Churail - Nimra Bandukwala
A churail was said to be an elderly, hunched over woman with backward feet. Illustration by Nimra Bandukwala
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The Witches That Terrified Me as a Kid Are Actually Feminist Heroes

In South Asian folklore, the witch-like churail with her backward feet is actually based on women who died at the hands of their husbands and came back to haunt them.
February 3, 2020, 11:00am

I’m the biggest scaredy cat I know—and that includes my 10-year-old niece. I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t tell ghost stories. And I’m definitely not into creepy podcasts. That’s because by the age of 10, I watched The Amityville Horror, Cujo, Buried Alive, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre at big sleepovers hosted by my older cousins. But even more haunting than a killer dog or chainsaw-wielding psycho were the stories they’d tell about supernatural creatures from “back home.”

Most terrifying was the churail, a witch-like creature that at first glance was seemingly benign: an elderly, hunched over woman often with no real marker of danger other than her backward feet. The churail’s footprints on a lonely, dusty road is exactly what would lead you to her, not away from her.

Like most Pakistani folklore, stories about churails were passed down via oral tradition, but as someone who spent the majority of her life in Canada, I only heard about half-baked encounters—my aunt telling me a childhood tale about a woman with backward feet who suddenly appeared laughing maniacally in an empty field, or the third-hand story about a distant uncle who swore he saw a witch swoop down from a tree and sit beside him as he used an open-air squatting toilet, leaving him running bare-ass while trying to pull up his pajamas.

The current Western obsession with witches, covens, and black cats inspired me to get over my childhood fear and explore the provenance of brown witches. I discovered the lore behind who became a churail was not only fascinating, it is also pretty feminist.

It turns out that churails are described as women who died during pregnancy or childbirth or at the hands of mistreatment by their husbands or in-laws. They haunt those who abused them, or target young men at random, luring them high into mountains or deep into the forest, seducing them while entrapping their youth and sending them back down as old, weakened men.

The discovery of churails made me feel less alienated from a country I don’t live in, but feel deeply a part of

This discovery shook me: not only were churails badass af, the target of their ire was typically men. Most interestingly, these origin stories seemed to serve the function of protecting women. And while there’s no doubt a vitriolic strain of misogyny that exists in South Asia, my discovery of this folklore was part of a growing body of evidence of an ancient, homegrown feminism, one that made me feel less alienated from a country I don’t live in, but feel deeply a part of.

The study of these tales aren’t that common in Pakistan. “It’s a highly neglected area of our heritage,” said author and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Documentation on these origins is thin in English. Most sources I found were colonial-era authors, like Sir Richard Francis Burton’s in Sindh, and the Races that Inhabit the Valley of the Indus, which he prefaced by referring to those in the region as a “barbarous or semi-civilized race.” I was flooded with anger and resentment reading these words, even though 169 years have passed since it was first published.

But as a child, those words would have filled me with shame. The deeply embedded colonial imprint on the subcontinent and our collective subconscious in the West made clear to me that my culture was inherently backward, inherently misogynistic.

Creating an accessible resource in English written in this century on Pakistani folklore was one the reasons Manahil and Nimra Bandukwala embarked on a project to record it through writing, illustration, and sculpture last summer. The sisters, who now live in Canada and are 22 and 24, travelled across the province of Sindh to learn more about women-centred folk stories in particular.

Having grown up in Karachi, Manahil was interested in how folklore shaped behaviour—jinns and churails became the rationale for not wandering off at the beach at night, for instance. She told me a particularly interesting regional variation on churails she heard near Saif-ul-Maluk, a glacial lake in the mountainous region of the northern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Churails in that region were said to abduct men who litter on trails or disturb nature, acting like protectors of the natural environment.

While she found regional differences in folk stories, she also found the ubiquity of these tales exposed the false political separation we see in the region today. “The Indian subcontinent is fractured and very divided in a way that when these folktales originated it wasn’t,” she said.

In India, a variety of terms are used to describe witches, including churail, dayan, and dakan. The dakan is described as “the most notorious, quarrelsome and troublesome woman in a family, or one gifted with the longest broadest sharpest tongue in a family” in H.J. Antia’s colonial-era writings.

In writing about Adivasi women, an Indigenous minority in India, during that era, South Asian history scholar Ajay Skaria noted: “One of the few ways in which they could be thought about, or think of themselves, was by drawing on the metaphor of the dakan. After all, to think of and present themselves as such was to claim and enjoy considerable social status. Dakans were regarded with fear and respect.”

But most would avoid such labelling. Like in many Western countries, accusations of witchcraft were, and continue to be, weaponized against “troublesome” women in India and Pakistan, getting them imprisoned or worse, killed. Reporting for Fountain Ink, Indian journalist Monica Jha found between 2001 and 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau showed across the country 2,290 people—mostly women—were killed in circumstances that imply witch-hunting was the motive. In reality, as Jha and others have reported, these cases are often linked to forcing women off their land.

And there are other circumstances in which women are targeted: when they suffer from mental health issues, or blamed for bad luck befalling the family, like a sudden illness or death.

But most commonly, the word churail is weaponized as an insult. For director Asim Abbasi, the term represented qualities that were seen as undesirable in a woman: courage, aggression, intelligence, sexual liberation. Growing up in Karachi, he heard the world hurled at women that did “anything beyond the narrow definition of a conformist woman with someone who sits at home and blithely obeys.”

The Leeds-based director is wrapping up a 10-episode web series called Churails. Abbasi, who also directed the Oscar-long listed film Cake, says the point of his series, which will be out in early 2020, is to reclaim the word, featuring women whose stories play on the idea of the witch taking revenge after being wronged. While he couldn’t disclose details yet, the poster acts as a warning shot. In his words: “Enough is enough, we are coming to get you.”

He notes the parallels between churails and film theorist Barbara Creed’s “monstrous-feminine”—the idea that women in popular horror films who aren’t victims are manifestations of what men fear. For Abbasi, it’s a way of othering a free woman to expel her from the real world: “It's not acceptable for our mothers and our sisters and our girlfriends to be that woman. A witch comes from a different plane.”

It’s almost a compliment that a woman like me, single and “liberated,” must come from an alternate dimension to be understood. The way churail has become an insult reminds me of another Urdu word used against women pejoratively: azaad. The word means free, and is used to throw shade at “loose” women. It’s laughable that azaad would be contorted this way. And there’s a similar irony in folklore rooted in protecting women becoming weaponized against them. But there’s hope in a new generation of South Asian women uncovering a creature with power they can see themselves in.

For me, the churail no longer inspires fear or discomfort, but admiration—and relief. Ultimately, the discovery of these women with backward feet not only contradicted that I came from a backwards culture, but helped me find my place within it.

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