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Zār spirit possession and it’s bias towards women

Janice Boddy is a Canadian anthropologist who specializes in medical anthropology, religion, gender issues and colonialism in Sudan and the Middle East. In Spirit Possession and Gender Complementarity, an excerpt from her book Women, Men and the zār Cult in Northern Sudan, she describes her experience at a zār ritual ceremony among the Hofriyat people of Sudan. The zār ritual is performed to bring about certain spirits who then possess a human host and manipulate their behavior in a way that allows for identification of different zār species.
The cult exists today throughout northern Sudan and similar versions of the name can be found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Arabia, and southern Iran. Background information aside, what is this whole zār conspiracy anyways? Boddy describes it as a spontaneous ritual with an imaginative basis that draws inspiration from a comprehensive collection of symbols and spirit roles. She compares the ceremony in a way that reminds me of a theater where choreography, improv, themes and costumes are all part of the performance. The zār rituals are also full of apprehension because at any moment a woman may be seized by an unknown spirit.

What is Zār?
Zār refers to the spirit, the illness brought on by spirit possession and the rituals necessary to their pacification. In her book, Boddy describes several of the many different spirits that can be encountered at a zār ritual. The ceremony begins in an open area called the mídān which is bounded on three sides by palm fiber ground mats. The priestess, or shaykah, incessantly drums a dallūka, which is then followed by the beating of another dallūka in shifted accents. The drumming is accompanied by the ringing of a nugarishana which is a brass mortar (similar in sound to a cowbell), as well as the beating of an inverted aluminum washtub called a tisht. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a party without the ceaseless and mesmerizing drone of chanting women, adding a hypnotic touch to the whole orchestra. These chants are called “threads” or “khuyūt” and they are said to be “pulled” as opposed to be sung. Once the procession has begun, the shaykah will pull various threads that each call upon different spirits.


The first spirit Boddy describes is a more intensified version of the somniferous beat and leads the ayāna to rise and dance in the mídān. The ayāna is a sick woman for whom the zār ceremony is held. The Hofriyati people believe that women often fall ill due to a spirit that possesses them and so rituals are held in order to ask, and sometimes bribe, the spirit to refrain from damaging the woman’s health any further. This particular ayāna was possessed by Khawaja (westerner) spirits of a doctor, a lawyer and a military officer. Three spirits at once….no wonder she’s sick, right? Her dance is described as a slow, rhythmic walk crisscrossing a chimeric square, which sounds like she is displaying attributes of the latter most spirit mentioned.As the ceremony progresses, several more women rise to dance in the mídān under the enchantment of a spirit. In this trance, the women are pretty much at the will of whatever zayran (spirit) has taken over their body which means these ceremonies witness some pretty bazar behavior. The degree of bazarness can range anywhere from smoking, drinking and wild dancing to sword fighting and threatening men publicly. You know that a spirit is leaving the woman’s body when she begins burping, hiccupping and scratching herself uncontrollably.

Maybe there’s something to the whole scaring-the-hiccups-out-of -someone thing.


On the last day of the ritual, a sacrificial ram (or chicken) is slaughtered by the ayāna’s son and is served later in the night. But that’s not all. The blood of the animal is collected in a bowl and placed before the drums. After daubing it on herself, the shaykha and then anoints the ayāna’s feet and arms. The other possessed women perform this act as well and some even sip the blood. Pretty eerie, right?
Hofriyat women stand upon a moral ground fermented in dignity and propriety, so why are they so often found smoking, drinking alcohol and blood, sword fighting, wanton dancing and flailing about to incessant drumming?

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Cultural understanding of Zār
When trying to make sense of these rituals, Boddy notes that it is important to consider the cultural context in which they are taking place. Possession appears to be viewed not so much as a blessing but rather a condition or an illness. Once a spirit chooses a host to possess, the person will experience suffering at first, however, the relationship can progress into a positive symbiotic existence. Another frightening concept about this relationship is that once you are possessed, you are always possessed. Zayran never abandons its host and has the ability to infiltrate their body at will at any time. When the spirit takes over the host’s body, that person becomes entranced. Hofriyati say that the possession trance is a state induced by the spirit’s forceful entry into the body, which displaces the human self-awareness to another perceptual plane. Basically, they are kicked out of their body momentarily. Bourguignon describes trance as “A radical discontinuity of personal identity” (1973: 12-13). The only issue with this model is that, in this case, the disrupted perception is not limited to just personal identity but affects other entities as well. In the Hofriyat society, trance is only one version of spirit possession and it can manifest in various ways. These spirits are constantly hanging around their human host through the course of daily life, influencing what they do and how they perceive things whenever they want.

Another interesting aspect of this culture is that trances seldom occur outside of a premeditated ritual setting. This means it is not a spontaneous phenomenon and instead a learned, practiced behavior requiring skill and control.
Many observers seek biological understandings for spirit possession. Among them, Kehoe and Giletti attempted to explain the phenomenon on the basis that it is caused by “a spontaneous neurological manifestation of nutritional deficiency” (1981). This model is potentially blurred by western rationalism which inevitably discredits any mode of consciousness other than critical self-awareness. In the search for biological explanations of trance occurrences, a crucial point is missed: possession is logically and contextually prior to the trance. In Hofriyat, one is not said to be possessed because she becomes entranced, moreover, she becomes entranced because she is possessed.


Where are the men in this picture?
Possession is mainly only experienced by women. More than 40% of Hofriyat women over the age of fifteen and married claim zār affliction as opposed to 5% of the population of adult males. During Boddy’s six year absence from the village, only one man became possessed in contrast to sixteen women who became possessed. She did note, however, that a few of her male acquaintances privately confessed they were inflicted with a spirit but refused to make a public declaration in fear of “losing face”. What creates this disproportion of gender? I.M Lewis proposed a sociological explanation for this occurrence stating that zār possession is a strategy by women to overcome their subordinate social status. This model underestimates the unchallenged factuality of spirits within Sudanese society. Possession is a widespread matter of fact to the Hofriyati and therefore it cannot be limited to the strategic social strife of a minority group. It also assumes that women wish to acquire the social status of men in a society where the roles of men and women are distinctly different and separate. This is not due to men’s triumph rather it is the product of cultural design.
But this still doesn’t explain the discrepancy.
In Hofriyati, both sexes agree that women are more vulnerable to spirit custody because of their femininity. Spirits are attracted to women and covet the precious perfumes and gold jewelry that they wear. They are even more enthralled by those who are married because they have “activated” their fertility. Religious authorities attribute the vulnerability of women to their moral frailty. Because of this, women find it more difficult to resist the infliction of a spirit. Finally, men feel that women are more likely to become possessed because they see no difference between the zār and Islam. To women, they are just performing a part of the general Islamic religion and therefore they put themselves in the position to be overtaken by zayran.

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One possessed, always possessed.
Unfortunately, there is no cure. The spirit is forever bound to its host. Through a propitiatory ceremony, however, symptom relief is possible. The spirit may agree to refrain from further destruction of the human’s health so long as she attends regular ceremonies, avoids mourning behavior, associates herself with clean and sweet smelling things and avoids being consumed by strong emotion. This contract is infinitely renegotiable, though.