The women’s majlis: supernatural and scientific approaches to mental health

In school, university and the workplace, Gulf women are outperforming men. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist’s office also sees far more females than males.

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Nowf AlQarni

If you read the headlines, you’ll see that Gulf women are high achievers. In school, university and the workplace, Gulf women are outperforming men. Unfortunately, university is not the only place that Gulf women outnumber men – the psychiatrist’s office also sees far more females than males. Gulf women, like women the world over, tend to experience higher rates of mental illness, especially common problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. From a traditional Gulf perspective, some people believe that poor psychological well-being is sometimes attributed to supernatural causes: djinn/genie, sihr, hasad, ayn. The djinn are believed to be unseen beings; sihr is sorcery; hasad (destructive envy) and ayn (the evil eye) are said to be unseen interpersonal forces that can severely negatively affect a person’s physical or mental health.

It’s important to know that the supernatural causes have never been the Arab world’s only explanation. There are also rich traditions that consider biology, chemistry, cognitive and social factors. The supernatural is just one strand; one supported by religious authority. Genie, ayn, hasad and sihr are all extensively mentioned in the Quran.

As part of a psychology project at university, I recently interviewed a number of traditional Islamic healers in the UAE. One healer claimed that only a minority of the people that seek help have supernatural causes; the rest of them, he suggested, have psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Another healer told me a story about criminals who pretend to be traditional healers, using the Quran, to deceive people – usually women. These people are generally told that they are the victims of sihr and the fake healer charges them cash to break the spell.

Consider the following example of how a visit to a healer might go wrong. Farah is 30 years old and visits a traditional healer for her low mood and lack of energy. The healer suggests that her current problems stem from having two genies inside her body, the result of sihr (sorcery). The healer reads the Quran over her; if this is not effective, he will bring a stick. Farah hates the stick; the healer will beat her with it while he reads prayers. Most respected healers don’t use the stick, but there have reportedly been extreme cases where pseudo-healers (fakes) have beaten people to death.

As a psychology student, I’m aware of the effectiveness of current evidence-based psychological interventions. I’m also aware that many people are helped by traditional healers who have a genuine practice and offer services free of charge. Many people in the Gulf value these services greatly. I’d suggest that we might open health centres where traditional and modern approaches work hand-in-hand. This will also help prevent criminals pretending to be healers. To me, the complementary approach seems perfect for a modern, technology embracing society like the UAE – a society that also has a strong commitment to its traditional values.

Nowf AlQarni is a 21-year-old, third-year psychology student at Zayed University.

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