Witchcraft Accusations, Women, and Social Control


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Witches are no longer more than a fun Halloween tradition for most in the United States, but in Africa, being accused of witchcraft can be fatal. Image by anitapeppers

Witches: People who Have Fallen Through the Cracks of Society

Anthropologist Mary Douglas has explained witchcraft as the perceived ‘dangerous, uncontrollable powers’ of ‘malevolent persons in interstitial positions.’

This means that ‘Witches’ are individuals in some ways ‘in between’ or outside the normal roles prescribed by society, whose existence somehow threatens or could threaten the accepted status quo: just like single, independent women, older village members who are no longer productive, or an old woman who acts as ‘unofficial’ village healer.

Some feminist academic analysis focuses specifically on how the negative social and economic effects of globalization have intensified the persecution of women in particular.

New economic pressures on rural communities have meant that there are large groups of unemployed young men unable to afford education, with few or no prospects. Older and more solvent community members are then seen as a drain on resources, eliminated, and their wealth expropriated.

Profits and individual wealth are coveted, rather than cooperative efforts and communal benefit. Just like a deadly serious version of the Witch Finder General, these local men perceive their older, more independent to their rightful economic success.

Although old men are also targeted, this is so much worse for African women, who often have a traditionally lower status in spite of their economic power and productivity. Rapid economic and social change appear as strong driving forces in the case of Salem, too, where the community at the time was under severe demographic and political pressures due to waves of recent migration and internal dissatisfaction with the new village minister.

The social tremors that buffet society produce many cracks, and those who fall or find themselves in these ‘interstitial spaces’ can not only become Witches but also Witch Finder: disaffected, unemployed young men, a father whose baby son was struck down by a disease which could be easily cured if they had access to basic medical facilities.

Women’s Rights and Cultural Empowerment

Women in many African countries are fighting back. Local activists are educating people in villages, providing information, promoting basic health care that stops illnesses and sudden deaths, and challenging beliefs about witchcraft, rescuing victims of witch hunts, linking up with aid agencies to obtain funding when possible.  This struggle is also linked to the campaign against female genital mutilation.

These women and organisations are taking on local chieftains, healers and pastors in their community, and men who are generally in recognized positions of authority.  In South Africa there is a Pagan Alliance which actively supports advocacy for those accused of being witches.

Local activists are truly reconciling their communities, because when other villagers understand that these accusations are unfounded, they apologize and try to make amends to the victims.

Activists are also taking on European perceptions of the African cultures as either primitive, or something fixed and uniform that cannot be challenged, or betrayed.

Cultural Warriors: Combating Misconceptions Worldwide

Finally, these cultural warriors help us all to draw important parallels with instances of discrimination and mass intolerance towards certain groups in  Western countries, where social tensions have produced ‘witches’ and ‘witch finders’, especially very recently.


British Comedy Guide. Sorry, I’ve Got No Head. (2013). Accessed August 18, 2013.

South African Pagan Rights Alliance. Advocacy Against Witch Hunts. (2013). Accessed August 18, 2013.

Daly, M. European Witch burning: Purifying the Body of Christ. (1979). Gyn-Ecology – the Meta-ethics of Radical Feminism, page 178.  The Women’s Press.

Federici, Silvia. Witch-hunting, globalisation, and feminist solidarity in Africa today. (2008). The Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol.10. 

Hari, J. Witch Hunt: Africa’s hidden war on women. (2009). Accessed August 18, 2013.

Douglas, M. Purity and Danger – An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. (1991). Routledge.

Blumberg, Jess. A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials(2007.) Accessed August 18, 2013.

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