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Project February 12, 2021

Indigenous Articulations of Depression in Pakistan

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Every spring, thousands of devotees, the majority of them women, congregate at a shrine in northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Some visit for a day; others stay for more than a month. They come to exorcise the spirits that they say have possessed them, in rituals that go on day and night, a blur of dancing, drumming and whirling. This project explores these possession cults as an indigenous articulation of, and response to, female depression. Are these communal rituals—which, even within Pakistan, are widely viewed as backward and regressive—a means of grappling with a globally stigmatised condition? Why do women frequent such shrines far more often than men? What can we learn from them, at a time when mental illness has become the largest cause of disability worldwide?

This project will result in a series of stories that examine indigenous articulations of depression in the global South, particularly within marginalised communities and specifically in Pakistan, where rapacious development, climate change and the ongoing "war on terror" intersect in unique ways. Through an ethnographic account of spirit possession at the shrine, grounded in a broader exploration of the evolving approaches to mental and psychological distress and paired with investigations from other parts of Pakistan—the rising suicide rate in the desert and mountain regions of Thar and Gilgit Baltistan, for instance—this project will, hopefully, further the conversation around the increasingly crucial subject of mental health, particularly as it interacts with gender, class and culture.

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