The Zâr

The Zâr

Creating Balance Through Diequilibrium

By Dianne Chidester


The zâr is a cult found mainly in Muslim Africa and the Middle East (Northern Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Arabia, southern Iran, southern Algeria, and Morocco). The zâr is also a ritual in which dance and possession play major roles. It is performed by women, with very few exceptions, and is a useful tool for redistributing power in a male-dominated society. Although a male zâr cult has been noted in some societies where men are marginalized by slavery or poverty, from the research done for this project it appears that as more women anthropologists enter the field, and more information is gathered concerning women’s roles in these societies, the zâr is seen to be a female ritual, with very few exceptions. The zâr cult has been attacked by the male establishment throughout the Islamic world since before the turn of the century, but continues to survive, and in some cases becomes stronger as Islamic influence increases. As discussed in this article, the continued presence and growth of the zâr cult demonstrates its important function in the Sudanese society. We will explore the significance of this dance in relation to the subservient status of women in selected Islamic societies, and how the women create political and economic balance through a trance dance using possession and disequilibrium. This approach differs from others in the literature which concentrate on the use of the zâr ritual as women’s entertainment or release of energy.

The origins of the cult are not clear, but are speculated to have roots in Ethiopia or perhaps Iran.

In Ethiopia the word zâr means possessing spirit; in Arabic it means visited, implying the visit of a wicked spirit, devil, Satan, or djenne (jinn or spirit); in the Farsi language is means crying attributed to a severe depressive state.

The word is popularly translated as a corruption of the Arabic word zahar, “he visited,” or zahr, “he became visible, perceptible, or manifest.” All of these interpretations are easily related to possession.




A Sudanese Woman. Photo: Carlol Naya and Otto Schoefft, "Negress" from Le Cairo Pittoresque, 1876.

The Society

Islamic and Islam-influenced societies are sexually segregated in all aspects of life. Women are physically secluded and have no political power, little formal education (although this is changing among the elite), and little economic control. These societies practice polygyny, and a man may have up to four wives. (Although polygyny is permitted by the Koran, the rule that each wife be treated equally is not always adhered to.) A man may easily obtain a divorce and take any children beyond infancy away from the mother. A woman’s value is based upon her reproductive power.

The major rituals and celebrations in a woman’s life surround female circumcision/infibulation, marriage, and childbirth. These are the only times, with the exception of the zâr, that a woman is the center of attention with community support. Although separate from major rituals, the zâr is symbolically similar and allows a woman to garner attention and support. The zâr ceremony is an opportunity for women to communicate to both males and females in the society in a manner not otherwise socially acceptable. I agree with Constantinides that

…by so doing women are emphasizing that the whole basis of society rests upon their reproductive role. Within the rituals and practices they are symbolizing this, their ‘inarticulate power,’ deliberately counterbalancing it against the actual political and economic power of men. Zâr with its woman-centered, woman-run, curative ritual fits well into this set of symbolic sequences.2

The Zâr

At some point in a Sudanese Islamic woman’s life, she will have a “zayran above her;” that is to say, a spirit appears to her. This usually occurs after she has married and her reproductive potential is engaged. The appearance of the zayran usually coincides with a time of personal stress (due to infertility, childbirth, death of a child, etc.) or stress in a marriage (due to infertility, second wives, etc.). This stress will mark the onset of an illness. It is then determined whether the illness is caused by possession or some other condition. Diagnosis of zayran possession can only be made after all other available means for a cure have been attempted and have been unsuccessful. These available means include neighborly advice, over the counter medicines, and the consultations of male religious practitioners. After the diagnosis is made, arrangements must be made for the cure.

It should be kept in mind that it is not always desirable to be diagnosed as possessed since this can involve being stigmatized by men and women in the society, especially if the cure is needed too often and is seen as overtly manipulative. Creating the need for costly cures can become a hindrance. In the zâr cult, the zayran take possession of the woman, but are only controlled for life — not exorcised. A woman can be possessed by more than one spirit, which may lead to the need for more cures. In other cases, the same zayran may place additional demands on the woman, creating the need for additional ceremonies held at different levels of cost to the husband and/or family and friends.

After the initial diagnosis, a shaykha (female curer of the zâr cult) is consulted to encourage the patient to acknowledge possession, to establish the identity of the zayran, and to establish communication between the zayran and the patient. The shaykha also helps the patient and the family plan for the “cure,” which will be a ceremony involving dance, animal sacrifice, and gifts. A ceremony is agreed to, but a date for the ritual may not be fixed. In some cases the patient’s illness will go into remission when the agreement is made for a curing ceremony, thereby easing the urgency for a cure, and in other cases two women will plan to have their ceremonies together in order to share the cost.

The amount of money involved in producing a zâr is significant. Since the woman does not have economic power, she must garner the support of her husband. If her husband does not agree to pay, her father, brothers, or other male relatives may agree to pay for the ceremony. In this way the marriage is strengthened (if the husband agrees to pay), or kinship bonds are reinforced.

The cure is a zâr ritual. This can be quite expensive, and the first cure is more elaborate than any later ones. (The same is true of a wedding.) Money is collected to buy incense, perfume, tea, cigarettes, liquor, and beer, although sharî‘a law (Islamic or religious law) has limited the availability and use of some cigarettes, liquor, and beer. The patient is referred to as a bride and goes into seclusion for several days (an odd number of days being best). The parallels to the wedding ceremony are addressed below. She abstains from sex and does no work. Others cook, clean, and provide child care for her. Her activities are limited for a week after the ceremony as well.

In the late afternoon the women friends and relatives of the patient gather at the patient’s home. There they begin beating the drum, singing, and dancing. A break is taken in order to allow women to return home to prepare evening meals and care for their children.

The “bride” is dressed in white (if this is her first zâr) or at least in her best finery. The patient faces toward Mecca or the main entrance of the home, and the shaykha sits on the patient’s left. Women musicians and other participants fill the area with the exception of the dance space.

Incense is used by each woman to fumigate her body orifices, which are potential entrance sites for spirits. Drumming begins and songs of specific zayran are sung. Women present at the ceremony will respond to possession by zayran by bobbing up and down in a kneeling position. A woman may be possessed by a number of zayran and will, therefore, be in and out of trance throughout the night.

The trance-inducing dance is generally rhythmic, corresponding to the drumming. In a kneeling position, the upper body is jerked forward and back with the head and shoulders hanging loosely. At times the head is tossed forward and back, side to side, in a circular motion, or in a figure eight design. From a standing position, the upper torso hangs loosely and is rhythmically pulsed. In some cases, hopping on one foot is performed. The dancer sometimes collapses but often starts communicating with the other participants in the character of a particular zayran. Boddy observed:

Smoking, wanton dancing, flailing about, burping and hiccuping, drinking blood and alcohol, wearing male clothing, publicly threatening men with swords, speaking loudly lacking due regard for etiquette, these are hardly the behaviors of Hofriyati women for whom dignity and propriety are leading concerns.3

The patient is expected to become possessed at some time during the proceedings. (Since the ceremony can last for several days, the possession does not have to occur on the first night.) The shaykha identifies the patient’s zayran and begins bargaining and asking what the zayran will accept in return for releasing the patient from her illness. Many times the bargaining concerns new clothes, jewelry, household goods, etc. for the patient to be provided by the husband and/or male members of her family.

On the last night an animal sacrifice takes place. The chosen animal is one that is identified with the particular zayran which has claimed possession; the animal most likely used is a goat. The animal is draped with a wedding veil and is incensed. A man (the only male participant) slaughters the animal, and its blood is collected in a bowl. The blood is then used to anoint the patient and participants. Although expressly forbidden by Islam, the blood is also sometimes sipped.

A communal sacrificial meal is taken and more drumming and singing occurs. The patient then bathes, changes clothing, perfumes herself, and incenses her body. She stays in seclusion and is abstinent for seven more days. At the end of seven days she emerges clean and perfumed, and presents herself as bride to her husband.


Through a zâr ceremony a woman becomes the center of attention. It is important to note that the spirits are not exorcised; they are incorporated and controlled. A woman may need multiple ceremonies over time. However, she must be careful not to overstep the bounds. If too many ceremonies are demanded, the woman may be seen as manipulative, greedy, and not a true believer, and thereby lose the society’s sanction of the activity.

Once the woman has been diagnosed as possessed, she gains leverage in the marriage. If there is a disagreement with her husband, she can vent her opinions but blame the zayran for complaining. The husband then negotiates with the zayran, yet saves face because he has not had to bargain with his wife. Physically, however, the husband is communicating directly with his wife. Men have enough belief in the zâr (although not officially) that they do not want to take a chance by offending these spirits.

The zâr allows for interactions among women as support groups. Small, unelaborated zâr ceremonies are often performed during which women reinforce each other, and each woman actively participates in the preparation for another woman’s zâr ceremony. The spirits of a woman, although not hereditary, are usually the same spirits held by her maternal kin, again reinforcing familial bonds in a generally exogamous, definitely patrilineal society. Because each woman can be possessed by several zayran, kinship ties are reinforced with each new discovery. Relationships with other women also can be cemented or modified by the sharing of zayran. In some cases affinal ties are moderated through spirits, or co-wives open a line of communication by discovering they share a zayran.

Notably, although drumming and music are important in the zâr ceremony, percussion is not necessarily needed for a person to go into trance. A spirit can speak through the possessed at any time, and need not be “called” through a zâr ceremony. This aspect makes the zâr cult more useful in day-to-day living since the zayran can appear during any stressful situation.

Female individuality in these societies is not encouraged. Culturally a woman is prized only for her reproductive and domestic capabilities. Through the zâr the possessed individual becomes more than a woman, and is able to incorporate less socially acceptable aspects of her personality. Unlike most other women in the society, the shaykha is usually without a husband (in many cases by choice), but through her practice as a healer she gains respect within the community.

Janice Boddy concludes from her study of the zâr cult in Northern Sudan:

Again from an observer’s perspective, one way to make sense of all this (is) by reference to the concept of framing. Following Elster (1986:27), the Hofriyati woman’s disconcerting experience is ‘reframed’ by a diagnosis of possession in such a way that the precipitating behavior or event — for example, infertility — becomes compatible with her self-image: she is fertile, for spirits have seen fit to usurp this most valuable asset. And she generalizes: future untoward experiences do not undermine the equation of womanhood with fertility and all the rest; they signify the actions of zayran, who, unlike humans (except, perhaps, husbands relative to their wives), are invariably capricious and unpredictable. But for this there is a remedy. Thus, although dissociation may be psychologically adaptive for both Western neurotics and Hofriyati possessed, only for the former may it be symptomatic of pathology. For Hofriyati it is therapeutic. Most of those who acknowledge possession are competent, mentally healthy women who have responded in a culturally appropriate way to a stressful situation.4

The zâr combines and realigns symbols reflecting Islamic, Arabic beliefs along with incorporating the past experiences of the society. In larger towns and cities the zâr sometimes becomes a cult similar to male Islamic fraternities, thus forming a female-focused kinship system or a sense of belonging. In some cases the zayran take the form of non-Islamic foreigners. This belief connects those presently in the community to activities and influences which occurred in the past. (In one case the zayran was an archaeologist who had worked in the area many years before.)


The zâr ritual, as seen by the uninformed observer, appears to be an event in which a woman loses control and is in a state of disequilibrium. However, through symbolic ties to wedding ceremonies, matrilineal kin, affinal kin, other women, and past influences in the community, the woman is able to gain political and economic advantages. She is able to redistribute the balance of power. The trance experience and performance of the ritual demonstrates that all involved (family, friends, spirits) have cooperated to open lines of communication and strengthen the community.

Further study of the zâr cult by female anthropologists should be encouraged. Since these are sexually segregated societies, information regarding women’s rituals will be virtually unknown until ethnographic studies are made by women in the field. A cross-cultural study between zâr and vodou could lead to many insights since both are women-centered rituals which give women opportunities for leadership, utilize possession without exorcism, and utilize symbols associated with marriage. Both zâr and vodou support Greenbaum’s theory that

“…possession trance is significantly more prevalent among societies with greater role and structure differentiation than among those with a lesser degree of such differentiation.”5



1. Salama, A.A., M.D.: “Zâr: A Traditional Method of Healing in Africa and the Middle East.” American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 145 (8), August 1988, p. 1040.

2. Constantinides, P. : “Women Heal Women: Spirit Possession and Sexual Segregation in a Muslim Society.” Social Science Medicine, Vol. 21, No. 6, 1985, p. 685.

3. Boddy, J.: Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zâr Cult in Northern Sudan. (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 131.

4. Ibid., pp. 255-6.

5. Greenbaum, L.: “Societal Correlates of Possession Trance in Sub-Saharan Africa.” In: Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change, edited by Erika Bourguignon. (Ohio State University Press, 1973). p. 54.

Diane Chidester received her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina in 1994, and will return there in the Fall to pursue her Master’s degree. Meanwhile, she is assisting in a summer archeological dig of Aztatlan culture in Western Mexico. She has been a performer and instructor of Middle Eastern dance in North Carolina for 18 years, and performs with Orientale Expressions of Chapel Hill. The assistance and advice of Dr. Mary W. Helms, Dr. Susan Morris-Natschke, and Morocco in preparing this article are gratefully acknowledged.

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