magical cures’ for AIDS have even extended to doing horrible things to little babies.

    Education seems to be the only way to cure superstition; but the Palin and Jindal examples remind me of those who believe global warming is a part of the end times prophecies and therefore should not be halted – not understanding that you shouldn’t try and use religion to explain science.

    In regards to Rubina and her family, this is a very sad farce. The movie has made hundreds of millions, yet no one could take some time to ensure that these kids were not sent back to the slums ? From some of the articles I have read, it sounds like the Father, Uncle and possibly other parties have complicated things quite a bit (asking for money up front instead of housing) – but this is just ridiculous. She’s appearing in commercials and movies, and yet she still sleeps by the sewer. If it is made obvious that her parents cannot provide for her without trying to profit, she should have a state guardian put in place to take care of her and her interests. Same for any of the other child actors.

    She is lucky at least compared to the other children around her – as long as she can come out of this experience safe and sound.

  2. Its just sheer lack of education that makes these people resort to redundant methods like witchcraft.. I believe it was just sheer greed.. After all, who wouldn’t want 1.2 million dollars.. The movie made her famous, gave her an identity, SM producers gave her education, but she is still too young..may be the parents could not wait, till she completed her education and make her mark…

    On a lighter note, Sarah Plain also believes in witches.. so I may be wrong about that education part.. ;)

  3. Yet this doesn’t explain why witch hunting keeps taking the same form every time, with only mild variations. Why, in particular, is it almost always targeted at women?

    It is not; in many Central African communities, the targets were/are frequently men, especially maternal uncles in societies which are matrilocal. Sudden good fortune or unexplained wealth were often seen to be the outcome of witchcraft, which usually had to be paid for by the life of a young child. Witch-hunting often set off a cycle of violence that could devastate communities. In India for some reason, it seems to be most predominant amongst adivasi communities, where the victims do tend to be women. This isn’t always the case in other parts of society. I seem to recall seeing a Telegu film, about a regional incarnation of Mother where the main villain is a black magic practitioner who gets his comeuppance for using the black arts for material gain at the cost of others.

    Its not always so sinister; I remember going to a football match where each team’s supporters had “witch-doctors” to steal goals from their opponents.

  4. Misogyny often fuels much witch-hunting in patriarchal India. I will try and paste a link to an article that talks about how ‘witches’ in most Indian villages are usually women who have questioned, in some way or other, established codes of gender conformity. They have been branded witches for various acts of rebellion — for insisting on inheriting their deceased husband’s land, or for forming adulterous/ sexual relationships after widowhood. Most Indian ‘witches’ are either widowed and/or old, an easy target in a society where an unattached or widowed woman inspires widespread fear and suspicion.

    Maybe witch-hunting expresses the sub-conscious fear that all oppressed groups inspire in their oppressors? Like mob violence, which serves to unleash suppressed urges (especially when perpetrators are guaranteed anonymity), witch-hunting too allows the powerful to preserve the status quo by discrediting and destroying those that question their power. Just my thoughts.

  5. Yeah, definetly a gender biased thing. You never hear of anyone going after the many male “tantriks” in India, and tantra is the same thing. Using incantations and various rituals to affect an outcome, either good or bad. Witchcraft in itself is not bad, tantra in itself is not bad, its the intention of the outcome you are setting when you use these mediums (rituals).

    Someone mentioned education. Some of the wealthiest, most educated people in India use astrology and tantra. So what?

    Its no different from religion. Would you say that religious people are uneducated?

  6. Complete crap, especially if its coming from a tyrannical shithole such as Britain, but then again the NRI numps on here will eat it up.

  7. Maybe the “Witch” effect is based on the real influence women have on us. Everything a guy does is for a woman. The job we want, the car we want, some kick ass condo that we want, and so on is 75% driven by the fact that if we have one of those things, our chances of being with the women we want will increase. Im sure you wanted to be an Inventment Banker because that is what you have always dreamed of doing.

    Why is there so much corruption? I will say because the benefit of corruption is that we get more money and thus more women.

    Besides maybe effecting what you might eat, I say men have no affect on what women do. You can be a woman who cleans shi# for a living and if you look good enough some king on the other side of the planet is going to want you as his queen. Doesnt work the other way around. Brad Pitt isnt having kids with Angelina if he is waiting tables.

  8. Maybe the “Witch” effect is based on the real influence women have on us. Everything a guy does is for a woman. The job we want, the car we want, some kick ass condo that we want, and so on is 75% driven by the fact that if we have one of those things, our chances of being with the women we want will increase. Im sure you wanted to be an Inventment Banker because that is what you have always dreamed of doing. Why is there so much corruption? I will say because the benefit of corruption is that we get more money and thus more women. Besides maybe effecting what you might eat, I say men have no affect on what women do. You can be a woman who cleans shi# for a living and if you look good enough some king on the other side of the planet is going to want you as his queen. Doesnt work the other way around. Brad Pitt isnt having kids with Angelina if he is waiting tables.

    There are in fact cases where its the reverse. I think certain communities are more prone to that than the other. There’s a lot of talk within the African American community about the pattern of successful black women going for the hot brother with the swagga and no money/career over the geeky brother with a good job but no sex appeal.

  9. The idea of curses, etc are very common in India… I don’t think an accusal of witchcraft really amounts to much… just think of all the places where some sort of method is used to protect from curses… have you seem the limes and chilies on strings people hang in their stores or off their auto, etc? Paren’ts draw black moles on their children to prevent the ‘evil eye’ on their children. When I lived in a rural village the women I lived with was sure the neighbors were cursing her because some threw chilis over the boundary wall. She instructed me not to touch them as they may contain black magic.

    I think it’s really tragic that this is happening to Rubina…black magic aside, the whole story is kind of sad. I don’t think that her parents are planning ahead, they seem to be confused by this stardom, power, and money and are running every direction tried to win from it.

    It’s really sad that the slum-dog people didn’t consider all the possible issues that could happen by employing the young children from the slums to play the role, and then make an appropriate plan to compensate her for her work while at the same time protecting her from exploitation by those around her.

  10. It’s really sad that the slum-dog people didn’t consider all the possible issues that could happen by employing the young children from the slums to play the role, and then make an appropriate plan to compensate her for her work while at the same time protecting her from exploitation by those around her.

    Nothing could have really prepared them for that reality. They had no reference point. Now they do, from experience, for any future endeavor they might take up in India.

    The chilli-lime thing hanging over doors. When I first saw that I thought it was some sort of phallic symbol – two limes with a long green chilli hanging in the middle. Ha. Ha. I’m still convinced that it has some connection…

    I thought the child actors in SDM were given some sort of trust fund and that their families were provided with new apartments?

  11. They were given trust funds and are supposedly going to be given apartments.. but her family seems to be messing that up for her… they seem to expect instant riches from this…

    And regards to being prepared for reality, the slum-dog peeps could have consulted an anthropologist or non-profit organization before doing anything. Anthropologists and non-profit organizations work within such communities in India and probably would have very useful insight for them because plunging ahead…

    They don’t need to reinvent the wheel, there is TONS of information and studies on impoverished and slum children in India, on cultural norms, on family life, etc.

  12. And regards to being prepared for reality, the slum-dog peeps could have consulted an anthropologist or non-profit organization before doing anything.

    I still say nothing prepares one for the experience that is India.

    And experience is the best teacher.

    What is the delay in moving these people into a new apartment? That could’ve been done from the get-go.

  13. <

    blockquote>It is not; in many Central African communities, the targets were/are frequently men, especially maternal uncles in societies which are matrilocal. Sudden good fortune or unexplained wealth were often seen to be the outcome of witchcraft, which usually had to be paid for by the life of a young child. Witch-hunting often set off a cycle of violence that could devastate communities. In India for some reason, it seems to be most predominant amongst adivasi communities, where the victims do tend to be women. This isn’t always the case in other parts of society.

    <

    blockquote> Just to build off of what you said, on the aggregate witch hunts do disproportionately fall on women. But it’s not like a male vs. female thing. Plenty of men get killed or ostracized on accusations of black magic too and very often it is women doing the accusing (against both men and women.) I think I go with Arthur Miller on the diagnoses. Living in a community means forming cliques and coming across people who bother the hell out of you. Generally the institutional restraints put on us by cultural norms prevent us from going off the handle but every now and then those institutions get co-opted to unleash all the pent-up frustrations and anger in a grisly form of therapy.

    Anyone without strong ties to the community is prone to suffering. I suspect that societies where women typically stay at home are more likely to be regarded with suspicion since it’s hard for outsiders to actually keep tabs on them in the same way you can keep tabs on a husband who works outside in public view. If you consider the smaller likelihood of an alibi and if husbands lack the cojones to vouch for their wives (and consequentially put their own butts on the line) it’s not hard to imagine why women would bear the brunt of the violence. They are simply less likely to have the social networks that could protect them. This would also explain why the male victims of such accusations also tend to be strangers or members of marginalized groups.

    The lesson we should learn is that we all have a raging monster that lives inside ourselves that can be extremely dangerous when loosed. Feeding “us vs. them” sentiments within a community makes this sort of thing possible. One can maintain lines between groups without necessarily having to ingrain the idea that disparate groups must always be at odds with each other.

    They were given trust funds and are supposedly going to be given apartments.. but her family seems to be messing that up for her… they seem to expect instant riches from this…

    Gossip and rumor-mongering are a civilizational trait among Indians. Just because the accusation sees print doesn’t mean it is actually true, especially given that there seems to be a custody dispute between the girls’ birth and step mothers. All sorts of nasty rumors are going to fly and we ought to take everything with a grain of salt.

  14. please, many non-profits that work with impoverished people in the slums have TONS of experience using different policies and methods that can best benefit families trying to make their lives more secure. India is not an unfathomable mystery. Anthropologists write articles and thesis and books on these topics. There are tons of research and tons of people that could be consulted on how to best help the family and protect the child at the same time. Organizations have been working in slums and with impoverished children and families for countless years and I am sure have tons of experience as to what policies work and don’t work…

    Of course, it’s not like child stars are treated so well in the U.S. either… many of them are taken advantage of by greedy parents. Maybe the industry needs to think about it’s impact on children’s live and what is ethical before it starts these things. It’s one thing if an adult chooses to screw up their lives, but kids don’t have the same agency and power to control their situation or their own future.

  15. IF in fact the disturbing allegations surrounding Rubina’s family are true (the father denies it), then her parents will be publicly shamed.

    You know reading the comments in places like Huffington Post, a lot of people blame the entire Indian culture for Rubina’s father (allegedly) trying to sell her. As if this is an okay thing for us Indians to do to Indian children. Yes there are some poor people in India and other places, including the USA, who sell or otherwise exploit their children, but it doesn’t stop many commentors from basically saying this is what those Indians do in their culture. And even though Rubina and her family are Muslims, doesn’t stop them from bring up caste as a reason for her father to sell his daughter – which again is another way of saying this is an ordinary part of Indian culture. The whole situation with Rubina is awful, and the extrapolation of the father’s alleged behavior to the entire Indian culture on top of that is annoying. This is what they think of us? There are thousands of Indian communities with various cultures, religions, traditions. There are millions of people who never sell their children to a rich sheik or someone else no matter how hard life is. These broad damnation of Indian culture comes from both liberal and conservative commentors alike.

  16. You know reading the comments in places like Huffington Post, a lot of people blame the entire Indian culture for Rubina’s father (allegedly) trying to sell her. As if this is an okay thing for us Indians to do to Indian children.

    I believe the British paper “News of the World” is a tabloid (with the credibility of, say, the National Enquirer). They sent a reporter in to take advantage of this family in a desperate situation, and with their credibility I wouldn’t be surprised if they set the guy up in some way. After Slumdog, maybe showing that life imitates art might make them a lot of money. Ugh, exploiting the British stereotypes of “Indian culture” for a story is bollocks.

  17. The catfight between Rubina’s mother and step-mother was on cable news today. And apparently the father has been arrested. This is such a sad situation. The story has got very little coverage in online indian news websites. To be fair, elections are on, there are tens of thousands of Tamilians trying to flee in Sri Lanka and a milkshake in LA has been named after Mallika Sherawat. Between the comic, the tragic and the deliciously ridiculous there is no space for a story about a nine-year old girl and her fate. Where is Sonia Aunty ? Beta, she is busy with the elections. Jai Ho ! Where is Anil Kapoor, so proud to be Indian and pumping his fists in the air ? Or for that matter any of the immensely rich and influential Bollywood stars ? Can someone step in and protect this child’s interests and shield her from the tabloid press while the police conduct their investigations and unravel this mess ?

  18. And even though Rubina and her family are Muslims, doesn’t stop them from bring up caste as a reason for her father to sell his daughter – which again is another way of saying this is an ordinary part of Indian culture.

    Indian Muslims and Christians recognize caste distinctions too. Changing your religion isn’t going to magically make people stop treating you like crap you know?

  19. Changing your religion isn’t going to magically make people stop treating you like crap you know?

    True that. And changing your religion isn’t going to magically make YOU stop treating people like crap either.

  20. NOTW is not a reliable source by any stretch of the imagination. And ” British stereotypes of Indian culture”? What exactly are these pray? And how are they distinguishable from stereotpyes of “Indian culture” seen elsewhere like the US or France? In so far as there is anything “British” about such stereotypes, they revolve around either the specific views of NRIs in the UK or Raj nostalgia.

  21. “Caste” and being treated badly are not the reasons, if true, that Rubina’s father and uncles tried to sell her to a rich Dubai sheik and his wife. In that tabloid that broke the story they credit a close family friend and neighbor in the same slums for tipping them off of the sale, and we see right here Rubina’s mother fighting for her daughter, and that if true her parents would be publicly shamed. What is striking to me is all these other people living in the same conditions as the father are not excusing him from this act of selling his daughter based on any reason. They are showing that in their Indian culture it is not okay for a father to sell his daughter. That is what too many people commenting on newsites like I mentioned above – not so much the tabloid that broke the story – don’t get, and instead take the actions if true of this father as a reflection of “Indian culture” not of the slums but of 1.2 billion Indians.

  22. I should say they wrongly take actions of the father as a reflection of not the morality of the individual father but the broader Indian culture of 1.2 billion Indians both in the slums and elsewhere. It doesn’t seem to be okay even among the father’s community in the slums and family other than his brothers to sell his daughter.

  23. Black magic (kala jadu, jadu tona) is a cliche metaphor in hindi for inexplicable influence/charm. It is usually not meant to be taken literally.

    Remember the line from ‘Jai ho’: ‘kala kala kajal tera koi kala jadu hai na’.

  24. Police: No evidence against dad of Slumdog star

    Looks like the police may be engaging in a PR cover-up. On Larry King the other night, the reporter who broke the story alleged that the father approached him and was looking to sell two of his daughters, Rubina and her older sister. So, the reporter didn’t go there “to take advantage of the situation”, as someone claimed earlier. He was approached. Why must everything be made to sound like a setup?

  25. You don’t think that maybe the reporter decided he was going to make his name by slandering the father of a child star whose 15 minutes aren’t up yet? After all, the guy lives in a Mumbai slum. What are the odds that he would be media savvy enough to outmaneuver a reporter in a “your word against mine” war?

  26. You don’t think that maybe the reporter decided he was going to make his name by slandering the father of a child star whose 15 minutes aren’t up yet? After all, the guy lives in a Mumbai slum. What are the odds that he would be media savvy enough to outmaneuver a reporter in a “your word against mine” war?

    Maybe, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This sort of thing happens in that part of the world all the time. Extreme poverty forces people to do desperate things. The tape made available to the media is silent, but the one reportedly given to the investigators is in the dialect during negotiations and according to the reporter there is no doubt that the father and uncle were haggling over the purchase price of the daughters.

    Maybe I can understand parents selling off their kids so they will have better lives. That’s very sad all by itself. What makes this so incomprehensible is that the film producer’s gave Rubina a trust fund that was supposed to provide her with support, housing and education.

  27. Perceptions of witchcraft are almost always misogynistic. In some ways they seem to come from the fact that intelligence and power in a woman are rarely tolerated. Hence a woman who takes a strong stand on anything, is accused of using witchcraft (her own feminine self being too week, in this perception, to stand strong).

  28. In other words Indians are at where the English were in the Witch General times…Thank god for Guru Nanak’s views…