Women Healers Offer Mystical Cures for Modern Ills

Ariela Giveon-Popper’s new book examines how Arab women healers blend tradition and modernity to aid and empower women in their communities.

Women sheikhs, dervishes and hajis are the topic of Ariela Giveon-Popper’s new book, A Tale of an Amulet: Traditional Arab Women Healers in Israel (published by Pardes Publishing House in cooperation with the University of Haifa).

Popper, who teaches at the David Yellin College of Education and the Open University of Israel, studied the phenomenon of traditional women healers in Arab society, their methods and their effect on the women they serve. Her book gives readers a glimpse into the world of the healers, who try to help the women who come to them – women who live on the seam between tradition and modernity and who must deal with rigid gender conventions – without compromising the existing cultural framework.

Haaretz: How prevalent is traditional healing in Arab society?

“Traditional healing continues to exist in Arab society because it provides a solution to unique problems that current social institutions cannot solve,” says Popper. “Although there are no exact statistics, I believe that dozens of women work as traditional healers. I concentrated on women healers who are active in the Bedouin diaspora in the Negev and in Jaffa, Lod and Ramle. The significant changes and modernization processes taking place in these cities affect Arab women, among others, and often cause them distress that the traditional healers can alleviate.”

What is the traditional healer’s status in Arab society?

“The traditional healers are regarded with ambivalence,” says Popper. “Their powers and particularly the supernatural powers that are attributed to them – to heal and to cause illness, to cause couples to get along well and to create conflict between them – make the members of their communities respect them, but also fear them. Many men are hostile toward the traditional healers even as they fear them. They see the healers’ work as subverting the foundations of abstract monotheism and as a tool that gives dangerous influence to women. At the same time, many women see the healers as symbolic mothers and feminine models. Even healers who are elderly, divorced or uneducated show how a woman can obtain a great deal of power through the tools she offers.”

What methods of treatment do the healers use?

“They diagnose by reading dried coffee grounds, applying numerology to the client’s name and her mother’s name, handling items that belong to the client and dream interpretation,” says Popper. “They give the problem a name and a cause -- usually the evil eye or sorcery. The diagnosis has therapeutic value because afterward, the client reexamines and reevaluates her situation. The treatment itself is done with medicinal herbs, amulets and magical objects that are gradually becoming more popular, particularly in cities. The amulets contain verses from the Koran – a treatment method that was the exclusive province of men until recently. It is likely that by using the Koran in healing, the women are trying to appropriate for themselves some of the social prestige that traditional men healers enjoy.”

What are the reasons that women go to a traditional healer?

“Arab women go to women healers for physical and emotional problems, and mainly for issues such as financial difficulty, marital problems and conflicts within the extended family,” says Popper. “For example, the healers must mediate between the desire of young Arab women to choose their own husbands in the spirit of romantic love and their families’ desire to arrange their marriages. The healers provide some relief for physical and emotional problems and give their clients practical and ethical tools for coping successfully with life’s hardships.”

What insights did you get from your study about the lives and situations of Arab women in Israel?

“The women healers studied in the book offer Arab women in Israel a way to cope that uses tools from tradition,” says Popper. “Traditional healing empowers both the traditional healers and the women who come to them. It encourages the women to conform to the accepted norms and values in their society and thereby alleviates the feelings of oppression, alienation, marginalization and exclusion that many Arab women in Israel experience. Traditional healing methods enable these women, healers and clients alike, who are bound by the restrictions of a patriarchal society and often feel the conflict between tradition and their own inner world, to make their way back to their family, culture and community, and thereby obtain a measure of relief.”