Zar: Women’s Medicine, Tradition and Rituals

Traditionally, religion has been one of the most powerful sources of both vision and values. Every religion, particularly indigenous, has evoked a new vision for society, aided in advancing the collective consciousness, and inspired both personal and institutional transformation. It has also been a source of division and social fragmentation. However, in indigenous spiritual practices, like the Zar, we find that women play a key role as leaders of ritual, keepers of the earth, and healers.

In parts of the Arab world, women diagnosed with acute cases of depression are, believed to be, possessed by the jinn. This depression or low spirit emphasizes an individuals inability to withstand psychological disorders usually brought about by deprivation, poverty, and hardship. Despite religious opposition, many women resort to the underground female healing ceremonies of the Zar, where a ritual-dance accompanied by music are conducted to appease or elevate these spirits or invoke their therapeutic capabilities.

The ritual is believed to originally derive from Ethiopia and Sudan and was brought to Northern Africa and the Middle East during the Arab slave trade, which brought vast amounts of women. The ritual is lead by a Sheikha or female priestess.

Some Sheikha’s say that the Zar is basically a dance of spirits, or religious dance used to bring healing and a sense of balance and harmony in the patient’s life or their community.

Zar rituals -- like in Vodun, Ewe, Yoruba or Santeria -- are not always about evil spirits. The possession itself is often seen as a way to communicate or have communion with good spirits or forces of nature. Even in some cultures, where the Zar is practiced, it is considered an honor to be associated with the Zar.

Sheikha Karima comes from a long line of Zar priestesses. She is highly respected and one of the best in her profession and one of the last remaining holders of the tradition. Usually the secrets of the ritual are passed down from mother to daughter. During the ritual the Kodia or Sheikha becomes possessed herself. She has come to terms with her Jinn, or spirits, and is therefore able to help the patient. According to most Sheikha's in Egypt, those secrets will die with them because financially it's difficult to maintain a stable livelihood and their children prefer to study rather than follow in their footsteps.

Beginning of the ritual usually starts with music and as the women feel the need they stand and enter into a trance dance.

During the ritual a sacrifice is offered to appease the spirits or jinn. This family is cleaning and preparing the chicken, which was sacrificed, for everyone to partake. The main purpose of the sacrifice is to please the saints and to secure their favor. Sacrifices are performed to mark various significant events such as the birth ritual (Sebou'), marriage and death.

Nehme is a 30-year old single mother. She attends rituals at least three times a week because she feels that she has to appease her jinn often.

Usually once the woman falls into a trance she falls to the ground in dance. The phenomenon of Zar can be best described as the "healing circle." It involves hair tossing and swaying and it also acts as a means of sharing information among women of these cultures.

Islamic scholars shun the idea of appeasing the jinn. Most often Islamic healers prefer to get rid of the jinn whereas in the Zar women believe that by appeasing the jinn they are able to heal themselves.

Although the music is comprised of all women with the Sheikha leading the songs, male musicians are sometimes invited at the request of the Sheikha to lead a particular style of music tailored for specific jinn.

Most importantly, in many male-dominated societies, the ritual has come to represent a sacred feminine circle that allows these women a space where they feel safe to express themselves freely and connect with other members of their community.