Fauzia’ (not her real name) lay on the bed, a blanket covering half of her body, including the hands. Her brother, ‘Wahab’, held her from the back. The rest of the family stood around them – the daughters crying, the mother praying, the brother shouting, the sister-in-law scandalised. This was not the first time Fauzia was suffering from such a fit. Over the past three months this had become a regular feature of the family’s life. But it was becoming dangerous, and ‘Maria’, Fauzia’s sister-in-law, was afraid of the impact this was bound to have on her two young children.
For the moment, however, that was the least of the concern for the rest of the family. Lying still as a rock, Fauzia glared at her finger, which was protruding from within the blanket. Along both sides of her arms were cuts, about an inch and a half deep. These were not there last night, her family said, so they were fresh, yet there was no blood. Previously, many shirts had evidently been destroyed in a similar fashion, shredded to ribbons in the night. Wahab forced Fauzia to take out her hands from the blanket, to which she resisted with great force. Being a strong man, Wahab finally overpowered his sister – her right index finger was erect, smeared in blood. Fauzia continued to stare at it. ‘They’ve cut my finger – this is not my finger,’ Fauzia said, petrified and struggling to maintain her voice. ‘They’ve cut my finger. This is a knife. They’ve replaced it with a knife.’
Years later, Fauzia tells me that during that period she was having a recurring dream populated by hundreds of monkeys. They were ferocious, with sharp nails and vampire teeth, and they would attack her, scratch her all over. She says that every time she woke up from that dream, she would have cuts on her body. So, she made a mannat (an oath) to Allah that, if she were to recover, she would cover her head at all times, for religious reasons; she did get better, and has kept that promise ever since. That was several years ago, but there are still dark circles around her eyes and she constantly looks weak.
During Partition, Fauzia’s father and mother migrated to Lahore from Delhi. After a while the father moved to Saudi Arabia, which meant a decent living for the family. He passed away fairly soon thereafter, however, and the family of 10 struggled to make a living. Only recently, after many failed attempts, the brothers have established a thriving business in Lahore, making them millionaires.
Fauzia has no doubt that she was possessed. Her family members remain baffled by the events, and blame her failed marriage for the ‘possession’. But even the most rationalist among them cannot explain what took place. They do not know how the cuts could appear seemingly out of nowhere; or how, when Fauzia would at times complain about headaches, her teenage daughters would find nails stuck to her scalp. The doctors and psychologists who were consulted in the earlier days of her sickness suggested that she did these things to herself, subconsciously. But to this day her daughters and sister insist that they were keeping an eye on Fauzia all the time, even when she was in the washroom. They are adamant that the nails and scratches simply appeared from thin air.
In a small room
Ali Khan is an associate professor of anthropology at the Lahore University of Management and Sciences (LUMS), and teaches a course on magic and witchcraft. He says that it does not matter whether or not ‘black magic’ truly exists – the fact of the matter is that the effect is real. Even if what is believed to be black magic, or possession, stems from psychological issues, these translate into verifiable physical ailments. He describes the psychological phenomenon called autohypnosis, under which if a patient starts believing that his or her hand is on fire, the hand would turn red. Of course, he says it is difficult to ascertain whether this could account for the scratches on Fauzia’s body – or the nails.
More broadly, Khan says, it makes sense that cases of ‘possession’ would be relatively more frequent in a society such as Pakistan, where a large percentage of the population believes such phenomenon to be true. If a man starts to run naked in the streets of Pakistan, for instance, the majority of onlookers would believe that he was possessed. In a country where such belief systems are not dominant, on the other hand – in the UK, for instance – most people would simply assume mental instability. In most such cases, a patient also feeds on the responses of those in his or her immediate vicinity, friends and family. If the family members indicate their belief that the person is possessed, then the patient will start to believe that as well.
This reading offers some insight into Fauzia’s case. After a few family members suggested that she was possessed, they contacted a bengali baba, holy men who claim to be part of a spiritual lineage that derives from Bengal, and believed to possess jinns that can cure problems of possession. (In most of these cases, the word bengali is used to show prowess in the world of magic.) When he arrived, the baba put a white sheet on the floor of one of the rooms, and asked the family to light incense and play traditional Qawwali music. He also asked them to arrange for a little barfi, some sweets. After taking a bath, Fauzia was brought into the room wearing fresh clothes. The baba sat her in front of him and handed her a piece of paper. He then started to move in circles while seated on the floor, swaying to the sound of the music.
Fauzia’s sisters, mother and a sceptical brother were also present in the room. The baba had told them that he would summon his jinns, which would enter the body of his assistant, the muwajir, and through him they would talk to the intruding spirit in Fauzia’s body. This would enable him to glean the information about the person who had ordered – and, he thought, paid for – Fauzia to be possessed. As it turned out, Fauzia, too, was sceptical of the baba. So, she insisted that instead of the muwajir, the jinns should be made to enter her body, which would prove whether the baba was genuine or a fake. The baba warned her that an untrained body would not be able to bear the jinns, but Fauzia insisted.
After a while, Fauzia also started to move her body in time with the music. Suddenly, her movements became faster. She stuck out her tongue, which, according to her sister, was black and longer than the usual. Fauzia then stood up and started running frantically around the room. When one of her sisters expressed concern, she spat in her face. The baba then held her back and blew into her face smoke that he had made with a few secret ingredients. At this point, everyone else in the room started to panic. Wahab grabbed hold of Fauzia and took her outside, to the lawn. There, he held her from behind until, eventually, she started simply to stare at the sky, after which she began to weep. Her brother slapped her and tried to bring her back to her senses, but in vain. Fauzia fainted.
Years later, she told me that she had not been in charge of her body at the time. ‘I was in a small room, behind bars, watching myself do all of that,’ she said. As her condition worsened, her family started to blame the baba, who in turn complained that he had not been allowed to complete his work. The jinns that he had made to enter her body would make her fits become more frequent and more violent, and would eventually kill her.
Ali Khan, the professor, says that it is fairly clear what took place here. Anyone who is forced to go through such an experience would be influenced by it, he says, and refers to research conducted by an anthropologist named I M Lewis in Somalia. The study concluded that in the constrained, patriarchal environment in which Muslim women in traditional societies typically find themselves, a woman is not encouraged to develop emotions, thoughts and personal expressions. Lewis’s research found that under these circumstances, there is a tendency for such women to adopt alternative methods of expression – one of them, Lewis suggested, being possession. During the period that women are experiencing the ‘possession’, they are able to express the wishes that they cannot articulate under normal circumstances – for instance, the desire to marry someone. Lewis concluded that since women in traditional Muslim societies live under greater restriction, they are more vulnerable to what is described as possession.
The Ajoka Theatre, based in Lahore, has for a quarter century highlighted societal issues through its drama performances. One of its plays is titled ‘Jhali kithay jaway’, which translates as ‘Where should the mad woman go?’ The story is of a newlywed bride whose husband leaves her for Dubai immediately after the wedding. The husband is unable to return due to the increasing materialistic demands of the immediate family, whereas his wife, unable to join her husband in Dubai, begins to experience acute depression. The family mistakes this as a case of possession and seeks to cure her through spiritual healers. Sarfraz Ansari, a senior actor at Ajoka, says that the woman cannot tell the family that she wants to be with her husband, because that is not acceptable in the culture. So in order to draw attention to her problem, she starts to act lost – as if possessed.
A closer inspection of Fauzia’s case also reveals inexpressible frustrations. She married at the age of 25 and bore two daughters – a bad sign in the community. Soon she separated from her husband and started to live with her parents and brothers, all of whom had ‘complete’ families. According to her sister, about 15 years after the separation and a few years before the possession, Fauzia’s ex-husband contacted her wanting to get back together. However, her brothers refused, according to one sister. But another family member tells me that after the brothers established a business, they thought that they would be able to use their economic clout to convince her husband to take her back again. Under pressure the husband talked to her for a little while but then refused to take her back. Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is that just a little while before the possession Fauzia experience an emotional surge when she was contacted by her husband – and, perhaps, given a false hope.
A short while later, she says, another man proposed to marry her but Fauzia refused, as she believed that it would have an adverse effect on her daughters. Another source tells me that around this time Fauzia had an affair with a man with whom she was working. When family members found out about the affair, they asked her to break off the relationship and get a new job because he was a married man. A few months later, Fauzia had her first attack.
‘He had promised to marry me and look after my children too,’ Fauzia had told her sister during one of her fits. Although her sister recalled this event for me, she would not admit that Fauzia had had an affair. The family is deeply religious (with the father having served for a while as an imam at the local mosque), and there is no way that a daughter’s affair out of wedlock could be acceptable. Her sister asked Fauzia to move on, as the issue had already been decided.
After five years of agony, Fauzia found salvation when she was taken back to the bengali baba who had caused the initial problem, at least according to the family. This second time around, he placed a large knife on her head, and recited something that he said would cause the possessing spirits to leave the body. Thereafter, Fauzia’s sister said that the baba ‘captured’ the spirits in a bottle – she said that he could see the spirits though they could not. The baba told them that her ex-husband and her ex-boss had both paid people to possess Fauzia.
In explanation, her sister said that Fauzia had been one of the best teachers at the school at which she worked, and her boss did not want her to work anywhere else. However, when Fauzia got a better job opportunity at another school, the boss became jealous. Later, Fauzia established a school of her own, with her sister. The timing of the fits coincides with the launching of the school. Her sister tells me that they would find idols made out of wheat and other satanic verses, instrumental in black magic, at the school. The school shut down within a few years, and both the sisters are convinced that it was the principal of the previous school who had a role to play in this.
After the second round of the baba’s treatment, Fauzia’s condition improved. She has not joined any school or other work, and has become far more religious. She says that she shivers every time she thinks of the period of her possession. Meanwhile, the baba warned the family members that they should not talk about the episode anymore. The fact that both Fauzia and her sister have done so, for this story, makes them worried that the spell could be casted anew.
If Fauzia’s problems were psychological and due to lack of an opportunity to express her emotions, how was a spiritual healer able to cure her? ‘Just like he was able to make her believe that she was possessed,’ Ali Khan explains, ‘Even modern treatment uses various techniques – laughter therapy, music therapy, colour therapy – alongside allopathic drugs. This is similar to a concept that traditional shamans used to rely upon as well: a combination of religion and medicine.’ Imran Ijaz Haider, one of the leading psychiatrists of Lahore, says that faith is an important component of any treatment, and he suggests that Fauzia was ultimately able to find peace due to the faith of her family and herself – faith in her religion and the work of the baba. Still, one must wonder as to whether Fauzia’s real problem has remained unattended. If so, does she remain vulnerable to further ‘possession’?
~ Haroon Khalid is a freelance journalist and Minority Project Director for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan.