Isgar and Ritual Domination in the High Atlas

Isgar and Ritual Domination in the High Atlas


Mohammed Maarouf
Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box]

El jadida, Morocco- Rachik (1990) has focused on sacrifice rituals known in the High Atlas as maʿruf (sadaqa/ charity), sacrificial banquet offered to God in mosques, to saints in shrines or to spirits nearby stones. Maʿruf mediates between the dead and the living. It also implicates the collective that takes part in the sacrificial offering.

Rachik has distinguished between private and collective sacrificial offerings, private in which the sacrificer is the chief of the household, collective in which the sacrificer is the community. What interests us in his exegesis is the role that women play in tribal ritual sacrifices, and how their role concurs to some extent with the role they play in Ashura. In the High Atlas, women offer isgar (an evil expulsion sacrifice ritual) addressed to jinn.

Sacrificial offerings may include objects of value and symbolic significance from the most desirable foods to blood sacrifices offered with the intent to chase evil or cure a sickness. Isgar offerings follow strict ritual interdictions: no salt in food or blood, no speech in performing ritual tasks and no use of the right hand while offering gifts. Isgar seems to be a subversive ritual marking isolating boundaries between the world of humans and spirits, and the world of culture and nature.

That women often perform isgar evinces them as satanic and endowed with mystic powers. In maʿruf rituals, they are hierarchically placed as subordinate to men who have the cultural authority to slaughter and circumcise. Men occupy the dominant leading roles in sacrificial rituals. Whereas, women are relegated to a secondary position doing tasks commensurate with their domestic roles such as preparing food and fetching fire wood. In isgar, they can be full participants given that they can sacrifice respecting the main constraints: preparing unsalted raw food, using their left hand in offering gifts and maintaining silence.

Of course, men can also perform isgar but it is never vice-versa; women cannot perform maʿruf or the orthodox sacrificial ritual in which the right hand is required by the religious tradition in performing blood sacrifices. Generally, women can participate in maʿruf rituals however under male directives and supervision. Their tasks are chiefly limited to food preparations. In isgar ceremony, women are allotted a ritual freedom to indulge in the illicit and subvert the common ritual norms of maʿruf; all of this operating from the local beliefs and social representations of the female as satanic, skillful in doing magic and dexterous in communicating with spirits.

Rachik’s ethnography is much more elaborate than the sketchy outline proposed above. From his study of tribal rituals, he argues that maʿruf  is a symbolic statement of social status. The ritual representations seem to be an integral part of the social rapports in the community. Social inequalities like argaz vs. l-afrukh,* man vs. woman are rooted in ritual functions. It is within the framework of social structures that rituals are represented, organized and legitimized. And it is by virtue of symbolic dichotomies such as right vs. left, speech vs. silence, man vs. spirit that relations of the sexes are conceived and lived. It is in terms of the superiority of right over left, blood sacrifice over culinary sacrifice, the orthodox sacred over anonymous sacred and culture over nature that the superiority of men over women is reproduced.

This is how a mode of thought based on the meta-social maintains extensive rapports within social structures. In other words, ritual is not staged in a vacuum. It is part of a social context in which many aspects of the social structure are staged. The social organization of ritual tasks may confirm (sexual division of the sacrificial duties: culinary sacrifice for women and blood sacrifice for men), subvert (l-afrukh who assumes a feminine task), and derogate (the man who performs isgar) the normal social relations.

Rachik’s theory is based on the perception that there is a ritual tendency to exaggerate the differences between the social categories of lineages and sexes. Thus belief in the magical power of women and in its threat to masculinity exaggerates the need to put women under control and limit their sphere of work. Localities, tasks and so forth all tend to mark the status of each category of social actors. Maʿruf rituals then may operate to obfuscate discrepancies and produce a ritualized harmony of the social system that renders hierarchies seem natural.

Though Rachik’s ethnography depicts power as dynamic as well as productive in a Foucaultian sense, it still remains subtle whether the competition for power is manifested in maʿruf rituals. It seems that Rachik does not give much importance to the dynamics of power relations among the sexes and the patriarchal order coding such social interactions. Even the local stereotypical social representations by male Berbers as regards the social status of women are not elaborately examined in relation with the anxieties of patriarchy.

Cannot we read in isgar ritual a space of freedom allotted to women to practice their own rituals and evince their domestic and even mystic power though it is assorted as inferior to the masculine performance of maʿruf? Thus the social hierarchy of the male is transgressed in isgar ritual, especially if we look at the tasks of maʿruf that are turned upside down (speech vs. silence; right vs. left; etc.). The isgar tasks represent a transgression to the masculine values in society. The cultural authority of the male in maʿruf is counterbalanced with the culinary and mystic power of the female in isgar.

In this respect, some questions may open new horizons in Rachik’s work: what is the cultural significance of the patriarchal conception of women’s power to communicate with jnun? Do female saints (like Mitaʿazza, Jedda Mammas, Mizzara, Sti Fatma, and lalla Aziza) contribute in mapping social hierarchies in the Berber communities of the High Atlas? Does Chamharouch, the sultan of jinns, to whose shrine people go on pilgrimage contribute in mapping the social hierarchy of lineages and the sexual hierarchy of the nearby tribes though the last question may partly find its answer in Rachik’s work on sacrifice (1992)?

*Both argaz and l-afrukh—the name afrukh may also be attributed to a child—are family chiefs but the afrukh ranks lower than the argaz vis-a-vis shouldering local community responsibilities because his father is still alive and acts on his behalf. When the father deceases, the married son reaches the status of argaz and is ushered into the council of the village [jma’a] (see Rachik, 1992).