When I think of witches I think of foul-smelling cauldrons, bundles of herbs on windowsills or cloaked women chasing children down closes at dusk. So I was surprised to read in The Guardian that reasons for persecuting ‘witches’ in the past, often had more in common with the reasons for discrimination against women today.
I do not have an expert knowledge of Scottish history (only what I have learned at school and on Edinburgh ghost tours), but as a land and gender expert, I do know about modern gender trends. I wanted to draw a few parallels between Scottish history and prevailing attitudes.
Powerful or Vulnerable. Both are non-conforming.
“These women were targeted because they were vulnerable, some of them owned land that others — usually men — wanted access to, or they were unmarried or widowed, or they looked or spoke or acted differently.”
(Kate Stewart, an SNP councillor in Fife, The Guardian)
Improper sexual conduct, being single, being vulnerable, a bit different or owning land seem to have been the key reasons why women were persecuted as witches. Or, these women were a threat to social norms, either because (at one end of the spectrum) they were weak or because (at the other end of the spectrum) they wielded a degree of power.
In historic Scotland, these public attacks of women were supported by powerful men. King James VI — the most powerful man in the country — promoted beliefs about the negative influence of witches. In doing so, he encouraged the widespread demonising of women. Similarly, attacks on women are commonplace in the language used by male leaders such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. This promotes a culture which normalises derogatory remarks about women and dismisses the objects we associate as feminine (for example Boris Johnson calling Jeremey Corbyn ‘a great big girl’s blouse’, ) and in which threats against women are frequent (such as threats of rape and violence against Dianne Abbot and other female MPs).
I think it is interesting to that ‘witches’ were not only social outcasts but also women power and influence. Owning land is a socioeconomic power which seems to threaten others. Around the world today fewer than 15 % of rural women own the land they farm. Research shows that women are very often the first to be disenfranchised when competition around land increases. Social norms and attitudes frequently determine that women do not have the competence to make decisions about land. And the women who try to change these systems are very often targets of verbal abuse.
Words are everything
While land ownership might not be such a significant factor in determining power in the UK today, the treatment of women MPs demonstrates that attacks of women in positions of power are still rife. As torture and execution were normalised in the past, current attacks against women are dismissed as ‘only words’. In our culture, the harm caused by verbal abuse is still largely misunderstood and speaking out about this harm often leads to further blaming of victims, as ‘too sensitive’. Yet insidious comments, attitudes and ambiguous words create a harmful climate in which women second-guess and self-censor their behaviour.
Indeed, UN Women describe violence against women as a deterrent to women’s political participation. Interestingly, women do not have to be subject to physical violence to feel fear for their physical safety. Over time verbal commentary evokes a culture of fear and restraint, which prevents women from voicing their opinion. In short, verbal threats often suffice to silence women or increase their fear to the same level as if they had been physically harmed.
This reflects one of the more insidious aspects of systematic verbal abuse, be it in a political or domestic context, the victim often begins to doubt their behaviour and believe the words of the persecutor. This makes me wonder if many of the ‘witches’ not only died a torturous death but died fearing that the accusations made against them were in fact true.
As such, I have begun to wonder whether to pay proper respect to ‘witches’, it would better serve justice if we referred to them as ‘victims of persecution’ or ‘victims of femicide’. Using this type of vocabulary would remove any doubt as to why they were targeted, which would also start to address the normalisation of verbal abuse against women in public life today.
While no women in the UK is burned at stake these days, anyone who has been on the receiving end of verbal abuse knows that this treatment feels like a psychological attempt to kill something in you, starting with your joy, self-esteem and confidence. In other words, to attack your personal power. Ironically our society seems to use verbal abuse to prevent women from shining, while 400 years ago they did the same by setting women alight.