Fear of Powerful Women Keeps Witch Hunts Alive

By Emily Peacock*

When thinking of witch-hunting, it is common for 17th century Salem, Massachusetts to come to mind. Salem was home to the most notorious witch trials in history, and history is where witch-hunting is thought to stay. Unbeknownst to many, witch-hunting and trials are still taking place globally, claiming thousands of marginalized lives each year – most of whom are women and children. These hunts are due to a myriad of reasons, ranging from global inequalities to spiritual speculation, and they continue to be fueled by the patriarchy’s desire to keep women from positions of power. 

A witch is typically considered to be a person who practices magic or deals with the occult. They are feared because it is believed they can manipulate the natural order of things, or work with the Devil. 

Dr. Charlotte-Rose Millar points out in her research, Women as witches: past present, and future, that witchcraft has been considered a moral crime since the 16th century. Dr. Millar found that of the 90,000 people accused in the past, 90% were women in England; 76% in the Roman Empire; 90% in Hungary; 95% in Switzerland, and 76% in France.

Women were, and still are, heavily targeted in witch hunts due to the belief that they are customarily weaker. Like Eve, women are thought to be easily swayed by temptation, lust, and their emotions. Many of these ‘witches’ were healers, widows, and elderly women. They were independent and autonomous and therefore a threat to the patriarchal standards of subservient women, and otherwise unprotected from familial men.

Today, witch-hunting and trials are less popular in Western nations but are prevalent through regions in Africa, Asia, and generally in underdeveloped countries. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women uncovered ties to gender-based violence and witch hunts in India, Nepal, and South Africa. The UN OHCHR report found that in Tanzania upwards of 1,000 elderly women are killed on witch-related charges annually and that in Nepal elderly women and widows are targeted for exorcisms and abuse. The most violent witch hunts today can be seen in Papua New Guinea, where the accused are often burned alive. 

Research through National Geographic found that significant amounts of those accused of witchcraft in the 21st century are blamed for spreading sickness through their villages. WHO found that around 25% of pregnant women in Zambia have HIV or AIDS, making them adequate suspects for witchcraft. Similar patterns are seen in Papua New Guinea and other low-income countries. If not disease, a display of power may make a woman a target for witch-hunters. National Geographic’s research displays that land-owning women in India are of greater risk to be accused than others, and even more so if they are single or widowed. 

Coincidingly, the regions that witch-trials are seen in the most (Asia and Africa) are also the ones that most distrust women leadership. In the BBC article, Why do we still distrust women leaders? it is shared that in Japan, only 38% of people are comfortable with female government heads and CEOs; 62/100 people are comfortable for government officials and 56/100 for political leaders in Nigeria and Kenya; 78% for G7 countries. India also exhibits a strong resistance towards women’s leadership and empowerment. 

The reasons behind people’s distaste for women’s leadership are exceedingly similar to those behind the targeting of women in witch trials and hunts: Women are seen as weak, overly emotional, and incapable of taking charge. Powerful women are threatening and seen as unpredictable. If people and cultures were more accepting of women’s empowerment, then witch-hunting would not be so rampant, but the fear of women having power is so intimidatory that it fuels suspicions that result in violence. 

To overcome these derogatory ideologies and put a stop to the brutal witch hunts taking place globally, extreme changes must take place. Modifications to legal systems, enhancements to educational systems, and implementations of accessible healthcare services are among the top priorities to protect those at risk of witch trials. Looking forward, progress is slowly, but surely going to be seen. 

New initiatives in support of the aforementioned priorities are taking place to aid women. For example, the Generation Equality Forum hosted by the UN in July 2021 was the first global gathering in support of gender equality of this century. Over $40 billion was accumulated in financial commitments from organizations across 85 countries to address six action coalitions including gender-based violence; economic justice & rights; technology innovation for gender equality. Additionally, SDG 5 focuses on gender equality, and a plethora of other organizations and countries are taking progressive steps towards gender equality, such as Global Fund for Women and Switzerland. We do not yet have complete safety and equality for women in any area of the world, but as conversations like those at Generation Equality continue to spark attention, more action will follow. Eventually, there will be room for all women to take up the space they deserve and exhibit the power they possess without fear of persecution.

Additional Context 

Though witch-hunts are far less common in Western nations, it is still in part due to Western-colonial influence that the fear of powerful women and gender-based violence plague so many societies. The patriarchy is imperative to colonial practices and ideologies, so when a region is affected by colonialism, strong patriarchal ideals are transferred as well. This applies to all of the areas facing witch hunts and trials today. Suzanne M. Spencer-Woods’s piece in the International Journal of Historial Archaeology titled Feminist Theorizing of Patriarchal Colonialism, Power Dynamics, and Social Agency Materialized in Colonial Institutions offers a comprehensive overview of the topic. In conclusion, to not only mitigate the effects of colonial and patriarchal influence but actually end the cycle of violence, decolonial action and deep systematic change must take place. The colonial system lived by today is not a sustainable one for tomorrow. 



Title: Escaping Eden

Eve ate the apple – she desired knowledge over subservience and bliss, otherwise known as ignorance. Women are not only beautiful souls, they – WE – are dangerous, ravenous, and capable.

More than that, ‘woman’ is a title bestowed upon those with a vagina, those who are soft, curvy, and impregnable. But the exterior is not always a reflection of the interior. One may have breasts and a uterus but that does not make them a woman. Too often, only the body is seen and not the mind – hence the lack of faces on the bodies painted.

Overall, this painting represents the escape – the escape from our bodies, from labels, from binaries. We are not contained to a garden, nor are we contained to gender. We can uproot ourselves and our ideas and change and blossom in new ways – ways that challenge the heteronormative standards that suffocate so many.

*Emily Peacock holds a B.F.A. in Global Journalism from NYIT and is an M.S. candidate in Global Affairs and Global Gender Studies at NYU, where she also works as a graduate assistant. She is an artist and communications specialist and consistently creates content on issues of gender and sexuality while bridging arguments for feminist and queer policy development.

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