Opinion
23 Nov 2018

A hex on the patriarchy

There’s a saying that you may have seen on Instagram or at a women’s march: “We are the granddaughters of the witches they couldn’t burn.” For some, witch and feminist have become synonymous.

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh International Producer, Europe
A hex on the patriarchy - NewsMavens
Woman in a witch costume. East News

Throughout fiction and history, witches conjure up images of journeys into the woods, images of creaky, secluded and aging cottages and covens held under the enchantment of moonlight.

But what about the streets of Paris?

Last year, Libération ran an article with the headline “Contre la loi travail, les sorcières sortent du bois” -- "Witches had come out of the woods," according to the French newspaper, to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to the labor code.

Bedecked in pointed black hats and black robes, members of the feminist-anarchist group "Witch Bloc" brandished a large black banner that read "Macron au chaudron" (Macron to the cauldron) in deep purple lettering as they marched through Paris. Alongside them, fellow witches wielded signs denouncing capitalism with battle cries such as “Hex Patriarchy.”

Witches today are no longer relegated to the edges of society, surreptitiously adopting the word “healer” or “wise woman” so as to fly under the radar instead of on broomsticks. They’re not just marching against the tyranny of capitalism: in the US they’re writing Op-Eds for The New York Times, casting spells against Donald Trump and teaching classes in Brooklyn.

And now they’re getting attention in France, too. Over the past few months, the story of how witches are becoming the new face of French feminism has appeared not only in the pages of Libération, but also in Le Monde, France Culture, Slate.fr and L’Obs. Witches are protesting in the streets, sharing astrological readings and spiritual wisdom laced with progressive politics on Instagram, and writing practical guides to feminist divination.

French witches are hardly a new phenomenon. Joan of Arc delivered France to freedom after decades of war with England in the 15th century. Though she had no military background, the young peasant woman, who said she heard divine voices, played a profound role in freeing the city of Orléans before the English captured and burned her at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Her crime? Witchcraft, they said.

For centuries, witch hunts plagued the women of Europe and parts of the United States: between 50,000 and 100,000 people -- 85 percent of whom were women -- were found guilty of witchcraft.

In practice, that meant that healers, women who rejected religion and other women who dared to be independent or childless were put on trial and murdered for what today we might simply call being a feminist.

Several centuries and waves of feminist movements later, witchcraft has become a political statement, fueled by movements like #MeToo and #balancetonporc. Today, to be a witch means to embrace independence and power -- things that only a few centuries ago could end in a death sentence.

“A witch is a woman who exists by herself and for herself,” said Mona Chollet on a recent episode of the popular French feminist podcast La Poudre.

Chollet, an editor at Le Monde Diplomatique, recently authored the essay “Sorcières: La puissance invaincue des femmes” (Witches: the invincible power of women), a call to creative witchcraft as a means to empower women of all ages. As a recent review in Le Monde put it, perhaps Chollet’s most powerful and essential point is that to become a witch is to affirm -- without fear or ambiguity -- the extent to which the world, as seen by women, is different from the one that we are sold every day.

In her interview with La Poudre host and feminist activist Lauren Bastide, Chollet explains why that world is so important as well as why it has been seen by some as threatening. Rest assured, the conversation and exploration of that world is not going away anytime soon -- Bastide’s “Sorcières” episode was only the first of a new series to be launched by the podcast.

Witchcraft, in its purest sense, requires no knowledge of medicinal herbs or tarot cards, spells or crystals -- although these can be fun and are used by many witches as a means of psychological investigation and self-directed healing.

To be a witch is to be independent and to manifest one’s intent in a world that otherwise tells women to not be too loud, too different or too powerful.

French witches are being reborn, increasingly exiting the dark realms of secrecy and solitude for streets and social media. Once feared and, more recently, scorned, magic is now seen by some as a political tool to spawn creative protest.

There’s a saying that you may have seen on Instagram or at a women’s march: “We are the granddaughters of the witches they couldn’t burn.” For some, witch and feminist have become synonymous.

The English burned Joan of Arc’s body three times before throwing her remains into the Seine. But in 1867, a glass jar from the 17th Century was found above an apothecary in Paris, bearing a piece of parchment that claimed the ashes belonged to the legendary warrior.

For decades, the relic gathered visitors who came to see the remains of the woman who saved France from the English, the woman who would become the subject of one of Voltaire’s most famous poems, “The Maid of Orleans” -- a work that was banned, outlawed and even burned (which naturally made it one of the most widely read poems in France for centuries). In 1803, Napoleon declared Joan of Arc a national symbol of France; in 1920 the Catholic Church made her a saint.

It wasn’t until 2007 that a team of international researchers was able to use DNA testing to determine if the ashes in the jar belonged to France’s heroine. Instead, they discovered that the remains -- which included, as if out of a witch’s cauldron: a rib bone, piece of fine linen and cat femur -- belonged to an Egyptian mummy.

The thing is, witches can be burned, but their ashes leave legends. Let that legend brew in the Seine for several hundred years, add just the right amount of patriarchy, and you’ve cast a spell for resurrection.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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