The relation of spirit possession and gender formed an important subject in the theoretical discussion of spirit possession cults. That the great majority of the possessed were and are women (although in the last years the numbers of men have increased) caused anthropologists to ask for explanations. In addition, feminists recently discovered that spirit possession was used by women not only to challenge and appropriate male power, but also to confirm and subvert gender categories. Spirit possession dealt with the resistance and empowerment of women and other marginalized groups, but also with the dislocation of gender categories thus denaturalizing male hegemonies through spirit possession. It allowed alternative models of agency which displaced the hegemonic association of masculinity and femininity (Cornwall 1994: 116)
In many regions in Africa, spirits are gendered. In forming hierarchies, they often replicate the inequalities between women and men. However, spirits of various pantheons often establish their masculinity or femininity as fluid rather than fixed, offering gender as a continuum of qualities found in both females and males. Thus, male spirits in the Brazilian Candomblé, for instance, are associated as much with emotion and softness as with forceful dominance, while female spirits include images of the fierce and the powerful, as well as the sensuous and gentle (Cornwall 1994: 126).
In the contribution of Jean-Paul Colleyn on the Nya Cult in Mali only men are possessed by an androgynous divinity named Nya who according to the context is referred to as ‘she’ or ‘he’ thus oscillating between the two sexes. Members are married to Nya and call him or her ‘my husband’ while becoming his or her wife. Thus, as in many other regions in Africa, the gender of the possessed is also dislocated. Initiation, continuous contact and incorporation of the spirits through marriage may alter or shift the medium’s gender. In Northern Uganda, for instance, the relationship between spirits and their mediums was seen as a marital and sexual relationship, the spirit being the medium’s spouse. As such, male spirits were said to feminize male spirit mediums while emasculating female spirit mediums. In contrast, among the Lugbara permanent or temporary asexuality was an essential characteristic of spirit mediums enabling them to mediate between the human and the spirit spheres (Middleton 1969: 224); while in Lamu on the Swahili coast the gender of women and men married to Jinn spirits was not changed at all. Men would marry female jin and women would marry male jin (El-Zein 1974: 71ff). Perhaps because these unions were thought to be fertile and to produce spirit children they did not shift the heterosexual matrix.
In many regions, male and female spirit mediums own spirits of their own and of the opposite sex. In one session, various spirits of different sexes may enter the medium and provide alternate versions of gender, thus displacing the dominant gender hierarchies. In the selective recombination of gendered traits, the person possessed by spirits is given the chance to play, to present a range of choices and alternatives within which people can locate themselves (Cornwall 1994: 127). Thus, spirit possession can be a stage for enacting tragedies, comedies, travesties and parodies of gender that are constantly recreated and dislodged.
This highly flexible aspect of spirit possession is worked out in Susan Kenyon’s chapter on Zar spirits in Central Sudan. In her careful case study of a butcher’s wife possessed by various male and female Zar spirits she offers insight into the contradictions and complexities of ideas about women’s multiple-gendered identities, about autonomy and power in relation to possession by spirits.
In addition, in her discussion of possession in Madagascar, Lesley Sharp gives the example of female royal Tromba spirit mediums that undermines the dominant assumptions in anthropology that participation in what are often assumed to be marginal cult activities is generally regarded as proof of the structural weakness of women. Instead, she shows that among the Bemazava, women embody local power in the political arena that enables them, for instance, to make substantial decisions on local development projects.
In Alexandra de Sousa’s chapter on spirit possession on the Bijagós Islands the bodies of women serve as vessels to accomplish the initiation of young men into full ancestors. The spirits of these young men who because of their premature death could not accomplish their initiation into full personhood take possession of women. The possessed women undergo an initiation and thus establish and fulfill not only their own personhood but also the one of the spirit they embody. Thus, female initiation is in fact a post-mortem male initiation. While in everyday life women’s bodies become the location of a future child, during initiation they harbor the spirit of a defunct who died too early. Pregnant women are not allowed to undergo initiation because it is impossible to carry at the same time a foetus and a defunct.
Here possession surely is not sex war. On the contrary, it is concerned with the social reproduction of the community, women’s bodies not only producing babies but also ancestors. During the time of initiation women change into warriors, the age group of the young men they have incorporated. While being pregnant with a defunct they display the virile qualities of warriors thus relating to the longstanding warrior tradition of the Bijagós Islands. By doing so they dislocate the dominant gender norms while at the same time confirming their productive power of women’s bodies.
As in other African regions, the self, the body and the person are not unitary concepts but open to a constant reformulation through mutable entanglements with others. In this context, spirit possession could be seen as one of many practices that inscribe dividuality (Strathern 1988; Battaglia 1995:3).