The witch is she who dares to act alone

Women are burnt — across diverse locations, for different reasons, in both metaphorical and material ways.

At the United States Women’s March against the election of Donald Trump as president, a protester held a poster with the words: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.”

These words draw a line from present-day “granddaughters” — as the living legacies of women’s survival — to an ever-present “you”, representing the continued smiting of women.

Making these spatial and temporal connections is not to suggest that the experience of being a woman, or what constitutes womanhood for that matter, is, or has ever been, unified, singular or shared.

Yet to conjure such connections across the ages reveals the resiliencies of gendered liveability across time, space and place. It is also an expression of the desire for feminist solidarities — through the act of remembering in the face of contemporary injustices.

But what does contemporary gender politics in the Global South, and in South Africa in particular, have to do with conjuring the history of the witch by those in the Global North? 

What does the figure of the witch call into consciousness about feminist politics across time and space? How does remembering the witches of the past — and the enduring attempts to extinguish them — configure an imagined agent of radical change in the present?

Erasure and unremembering are central to heteropatriarchal nationalisms and the race, gender and class logics they underwrite. In this context, to position oneself in relation to lives unable to be lived marks a refusal of dominant knowledges through which women’s multiple histories are cast out of common consciousness.

The witch-hunts that took place in early modern Europe had gender discipline at their core. It was the women who did not bow to social expectations and norms who were most readily accused of being witches, at a time when gender prescripts required them to be subordinated to men — as heads of house, church and state.

Women perceived as lusty, lively and independent were the main targets for attack. 

Older women no longer of childbearing potential and younger women still to be moulded into feminine subordination were particularly vulnerable. Moreover, women with the know-ledge to be healers, thus threatening the burgeoning medical profession of men, were suppressed with witch-hunts.

As a form of organised gender terror against the female population, such hunts were co-ordinated efforts to subject women to the political, religious and sexual dictates of patriarchal institutions and ideologies.

The Malleus Maleficarum, translated as “Hammer of Witches”, was a treatise of the medieval Catholic Church endorsing the extermination of witches. It was the backbone narrative for the legal and theological justification of violence against women. Its essence, still reflected in contemporary patriarchal tropes, is captured in the assertion that “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

There are many women who think, and act, alone — in other words, outside of or against the dictates of domination. These women represent a necessary danger to the status quo and its sex, gender and race hegemonies, and continue to toil and trouble in contemporary times.

Today, in certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa, women are still threatened with accusations of witchcraft and so persecuted. Recently in South Africa, a high-profile politician vilified his female political opponents by calling them witches — in a country where women are still persecuted as witches even as Witchcraft itself is celebrated as a legitimate religion.

The witch is the woman accused. Her persecution, as a form of gender correction, is a way to exert control over her sexuality, and over her social (childbearing) and economic (livelihood) production.

Present-day witches include women who transgress sexual codes, who assert nonconforming gender identities, who survive violence and hold perpetrators to account, who call out racism against themselves and others, who refuse to assimilate into dominant cultures that seek to deny their own, who claim the right to health, education and land, who strike out against capitalist exploitation, and who refuse to separate demands for sexual freedom from those for racial and economic justice.

Women who defy systems of imposition that seek to diminish or even entirely destroy them, are one might say, “possessed” by the desire for another kind of social order. That possession is linked to the dispossession of the prospect of a life lived on one’s own terms, and of the material and symbolic resources to render that life liveable.

There is a danger when feminist solidarities, and the past-present connections they draw on, are premised on erasing the differential experiences among women, given the plurality of our identities and social locations.

Such erasures signify another kind of burning, or extinguishing, of the complex forms of oppression, and resistance to these, that women (en)counter. This, in turn, enables one set of demands for freedom (related, for example, to gender) to become split off from, even offset against, others (related to, for example, race and class).

In turning against the burning of women, there is a call to those who are not (yet) at stake: those whose survivability as gendered beings is inextricably bound to the lives of those who are at stake, and so mobilise towards more equitable and inclusive futures.

This is an edited extract of a chapter titled Those (Not) Able to be Burnt in Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches. Melanie Judge is a feminist activist and author of Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race

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