Belief in witchcraft is still prevalent in many parts of India and South Asia. This phenomenon isn’t new. Accusations of performing witchcraft have historically been used to justify killing and inflicting physical and sexual violence on Dalit women, childless women, widows, poverty-stricken women, Muslim women, and elderly women all over South Asia. For decades, if an illness could not be diagnosed properly by a doctor, the patient was thought to be suffering from a witch infliction, imposed most likely by a woman.
In 1990, veteran Bollywood actor Rekha became the center of similar negative attention after losing her husband of less than a year to suicide. It didn’t matter that he had a history of clinical depression. ￼No spells were heard, no voodoo dolls unearthed, and no covens exposed. But she fit one of the many descriptions of a witch. This ‘Dayan’ is often an independent, outspoken, and sexually liberated woman. Rekha was excoriated in the media for the death of her husband.
The idea or the construction of the “witch” as a formal concept in India emerged in the mid-1800s, when ethnology and anthropology gained acceptance and popularity as scientific disciplines undertaken by colonial researchers and professors. A law penalizing witch hunting was passed in the mid-1800s, but was often disregarded. ’Witches’ were regarded as scapegoats for everything from medical illness, to seduction and bad harvest seasons.
Although modernization and access to better medical and mental health services have changed many people’s beliefs in these ancient practices, superstition still prevails, particularly among underprivileged communities. Across cultures, condemnation of women who don’t fit the mold of socially appropriate femininity has resulted in accusations of evil. And harsh punishment.