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Why are there so many witches in Hunza, Pakistan?

Most of us are familiar with tales of witch trials in colonial America and early modern Europe around 1450 to 1750. Dozens of witches were burnt alive and hanged to death in Salem, Massachusetts and around Europe. The witch-trials happened because the young women were believed to be possessed by the devil and were accused of practicing witch-craft. Although this was centuries ago but to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in the northern mountains of Pakistan, the presence of “witches” is very much a contemporary concept.

Photo by Charlie Harutaka on Unsplash

The folklore of the people of this mountainous region revolves around witches, shamans, demons, and fairies among others. Historically the witches are believed to be evil female spirits living among us as human beings. They are accused of being able to smell humans who are going to die in the near future and are often feared for they attack their prey in the dark. It’s believed that sometimes they work in clans and their male accomplice known as a “Fanis”, in the native language, distributes the flesh of the human they preyed on.

There is no sure way to tell who is a witch but the society has some vague standards by which women are judged. For example, in many cases, women with crooked or large teeth and an overall unpleasant appearance are thought to be witches. A witch’s daughters will also be witches by inheritance and the sons would conveniently not inherit this curse. In some cases, a witch gets nauseous when someone around her dies and she pukes her guts out.

In the olden days, due to lack of electricity, people depended on lanterns and oil lamps. Women were advised to stay inside their homes after dark. If a woman roams around at night, chances were that she will be considered a witch because she is not afraid of the dark like the others. One popular tale revolves around a witch attacking a princess in the royal fort and the princess defended herself by throwing hot oil onto the witch’s face.

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Although there was no witch-craft being practiced in the region, men took it upon themselves to beat or injure women who were assumed to be witches. It was a way to confine women to their homes and a way to cover domestic abuse. Men were praised for their bravery for standing up to the witches and the “witch” was ostracized from society. All the kids would be scared of even going near her house. The stories of a witch eliminating her husband or even her own kids were prevalent. The men never confronted the “witch” and everyone just talked behind her back.

Statistically speaking, the ratio of “witches” to the general population is very high in the Karakorum mountain valleys. If you speak to any of the locals, everyone knows dozens of witches. The question arises, are almost all women witches in someone’s story? Growing up listening to the tales of witch-hunts around me always made me curious about whether there were any evil feminine entities roaming around at night. As an adult, I have understood that this was just another false narrative by the patriarchal system we live in.



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Nazia Akhtar

Nazia Akhtar

Born in Hunza and moved to New York for education and then Toronto for work. NYU 2018