Spirit Possession and Roleplaying: How Does SELF Cope with Oppression

Regarding spirit possession as roleplaying i.e., the possessed is playing the role of the spirit, is a modern mistake. The modernity—the belief in science—does tend to deny the meanings of spirit and trance, which play an important role in spirit possession yet do not exist in roleplaying. Based on the understanding of the difference between spirit possession and roleplaying, I think, they enable one’s self to cope with oppression in their own ways. With the examination of the haouka ceremony in the 1950s in Ghana, the zar ceremony in the 1970s in Sudan, and the drag ball in the 1980s in the US, the essay is about how spirit possession and roleplaying enable one’s self to cope with oppression.

Those Who Under Oppression

In the Hofriyati world—the site of the zar ceremony—the male-over-female gender relations cause oppression on women: a Hofriyati woman is subordinate to her husband and brother(s) (Boddy 2008:372). Meanwhile, the linkages between fertility and femininity i.e., the responsibility of reproduction is mostly on women (Boddy 2008:371), and the linkages between fertility and morality i.e., pharaonic circumcision invests women with morality and thus enables them to reproduce(Boddy 2008:370), also lead to pressure on the Hofriyati women.

To those who do haouka ceremony, oppression is, on one hand, colonization (Accra, the capital of Ghana, the site of the haouka ceremony, was a British colony); on the other hand, since they are mostly economic migrants from rural area to urban area, mechanical civilization i.e., industrialization and urbanization, also lead to pressureon them (Rouch 1995). In Rouch’s words, “noise never stops”, and it is the noise that force them to seek for peace (Rouch 1955).

​In the US society—either in the 1980s or today—both sex and race contribute to oppression on MTF (male-to-female) people: heterosexual male and female are over LGBTQ people, white people are over black people. “If one is able to go out of the ballroom—in her outfit—into the sunlight, going home without blood, she is a success in the MTF world” (Corey 1990). One example in Burning in Paris, is the death of Venus Xtravaganza—she was killed before the film was released—and her “mother” sighed: being a MTF in New York, “this is part of your life” (Xtravaganza 1990).

Beyond Oppression: The World Belonging to the Oppressed

In order to cope with oppression, these three groups—either by spirit possession or by roleplaying—try to create their own world beyond oppression. The first question is, where is their world? In terms of space, the space for the zar ceremony, is the room of a house, or the yard of a house (Boddy 1989:125); the space for the haouka ceremony, is beyond the city—it is so far away that they should go by vehicle and then on foot for an hour—and in Mountyeba’s yard (Rouch 1955); the space for the drag ball, in most cases, is a ballroom. Here, the boundary—the wall of the room, the fence of the yard—and the distance, defend them against the outside world, and embody their “interiority” i.e., the orientation towards the inside world, the defensive orientation of their world, which is a result of the history of colonization and other types of oppression (Boddy 2008:370).

​However, “where their world is” is referring to a place rather than a space. The distinction between space and place is like the distinction between house and home (Harrison and Dourish 1996:3); that is, a place is a space invested with social meanings and cultural meanings(Harrison and Dourish 1996:3). The room always for thezar ceremony is a place, the yard always for the haouka ceremony is a place, the ballroom always for the drag ball is a place. The oppressed turn spaces into places, create their own world consisting of the place, the people, the ceremony and the ball, the music, singing and dancing.

Their World, Their rules: Implicit or Explicit Revolution

The world of those who do the zar ceremony is, a female world, led by shaykha (the zar priestess) (Boddy 1989:125), which is nowhere in the male-over-female Hofriyati world. At the same time, it is a zar world, led by zairan (the zar spirits), or zar possessed women.Since zairan are amoral, ambivalent, and capricious, belonging to foreign countries (Boddy 2008:375), the femininity and morality in the Hofriyati world do not exist here e.g., one zar possessed women—her zar was Luliya the prostitute—said she needed “two short dresses and a transparent tob” (Boddy 1989:129), and the exteriority of the zar world is in place of the interiority of the Hofriyati world (Boddy 2008:375).

In the haouka world, different relative positions lead to different power relations: some haouka possessed people move to a higher position e.g., a private was the General (Rouch 1955); some haouka possessed people move to a lower position e.g., a man holding resources monopoly for the government was the corporal of the guard, who saluted everyone in the ceremony (Rouch 1955). So it is possible for everyone to be possessed by powerful haouka e.g., the Governor, the General, and it is possible for everyone to be the one with power. Moreover, in the haouka ceremony, the colonized playing the role of the colonizing Western power, like a parody, is another reverse of the rules in the outside world.

One key rule in the drag ball is—of course—that being gay is 100% right: “it is not what it is like in the world” (Xtravaganza 1990). Here, MTF people is the star: “Pepper Labeija! Pepper Labeija! Elizabeth Taylor is famous; so is Pepper Labeija.” (Corey 1990). A variety of categories in the drag ball allow them to be anyone—the rich, the elite—which is impossible in the outside world, where heterosexual male and female and white people are on the top of hierarchy.

Their rules in their worlds are, more or less, against the rules in the outside world; yet notice that they are not explicitly revolutionary. In the zar ceremony, feminist discourses, or discourses against the Hofriyati morality, are never directly mentioned. In the haouka ceremony, nationalist discourses, or discourses against the British colony, are never directly mentioned; in fact, when people always pay attention to the haouka of the Western power, Henley (2006:738) pointed out that many haoukamay be African spirits e.g., the train driver, the truck driver. In addition, the drag ball is, by nature, unlike the MeToo movement. All of them imply the wish for another possibility of the world, without directly fighting against the status quo. I think they are, in Rouch’s words, “implicit revolution” (Henley 2006:738).

Meanings of Being the Other: Being the Self, Coping with the Reality

According to Boddy, zairan are the beings complementary to human beings (Boddy 2008:372). They are mostly male, amoral, ambivalent, and capricious, belonging to foreign countries (Boddy 2008:375). One of them is a British pasha, who shook Boddy’s hand “Western style” (Boddy 1989:126); another of them is an Ethiopian prostitute, who always enjoyed the Hofriyati weddings (Boddy 1989:129); what does it mean to zar possessed women? To the Hofriyati women, zar possession is temporary liberation from the cultural overdetermination of their selfhood (Boddy 2008:376), the femininity and morality in the Hofriyati world. It provides them with another vision—the vision of zairan (Boddy 2008:379)—to see themselves and the world beyond the social and cultural construct, enable them to rethink of who they are and where they are (Boddy 2008:382).

​According to Rouch, haouka are, “the gods of city, the gods of technology, the gods of power” (Rouch 1955). Therefore, the haouka ceremony is not only about the encounter with colonization and the Western power, but also about the encounter with industrialization and urbanization. This is why not only the Governor and the General, but also the train driver, the truck driver, belong to haouka (Rouch 1955). These economic migrantsempower themselves by being possessed by powerful haouka—the gods—once; they cope with the oppression by being part of it. Perhaps this is why the haoukaceremony is a therapy: after the ceremony, the impotent man’s girlfriend was happy (Rouch 1955).

There are a variety of categories in the drag ball: heterosexual or homosexual, the rich or the poor, students, workers, “the beauties in 1986”. Part of the roles are their dream selves: “the ball is like our fantasy of being a star” (Labeija 1990). Part of roles are otherpossibilities of themselves: “The ball is the very world (where) whatever you want to be, you be” (Corey 1990).Part of roles are, sadly, training for being one of ordinary people: when neither the untrained eyes nor the trained eyes can find out that you are gay, this is the “realness” (Corey 1990).


  • Boddy, Janice. 2008. “Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance.” In Michael Lambek, ed., A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, pp. 368-385. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Boddy, Janice. 1989. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Harrison, Steve and Paul, Dourish. 1996. “Re-place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems.” Proceedings of the 1996 ACM Conferenceon Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM.
  • Henley, Paul. 2006. “Spirit Possession, Power, and the Absent Presence of Islam: Re-viewing Les maîtres fous.The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(4): 731-761.
  • Livingston, Jennie. 1990. Paris is Burning. Film.
  • Rouch, Jean. 1955. Les maîtres fous. Film.
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