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.’ â€¦ 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 â€¦ 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.