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Af-Pak 2014: The dark side of 'magic' healing

Fareedoone Aryan, Laiba Yousafzai and Hassna Kowsar Ahmadzai
Promising to cure cancers and resolve relationship issues, traditional healers enjoy high social status in superstitious communities. But are their methods ethical?
21.11.2014  |  Kabul/Nangarhar/Peshawar

Forty years have passed since Naseebullah’s sister died during an exorcism, but the horrific image of her last moments alive is still vivid in his mind. Writhing on the ground in a pool of blood in tattered clothes, Khatama was held down by her father and uncle while a traditional healer bludgeoned her with sticks, calling for the spirit (jinn) to leave Khatama's body. Her screaming mother and dozens of villagers looked on in disbelief.

One form of taweez nawees, or amulet inscription, involves writing Qur'anic verses on small pieces of paper and burning them once the spell takes effect. (Photos: Fareedoone Aryan)

 “We were poor village farmers in the north of Afghanistan. There were hardly any doctors in most provinces, let alone in villages,” Naseebullah recalls. “One day when I returned from the fields, I heard Khatama’s screams.” He begins to sob.

“My sister was an angel, a beautiful girl with big eyes always smiling. I ran and threw the healer aside and pushed my father and uncle away. I took Khatama in my arms, her big eyes full of tears. Her blood soaked my shirt as she took her last breath.”

 Traditional healers and Taweez Nawees, or “amulet inscribers”, are prominent in both Afghan and Pakistani cultures. Professing to cure deadly diseases and infertility, resolve relationship problems as well as legal disputes, healers enjoy elevated social status. In areas with historically limited access to professional healthcare, healers remain more trusted than doctors, though medical experts and women’s rights activists warn of abusive practices and questionable methods.

 Healers spend years in training and charge lofty sums for their services. Respected and feared in their communities for their claimed ability to control supernatural spirits, healers are visited by lines of customers who bring money, clothing, shoes, lamb, chicken, ghee and other sundry items as payment for their services.

 One of Afghanistan’s most reputable healers Mullah Mateen, 46, is lively and good-humored. Each day, dozens of people seek his help with marriage issues, divorce, property, love interests, business and career opportunities.

 Mullah Mateen has been working for 22 years and says he turned to the practice after a visit from and angel. Encounters with jinn are an important part of his practice, he adds. Mateen says he has been summoned to haunted houses as far afield as Tunisia where invisible forces threw objects and the walls and set fire to curtains. “Luckily, we were able to overcome them,” he adds.

 The practice of Taweez nawees in Afghanistan is over a thousand years old, Mateen says, adding his work is in keeping with Islamic teachings. “We never indulge in any practice that is against Islamic values, which would degrade us as Muslims,” he says.

 According to Afghan clerics, Taweez Nawees is permissible as long as certain rules are obeyed. The name of Allah or Qur’anic verses must appear in the amulet inscription, and more elaborate forms of “witchcraft” are forbidden, says Moshtaq Ahamad, a Jalalabad-based mullah. Islam also prohibits healers from inscribing amulets intended to harm others.

When the taweez involves a relationship, clients are asked to provide photographs, birthdates and personal items of the other person. The amulet is then wrapped in colored paper or leather and either hung on trees or worn around the neck.

Tales of abuse

 Despite their cultural prominence, traditional healing has a dark side. Access to doctors remains limited in many Afghan communities, and serious physical and psychological problems are often neglected due to prevailing superstitions.

 “When a woman is beaten and treated harshly, she develops defensive behavior and becomes paranoid,” says psychologist Samina Bareen, who works with female victims of domestic abuse. “If she faints or has a nervous breakdown, people around her starts saying she is bewitched and should be taken to a healer.”

 Across the border in Pakistan, traditional healers known as peers and faqeers have been known to molest women who turn to them for help with fertility issues. In a recent highly publicized scandal, a peer raped and impregnated a woman whose husband was infertile, shedding light on a pervasive criminal practice that often goes unreported because female victims fear stigmatization and further abuse at the hands of their own families.

 Promoted by the media, taweez practitioners earn large sums for their services. They enjoy the protection of politicians who turn to them regularly for spells to secure career advancement, and enjoy protection from legal prosecution if they break the law.

Fantasy world

 For Jan Muhammad, a famous practitioner in Peshawar visited by both Afghan and Pakistani clients, taweez is a profession inherited from his forefathers. “It takes hard work,” he says, adding that the men and women who visit him approach him with problems as old as humankind: Family feuds, love and career-related issues. Some come to seek help finding lost possessions or family members. Students approach Muhammad seeking high grades on their exams. Politicians seek taweez to secure electoral victory. “We tell them that these things are out of our reach, that the solution lies in the hand of God, yet they persist,” says Muhammad.

 In a societies plagued by social inequality and economic strife, taweez is a way of escaping reality, says Mufti Akhtar Orakzai, a religious scholar at Peshawar University. “We live in a fantasy world and expect the impossible. When it doesn’t happen, people turn to healers and are led astray by the unlawful business of these magicians and fortune tellers.”