Sadia Dehlvi, a Delhi-based writer and an activist took several readers including me on a delectable trip of Mughal Cuisines through her book ‘Jasmine and Jinns’. While she thoroughly talks about the fragrance brimming from the history of Mughal Dastarkhwan laid with slowly cooked qormas, koftas and sherbet, Sadia also leaves some space for the djinns to enter her aromatic chronicle of the rich history of Mughal food.
While being exposed to djinn stories since childhood, I was not surprised by their mention in the book, ‘Jasmine and Jinns.’ But what has instead triggered me was the repetitive reprimand regarding the weakness of djinns for fragrance and unmarried women. An excerpt from the article considering Sadia’s book published in The Hindu, read, “The djinns are attracted to the fragrance of jasmine and if they smelled it on an unmarried girl they could become her ashiq, possessive lover. This would ruin their chances of getting married to a human being.”
Many a times, I have been schooled by the older women of my household for wearing fragrances citing the same reason. Nobody wants a djinn hanging on their ponytail, hence, I used to immediately bathe away the fragrance to keep the djinns at bay. But it was not only limited till fragrances: loose tresses and late evening walks were also added up as a precautionary measure to save oneself from the perils of the djinn.
To sum up, the older women basically wanted the unmarried girls to look physically and sexually unavailable and unattractive till they find a potential suitor who should be the ultimate receiver of their beauty and desire.
As I grew up, the stories increased with further addition of ghostly apparitions, but the authenticity of stories got enveloped with doubts and lack of sheer logic. The fear mongering tactics of Patriarchy to limit the mobility and desire of women started to gradually reveal themselves up. Those djinn stories emitted nothing but fallacy and false anecdotes as ‘tools’ to keep the society in check, particularly its women.
There were frequent discussions regarding the ‘possessed women’ in my locality. And even after meeting or knowing few of them in person, I still try to decipher the behavioral patterns of the women who used to ‘act’ possessed. Every vibrant young woman with sharp reflexes were termed as possessed. They were prohibited from participating in social gatherings like weddings or any family events because that might trigger the spirit and her condition will worsen.
An article published in the BBC regarding the stories of possession and exorcists highlighted the mistreated mental illness and its repercussions when every case was termed as ‘possessed’ by the spiritual healers. According to the spiritual healers, the possessed are the ones who do not behave in accordance to the norms of society and religion, thereby, face the wrath of djinns. The same article mentions an agonising tale of a married woman who succumbed to the spiritual ‘treatment’ of driving out the ‘djinn’ from her body.
Most of the cases turned out to be of cases of mental health conditions but hidden under this dogmatic thinking, got termed as the action of Djinns and spirits. Subjecting these women to rigorous practices of cleaning the spirits by shutting them behind the doors and barring them from intermingling with the outside world, only worsened their life and health further.
But why did the djinns mostly possess unmarried women? As per the patriarch sitting on the pedestal, an unmarried woman is more desirable and if she adorns herself with perfumes and ornaments her hair, she becomes irresistible. However, the flip side of the tale also pinpoints the fact that the patriarch regulates the life of a woman in a manner that she hardly gets an opportunity to look desirable per se or voice out her desire as she wants. Her mental, physical and sexual mobility has always been a subject of scrutiny.
Analysing it from the medieval Islamic representational tale of Yousuf and Zulaikha, Zulaikha, a married woman tries to seduce Yousuf because she couldn’t resist his mesmerising charisma, a man who is considered as the possessor of half of the world’s beauty. But for a married woman to show desire for another man was clearly not the acceptable approach made by the audacious Zuleikha. So she suffered, grieved and repented until her ‘sin of expressing desire’ was forgiven. She was accepted by Yousuf when she became ‘pure’ again. And the authority of expressing desire was given to its righteous owner, Yousuf.
The patriarchal theory boils down to reserving the desire of women for their legally married husband again and again. And as long as they stay unmarried, they must practice certain restrictions imposed upon them by the authoritative male of their family. The argument of ‘Sunnah’ (appreciable practice) and ‘Farz’ (obligatory) in something as petty as donning a nose ring brings forward the ‘intersectional patriarchy’ operating at micro levels in the lives of a woman. The djinn theory is just an approach to contain a woman from behaving like ‘Zulaikha.’
As a kid, I remember an instance when I heard that a woman with a mole on her lips is not a graceful woman, her mannerisms are horrid. These women are often involved in horrible practices of ‘jadu- tona (witchery)’, they’d tell us. The kid that I was even questioned what could possibly be wrong with a mole? I checked for the signs of mole on my face to ensure that I am not a bad woman only to realise later that probably a mole intensifies the appearance, hence making the woman appear more pleasant and desirable. Is this why the mole is being blamed? There were no other logics left to defend a melanin accumulation.
But what is so threatening about the sexual mobility of women for the patriarch? Why is ‘Zulaikha’ discussed in whispers? Why is the expression of desire by women, a bad omen for men? The mere fear of authority over a woman’s body slipping away has forced those complicit in upholding patriarchy to spread this narrative of fear and spirits. So, should I believe in the tale of passive patriarchy narrated by the women about the dreadful consequences of wearing scents to protect the prestige of patriarch?
I will become safe when I am married: then my scents, flowers and the frizz in my hair will not be threatening anymore, because then the djinns will be afraid of my husband who will protect me from all the treacherous eyes. Either I should wait and suppress my desire until the day of my marriage or marry early to be more desirable for my husband and less desirable for the djinns. The patriarchy has never stayed away from throwing these options to the women.
But what if we are already negotiating with the ‘djinns of patriarchy’? Then I can only wish for all those ‘possessed women’ to acquire the power of articulation by being unapologetic about their sharp reflexes, captivating eyes and the moles on their faces. Although, I do regret bathing the fragrance off as a teenager, when I look back at it, I think I should have waited for the work of djinn to debunk the fabricated tales of patriarchy around me.
Maimuna Shafique is an aspiring filmmaker and enjoys exploring cinema from all across the world. She will be often spotted with a camera framing her mindspace through the visuals around her. A digger for Old Music, Maimuna has an M.A in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia. She wants to make films and tell stories around strong women.
Featured image source: images.dawn.com