In the 19th century, hysteria was considered a diagnosable physical illness among women. The symptoms ranged from seizures, mood swings, anxiety, shortness of breath, pain, bizarre movements, hallucinations and inability to speak. The word hysteria, in itself, originates from a Greek word “hystera: – which means uterus.
This symptoms, ‘only seen in women’, was said to be caused by a “wandering uterus” according to the Egyptians in 1900 BC. It was said that the uterus would wander around the body, “in order to ‘look for semen’, affecting different parts. Later, other western ideologies contributed these symptoms to various reasons – all related to women, of course. From abnormalities in the womb to problems with reproduction, the women, their bodies and sexuality were to be blamed. To make matters worse, the concept which was a medical problem according to most, was demonised in The 13th century. St. Augustine, a saint in the Latin West, stated that “all the sufferings of humankind take place due to sin”. This meant that apart from physical and sexual abuse of women in the name of “hysteria”, like inserting liquids into their uterus, rape or “forced sexual activities”, the women were then exorcised, told to wear various amulets and ostracised from society. Many of them were labelled as witches, and underwent persecution, interrogations, torture, and execution.
According to a blogpost called “Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus”, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English argue that the first accusations of witchcraft in Europe grew out of church-affiliated male doctors’ anxieties about competition from female healers.
Scores of white women artists and writers (in the 19th century) were diagnosed as hysterics in a period when rebelliousness, shamelessness, ambition, and “over education” were considered to be likely causes.
According to a famous physician, S. Weir. Mitchell, who treated various famous and prominent women (like Virginia Woolf) for hysteria, said that, “the women had too much energy going up to the brain instead of staying in the reproductive organs and helping the female body do what it was supposed to do.” ‘Moving away’ from any roles that were prescribed to women, made them hysterics. This disease was therefore used to oppress, discipline and control women who were educating themselves or expressing themselves i.e trying to bring about equality. So, the idea and belief of hysteria only led to further oppression of women, their sexuality, and their intellect instead of helping them cure it. A lot has changed from then to now, thanks to the works of various professionals like Philippe Pinel , Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud, who focused on the brain, and not the reproductive organs. Freud worked extensively on women who were diagnosed with hysteria. With psychoanalysis and hypnosis, he believed that the problem was in their unconscious mind, their id, and not their womb. He also mentioned that symptoms of hysteria could be caused due to childhood trauma, mainly sexual abuse among girls. However, even then, the “medicine” for the symptoms of hysteria was “marrying a man, intercourse and birthing children” – which they believed was a way of regaining ‘the lost phallus’.
Today, hysteria is something “of the past”. But while they might not call a woman “hysteric” for being open about her sexuality, being independent or bold, knowledgeable, they still brand her with new names. A whore, a prostitute*, a mad girl or a crazy woman. So while we women are spared from being exorcised, executed or ostracised completely, the roots of women being “hysterics” still exist in society.
* Note that: Prostitutes should not be shamed for their profession, because just like everyone else, their work allows them to lead a sustainable life. Shaming someone by calling them a sex-worker (when they are a group of professionals who work hard to earn money and live a good life) is offensive, degrading and oppressive.
If a woman acts a certain way that seems irrational to society, if they are too emotional, independent, outspoken or too ‘out of the box’ of what and how women are supposed to behave, they are easily put aside as, and labelled “mad”. For that matter, the concept of “crazy ex-girlfriends” is still so widely known. Most of the time, these crazy ex-girlfriends are called all types of names and are shamed for convenience – in order “drop their social standards” in the eyes of society. For being too emotional, outspoken, being ‘uncompromising’, open about their sexuality, all which makes them – according to society – “crazy”. Any womxn who openly talks about her feelings and is emotionally vulnerable is instantly “too much to take”. So many of us might have shamed or have witnessed people shame various artists for their breakdowns, for opening up, or for being bold. If you think about it, most of these artists were womxn. Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift being the most well-known of the lot.
Independent and strong womxn, including Hillary Clinton, have been shamed for being outspoken, bold and ambitious. Donald Trump, in his campaign, mentioned Clinton’s “sickness” (which started due to her collapse during the 9/11 ceremonies) and shamed her for the same, calling her weak and also sick. Trending hashtags in those times like #HillarysHealth #Hillabeast and #WitchHillary indicates that hysteria is still clutching at the roots of the Western society. Many rallies had people screaming to “lock her up” and “hang her in the streets” as well. Read more about hysteria and feminism here
In the Indian Context:
Hysteria is always thought of as a Western concept, but Abse’s studies (1950) on hysteria in India during World War II demonstrate that, 57% of the 644 patients admitted to the Indian Military Hospital in Delhi during the year 1944, were diagnosed as suffering from hysteria and 12% were diagnosed as suffering from anxiety states.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 2500 Indians have been tortured and killed in “witch hunts” between 2000-2016. In India, the witch hunts are ways to exploit and abuse power over the oppressed castes, classes and genders. In India, we all see the huge influence of casteism.
Witch hunts and its ideology stick with us through our childhood, and we might not even realise it! Asking growing girls to cover up in schools and at home, around men, – all of it comes from the fact that women should not be overt about sexuality. If you don’t, you will be shamed by society, by authority, by your own teachers and relatives. The women we usually look up to, relate to and respect, are also the ones who enable and enforce patriarchy – we just don’t realise it.
Then comes thwarting our ambitions. More widely seen in households from lower economic backgrounds, the women of the house are not allowed to pursue studies after a point because” she will be married off any way.” Any behaviour that is unfeminine, from pursuing higher education to being ambitious and driven – is evidence of witchcraft in women, it makes us “unsanskaari”, unfeminine and bad according to society.
In the current Indian context, the ongoing “witch hunt” of Rhea Chakraborty says a lot about our society. An independent, bold and upcoming woman who has been made the scapegoat for her late boyfriend’s death by suicide. Ofcourse, we are not sure of what happened, but in comparison, we never saw this sort of hatred spewed at Sanjay Dutt or Salman Khan who were proven to be guilty of various charges.
Journalists from various news channels followed her around, shamed her, called her names. From being called a “witch”, accusing her of practicing black magic, calling her a gold digger, and trespassing into her personal space with cameras zooming into her home.
It’s not the first time that an independent, bold and upcoming woman has been shamed and oppressed- for being exactly that. While some might say that Rhea’s not as famous and is therefore made a scapegoat, the last time a woman was “hunted down like a witch”, it was Rekha who was targeted.
Rekha, known for her versatality and acknowledged as a fine actress, married a business man, who died by suicide early in their marriage. Apart from leaving her in complete shock, she was also shamed by society and given no help for her loss whatsoever – exactly like Rhea. They called her a vamp, a daayan (witch) and smeared paint over her new movie posters and made sure she was ostracised from the Bollywood family for a considerable time before she made a comeback.
These are only some examples of famous women being shamed without any proof of foul play. We need to remember these incidents come to light because the people are well known, but we do not even know the kinds of struggles other womxn might be facing. Most of us have been told to “not overreact”, to “chill” and to “not act crazy” when all we are doing is expressing ourselves – this in itself is oppression. It’s also important to take privilege and social class into consideration here. As an upper caste, educated woman – I would still retaliate and make myself clear, I wouldn’t be afraid of harassment because of my social status. But women from the lower class, and especially those who might have mental health concerns might be sexualised and abused because “she’s a mad woman”. The intersectionality of mental illness, being a womxn, and being a part of a certain oppressed community means more abuse, more trauma and more oppression. Today, hysteria is broken down and separated into various disorders in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. While hysteria is still known as “emotional excess” and used in daily vocabulary, the symptoms of the same have been distributed among conversion, somatic and functional diagnosis. However, in today’s world, asking women to chill, if they are PMSing, if they are crazy or mad when they express themselves the way they want, or invalidating their experiences by telling them to stop overreacting are all signs of the society not being accepting of their views and expressions. Commenting on a woman’s sexuality, her ambitions, her outspokenness, boldness, clothes, words or body just to shame her and to prove that she is crazy, mad, or “psycho” says more about the person commenting than the womxn herself. Womxn themselves might believe they are wrong to give their careers more importance than marriage or might feel ashamed of being outspoken and ambitious as men are.
Being aware and stopping ourselves and others from the subtle ways we might be shaming womxn for progressing, being more independent or being ‘more like men’ will be the first step to letting go of clutches of hysteria and the ingrained patriarchy that we have been taught since we were children.
The next time you are at a family event, where a certain relative, usually a womxn, is shamed for moving away from the ‘feminine’ role, and is questioned for the way they dress, talk or express themselves – question if they were actually wrong in anything they did, if the society is downgrading her just because she went against social norms, or if the womxn would be called a “hysteria patient”, or a witch in past…