Saudi Woman executed for Witchcraft: A Struggle over Gender Power?

Saudi Arabia’s news service announced that the kingdom has executed a Saudi woman for the practice of sorcery, according to the BBC. Amina bint Abd al-Halim b. Salim Nasir was arrested in 2009.

Amnesty International condemned the execution as a violation of the woman’s human rights.

The BBC gives some details on this case that might allow us to understand a little of what is going on here, and the case is more complex than just a struggle between Muslim orthodoxy and witchcraft. My suspicion is that the execution was in part a struggle over the relative power of women and men.

While the Saudis refused to comment on the case, the BBC cites Arabic sources saying that the woman, in her sixties, tricked people into giving her money in exchange for her healing them with her spells. She is said to have charged as much as $800 per session.

So it appears that she was actually accused of serial medical fraud. We do not know the details here, but it is after all possible that she did put peoples’ lives in danger. For instance, if her patients were convinced that she had healed them, they might not have sought actual medical care. What she did should not have been a capital crime, but unorthodox healers are sometimes arrested in the US, as well.

It should be noted that this is one of several relatively recent sorcery cases in Saudi Arabia. In one, a Lebanese man with a television show where he did fortune-telling was arrested and sentenced to death. But this sentence against Ali Sabat was just lifted and he will be deported to Lebanon instead.

Before that, a Sudanese immigrant, was accused of taking a client whose parents were on the verge of divorce, and of casting a spell designed to effect their reconciliation.

So why was the Lebanese man released but the other two were executed? Well, for one thing probably Saad Hariri, a powerful Sunni politician in Lebanon and ex-prime minister, intervened for his co-religionist. Saad’s father Rafiq had had an extremely close relationship with the Saudi royal family.

But it is also true that Ali Sabat’s crime was slightly different than that of the other two. He just had a television show. They were engaged in attempts at marriage counseling and medical practice, respectively.

Ms. Nasir’s crime was allegedly called a “danger to Islam” by Saudi clerics.

Famously, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski said that the distinction between magic and prayer is that with magic, you compel the spirit to do as you say, whereas prayer is a matter of humble supplication.

But compelling spirits is a form of power, and my suspicion is that Ms. Nasir’s “crime” (of witchcraft) was compounded by her assertion of a kind of authority in a very patriarchal Saudi society where women are not even allowed to drive.

That is, the real story here may not be the struggle between modernity and “medieval” Saudi theocracy, but rather the struggle between orthodox men of the Establishment and an unorthodox woman making claims on forms of social power and authority. Like the Sudanese immigrant, Ms. Nasir was low on the social hierarchy but making claims to high status by virtue of magical gifts. She posed not so much a danger to Islam as a danger to the authority of the clerics.

11 Responses

  1. this is a BS article with all due respect.
    it has nothing to do with gender or social hierarchy, they execute men for “witchcraft” all the time , last one i remember was about 2 months ago. you just read too much into it.
    it is simply an absolute monarchy doing a crazy thing , much like absolute monarchies around the globe used to do.

  2. Come on Juan! To me this piece reads as an apologetic piece towards the repressive implementation of Shari’a law that is practiced in Saudi Arabia — one of the biggest violators of human rights in the world! Yes, women’s rights is a major issue in Saudi Arabia. And, yes, the laws in Saudi Arabia are used to repress the rights of women. However, let’s not exaggerate the hard facts. She was not “accused of serial medical fraud,” as you claim. She was imprisoned (and executed) for being a “sorcerer.” Sorcery is a far cry from crimes of “medical malpractice in the US.” Furthermore, fellons convicted of medical malpractice are not sentenced to death by beheading in the U.S. as they are in Saudi Arabia.

    It is important that we do not ignore the facts on the ground; especially, in instances of women’s rights in Saudia Arabia. It is the Whabbi version of Shari’a that is largely responsible for the repressive gender issues, not to mention human rights issues.

  3. Here’s a cheery thought, Saudi’s, who control 12% of world petroleum production, are challenged by witchcraft.

    A pox on the House of Saud!

  4. In the U.S., prescription drugs “correctly” prescribed and correctly taken are the FOURTH largest killer of humans. Add to that actual malpractice, and it becomes #1.

    We have GOT to stop parroting the AMA/BigPharma propaganda that “they might have been saved had they gone instead to medical doctors.”

    Who says she “tricked” people? Who says her spells didn’t work, or work AT LEAST as well as the million-dollar ruses foisted on dying people by conventional medicine so that their lives are extended by a few months?

    Christ.

  5. To conclude that it appears the woman was “actually accused of serial medical fraud,” based on unnamed “Arabic sources,” is a huge stretch. In your attempts to try and balance out so-called Islamophobia, you appear to be an apologist for the worst interpretation of Shar’ia Law. By all means, let’s oppose unwarranted biases against Islam where they exist. But let’s not fall prey to whitewashing those aspects and interpretations of Islam that deserve to be condemned.

  6. I am learning that laws and customs vary quite a bit throughout the Muslim world, still this was a surprise. It shouldn’t be in light of death sentences for adultery, even in rape cases. In Turkey and a few other countries things not forbidden in the Quran, like driving or going out without male relatives seem to be permitted, while in Saudi Arabia anything not permitted in the Quran is forbidden, especially to women, and likely to be punished very severely. Even voting won’t be allowed until 2015, then maybe there will be some changes but I wouldn’t count on it.

  7. That’s funny, I was just reading about the West Memphis Three, who were sentenced to life inprisonment for basically being satan worshippers, because they wore heavy metal t-shirts.
    I mean, when you consider the part where they didn’t murder anyone, that’s basically what they were in jail for. In a different state it could have been the death penalty.

    • LOL oh wait, one of them was sentenced to death. So there’s that.

    • Weren’t they released on DNA evidence? Not that possibly innocent people haven’t been executed in America, one earlier this year in fact.

    • What the West Memphis Three case proves is that Bible-belt Christians are not that much different that the Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia. They have much in common.

      Those guys were railroaded to the death penalty based on religous prejeudice against album covers and t-shirts.

      What happened in Saudi Arabia is horrifying Juan. But you should also realize that same insanity occurs on US soil as well.

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