Interview with Max Dashu by Gariné Roubinian
Rain and Thunder Feminist Journal (December 2007)


Can you talk about how SHA challenges dominant perspectives and conceptions of history? Women's history?

It demands an interdisciplinary approach, something that Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies embraced, and has now been adopted in many fields. This is a necessity. The divides of separate disciplines are in many ways artificial, and have often functioned to perpetuate ideologies of dominance. For example, why has indigenous history, which is oral tradition, been sequestrated under anthropology/ethnology and not shelved with history?

So much material relevant to women’s history is scattered and buried in texts which aren’t history books, books on weaving and law and childbirth and dance. It is very clear that women’s submerged experience can only be reconstructed by gathering together strands from folk tradition, linguistics, art history, and ritual studies, in addition to the usual historical documents and other written testimony. Listening to the testimony of indigenous orature is especially crucial, since this is where the empowered female models are thickest on the ground.

My work comes from the perspective of a working-class woman, lesbian, Euro-American—and internationalist, anti-imperial and anti-racist. Also spiritual: Pagan. The approach I take is to remedy the omissions, distortions, and flat-out lies that have shaped standard histories. I say that the information we have is provisional, that new info is coming in all the time, which will often revise or modify what we have so far. This is especially true as voices from the colonized countries and peoples make their way into print and provide more authentic testimony about their cultures. All the humanities have been revolutionized in the past four decades, whether it’s Africana or Celtica or American Indian studies. These changes bear out the principle of putting women and indigenous people at the center. This is the leading edge in cultural studies.

What is your process in creating your slideshows? Where do you get your information? What are your sources?

To begin with, it was reading everything I could find that talked about women in history and culture: books on archaeology and history, scholarly journals, regional studies, oral traditions of indigenous peoples, political science and comparative religion—an interdisciplinary search scanning all kinds of sources. Often the pickings were slim, back before the explosion of books about women.

I began to gather images from ancient art, because they spoke of societies for whom no written testimony existed, and they showed something different from what we know now, especially the really old female figurines that are found over most of the world. My first show was a global reconstruction of reality placing women at the center and looking at female power. Soon the shows came to be loosely organized by region—Africa, Asia, etc.—and these kept breaking down into smaller regions as more slides were added. Then I began pulling together international shows on topics like female shamans, drummers, goddess reverence, patriarchy, and racism in history.

Huge gaps became apparent in certain areas: no pictures and lots of great information, or else powerful images with little information about them or the society they came from. Like the magnificent stone stelas of women in the Manabí culture of Ecuador, and the megalithic women of southern Sumatra. Or, on the information side, the rich orature celebrating female shamans and amazons in Turkic central Asia, and the python priestesses of Malawi and other oracular women over a broad swath of eastern Africa.

So I began to create art to fill some of those gaps, since I’m working with images to bring women’s history to life, and to envision what those missing females might look like. This art is starting to take new forms, as I catch up on new technology and acquire the necessary hardware and software. I just created a series of graphics for the Rebel Shamans show that fleshes out the history of mugirwa priestesses of the Nyabingi religion on the borders of Uganda and Rwanda.

What have been your most popular slideshows, and why?

Women’s Power is far and away the most-requested show. It’s the most comprehensive view, through all kinds of societies and time periods, of women’s leadership, wisdom, creativity, and courageous responses to oppression. Now it's out as a DVD. Female Rebels and Mavericks always strikes a strong chord; women want to see it as soon as they hear the title. Same with Sacra Vulva, and Goddess Cosmologies. The newest show, Rebel Shamans: Indigenous Women Confront Empire is starting to get a lot of interest.

In the past couple of years, there’s been a surge in demand for the Woman Shaman show. Women are clearly looking for transformative paths of healing, to change deep-seated patterns in themselves and in the culture. It’s more difficult to get people to go for shows like Patriarchies, though there has been some interest in the witch hunts presentations, and especially in Taming the Female Body.

The most popular of the regional shows are Witches and Pagans, The Canaanite and Hebrew Goddess, and the shows on ancient Egypt, India, China, and Mexico. Some really interesting ones, like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia and Mississippian Civilizations, haven’t been requested as much.

What current projects are you working on for SHA?

Right now I am completing my first DVD, Women’s Power, the first in a series. [It was released in March 2008.] It contains sections on ancient statues of women, female governors and culture-makers, elders, clan mothers, medicine women, priestesses, seers, poets, writers, musicians, doctors, witches, athletes, warriors, rebels, liberators and activists. I don’t know of anything like it, and hope it will be taken up as an educational resource and an inspiration for female empowerment. There really is such a rich history that we have been denied, that opens up so many possibilities.

Digitizing the Suppressed Histories slide collection is a priority. All the presentations need to go into DVD or some other digital format, like Powerpoint presentations, or just online. Funding is needed to make this happen or I’ll spend the next three years sitting next to a scanner, instead of producing shows. Eventually I’ll need to catalog the images, and get the info out of my head and onto paper, or on disc.

After the DVD, I plan to get out the first volume in my Secret History of the Witches series, which looks at What Happened in Europe, from women’s spiritual leadership, goddess traditions, and folk religion to feudal patriarchy, state christianity, persecution of non-christians, and the witch hunts. This first book talks about ancient priestesses and goddess traditions, about patriarchy, class, and slavery under the Roman empire, but also the religious syncretism of the Magna Mater, and finally about the intensified suppression of female power under the imperial Church. The book is basically written but needs a final editorial sweep, tying up the bibliographical ends, and working up the graphics.

Another book has been on the back burner, about mother-right or what I call matrix societies: matrilineal, matrilocal, egalitarian cultures. Women need to understand that their colonization is not inevitable, that there are other cultural paradigms out there besides systems based on dominance and violence.

Please talk about the prevalence of mother right cultures still in existence today. What hope is there for these egalitarian values/cultures to re-flourish?

They are still around, but like all indigenous peoples, are under siege from globalized corporations who want to log, mine uranium, drill for oil and gas, and build hydroelectric dams that flood out their lands. Economic forces are pushing them off the land and into the cities where their cultures come under severe pressure. There they face the same patriarchy that exists everywhere else, and the mass media. That’s the tough part, but it is not the whole story. People stay on their land, like the Pueblos, and fight for their way of life too. The Haudenosanunee (Iroquois) lost most of their land base but have retained their culture. Or look at the Mosuo, in Yunnan, China: many leave to work in the cities, don’t like what they see, and come back.

It’s very hard to track what is going on in some of these places. I read that the southern Tuareg are assimilating into Islamic culture and becoming patrilineal, and I know that the northerners have been really hard hit with the droughts caused by global warming. Last year I found out that Laos is a country whose majority remained matrilineal through the 20th century (it only took 37 years of reading to come across this fact) but that big shifts are underway and patterns of female inheritance are starting to give way.

All of this shows how interconnected the issues are: female freedom and indigenous sovereignty, global capital, the World Bank, and neocolonialism. I hear from American Indian people about prophecies saying that a turn toward female leadership is coming and that aboriginal people will survive the tough times that are coming. Under different conditions a resurgence is not only possible but likely.

Tell us about your slideshow "Patriarchies: A Global Perspective on Women's Oppression."

This one was late in coming, in spite of its importance, because it has been the hardest to get images of the oppressive customs that are documented in law, history and literature, at least for some regions of the world. I began by taking duplicates from the regional shows of scenes addressing battery, rape, female punishments, seclusion—all the formal subordinations of women—and tossed them in a box. By the time I felt like there was something approaching a representative sample, there were hundreds of them. Still with big gaps, but already too many for one show. So I broke them down again by subjects. One group became Taming the Female Body; another, on Male Dominated Religion, is still in development.

The main group addresses basic socio-political patterns of patriarchal societies: the sexual double standard, female virginity, seclusion, child-marriage, servile marriage (or to put it another way, female obedience versus male privilege), battery, rape, abduction, captivity, female slavery (the primary pattern of early slavery, by the way), concubinage, boy-preference and female infanticide, prostitution, and punishments targeting females who do not conform. Also, the protection racket aspect of patriarchy. And its polarities: male authority, privilege, liberty, speech, honor, leisure; and female obedience, duty, constraint, silence, shame, and service.

These dualisms are enforced within patriarchal families and social groups, but may be altered across class and ethnic lines. For that reason, a common strategy was to prevent women of privileged class from marrying men of subordinate class, lest the lines of domination become confused. So the pattern of hypergamy, women marrying up rather than down, often occurs in stratified societies.

There’s no getting around it—this is an intense show. I understand that it is upsetting to look at these injustices, and many women would rather look away. It’s just that to create real change we are going to have to address the systemic nature of these patterns. They are not inevitable, but an accumulation of custom over time which has become impacted and internalized, even naturalized to the point where many people can not conceive of things being otherwise. Or to perceive how patriarchy interrelates with militarism or colonialism. We can see if we look closely how class systems and accumulation of property relate to controls on female sexuality and inheritance, and how slavery degrades the standing of women.

What are women's historical resistance(s) to patriarchy(ies)?

This has several levels, from the individual to the collective, from direct challenge and confrontation to underground or behind the scenes actions—which can also create shifts and subvert the dominant order. An example of collective action is the west African market women’s councils which advocate for female interests, backed by ceremonial as well as economic power. Individually, there are women like Yim Wing Chun who is said to have learned kung fu in order to fight off unwanted sexual attentions of a powerful man, who she eventually defeats in combat. But this style originated with her teacher, the great female martial artist Ng Mui, an exiled Shaolin master who invented the White Crane style of kung fu.

You also find female protest and resistance in song, dance, ritual, and storytelling, which can be extremely potent, like the satirical social commentary of ancient Arab and Irish women poets, or some of the feminist rappers and slam poets today. Others simply give voice to the pain of being trapped in oppression, like the Rajput marriage laments in India, or traditional Russian songs mourning the loss of maiden freedom. (These don’t voice any hope or alternative, and are more in the line of passive resistance, though their performance does involve elements of female solidarity.) Music can be an extremely powerful form of resistance, with the power to mobilize public opinion. In the 1920s, the Tanzanian singer Siti bint Saad protested social injustices in her taarabu music. One of her songs, “The Police Have Stopped,” expresses outrage that a man who killed his wife got away with it because of his wealth and power.

In Henan province, China, the women invented a secret female script called Nüshu, which they used to keep in touch with their sworn sisters although physically separated from each other by patrilocal marriage, and to support each other. On a more symbolic level, there is a custom in northern India known as Stiriya Raj, “women’s rule,” that is usually triggered by an especially severe male violation of female humanity. The women gather for a procession and drum their way along proclaiming the rule of women, berating men, pushing them off the road and beating any who refuse to move out of their way. Similar ritual enactments of women’s sovereignty have happened in Africa, most famously in the Igbo Women’s War of 1929, also called the Aba Rebellion, which was simultaneously anti-colonial and asserting women’s traditional rights.

In Europe, witches were widely seen as leaders of female resistance to patriarchy. Trials show women like Gabrina degl’Albetti or Jeanne de Brigue counseling battered and deserted women, providing contraception, and generally confronting male power. But there is no question that it’s especially difficult to research women who directly rebel against masculine dominion. They are usually aggressively blotted out from the historical record; at the least, their stories are distorted and misrepresented.

For example, women who killed battering husbands were demonized, and we can track only surface references to them through the courts. In England, for example, they were burned at the stake for treason, and similar harsh penalties applied in other severely patriarchal societies. In China there are references to women being buried alive for breaking patriarchal codes, and in southwest Asia they were stoned to death, as still happens to women convicted of “adultery” in Iran. One Sumerian law decreed that a woman who talked back to her husband should have her mouth smashed in with a brick. This says something about the level of force that was used over a very long time to get us to where we are today.

Can you address the historic connections between pornography and the witch hunts?

There are several angles to this. One is that new printing techniques made it possible for pornographic engravings of gatherings of nude witches to become best-sellers from about 1500 through the height of the witch hunt Terror. This art drew on the repressive sexual fantasies of the demonologists, inquisitors, and learned professors, who were obsessed with the notion of witches having sex with devils, and with punishing women. They developed a whole story about the painfulness of this sex, the devil’s member being ice-cold, and its involuntary nature, the witches being nothing more than slaves of the demon. The demonologists also drew on ancient stereotypes of heretics holding orgies which involved ritual humiliation, especially kissing the devil’s anus. This they claimed was the confirmation rite of a satanic cult. It was all purely the invention of elite men.

This highly sexualized diabolist ideology drove the witch hunts. The old witch persecutions which had gone on for centuries at a lower rate were escalated by a papal decree in 1256 allowing the Inquisition to use judicial torture. This then spread to secular courts. It was this practice of torture that fueled the witch craze, and slashed the ability of accused witches to resist totalitarian force. A key feature of torture-trials was compelling the accused witches to parrot  back the diabolist ideology with all its violent sexual fantasies. The torture would not stop until they did. The trials are full of interrogators barking, “Say it! Tell the truth! Tell how you went to the witches’ assembly and had sex with devils!” Most resisted at first and eventually gave in to stop the terrible pain, although some held out unto death.

The torture quickly went beyond the rack and strappado and water torture to torments of iron and fire directed at the sexual parts. Since the judges and torturers assumed witches were guilty of apostasy and whoring with the devil, they were beyond any protection and could be subjected to anything their captors pleased. This certainly included rape and verbal abuse, but new mechanical refinements were devised, such as the Pear, a pointed metal implement which the torturers heated, thrust into a vagina or rectum, and then screwed open inside the victim’s body. Breast-rippers were another form of torture, often carried out in public, just before the burning of a convicted “witch.”

By the late 1500s a new doctrine of devil’s marks provided a pretext for “searching” women’s bodies, especially their female parts, for marks which were taken as “evidence” of a diabolical pact. Sometimes the witch-finders stabbed suspected witches with needles or bodkins. Or they called a flap of the inner labia, or skin tags which are common on older women, to be a “witch’s teat” suckled by the devil. Unofficial forms of torture would of course include rape by jailors, torturers and officials.

The woman-hatred of all this is obvious. What we have to remember is that this history of dungeons, chains, sexualized torture, ritualized rape and coerced submission had a massive impact on European civilization (and then on its colonies and slave-states) over centuries. Why should we be surprised to find that this deeply violent sexual conditioning has burrowed deep into the cultural unconscious? More recently, it has been claimed as a natural quality of human sexuality—without ever having examined these legacies of horror ---or those of slavery---much less attempting to account for their impact.

In what ways have we learned from history? In what ways have we not? In what ways is history repeating itself?

Well, I doubt that this applies to readers of Rain and Thunder, but the current empire-builders certainly haven’t learned from history. Americans like the idea of being Number One so well that they are repeating the mistakes of the Roman empire all over again. The Democrats don’t dare to challenge this basic mythology of patriotic loyalty to the military, and so there is no effective opposition to American aggression. Kerry repeated the mistakes of Gore, and Hillary looks ready to do the same if given the chance, only she seems even more eager to avoid looking “weak” than they were. But she, like Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir before her, knows that women are allowed into power only if they outperform the boys at militarism. I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten all the political cartoons painting her as a witch.

Another way history has repeated is in the backlash against the women’s rights movement. In the ’20s after women got the vote, many women decided that everything was fine and they didn’t need to do anything more. That was the decade that Freudian analysis became all the rage. We’ve seen ground lost since the 70s due to similar feelings. It’s true that feminists changed many things, especially in work and education (though not enough) but the levels of violence against women have increased, and the mass media spreads images, stories and ideas which degrade and injure females on a grand scale. This is so pervasive that many women are unable to perceive it. Instead they hate their own bodies, and are running to get plastic surgery or on the diet treadmill or taking classes in pole-dancing. So we have work to do.

How can activists utilize your work to further social justice aims?

I think we can’t afford to overlook the importance of knowledge as empowerment, and culture as a medium that propagates values and behaviors. Those who withheld the realities of women’s power from us, as well as the vast diversity of cultures that have existed on this planet, certainly understood that demoralizing us would make it easier to subordinate us. If you can’t conceive of being free as a woman, or for any other identity which has been oppressed, how are you going to sustain the effort and courage necessary to create change? And beyond that, to be able to envision how things might be different, as the mother-right cultures, indigenous cultures, can teach us. Ways of doing things differently, and living by values that revere Nature and the entire web of life.

One aspect that I think is important is that the oppressions are interlocking, and need to be addressed in light of that. For such a long time, divide and conquer has been a winning strategy, and women’s liberation has been pitted against black liberation, or cast as the sole province of the white middle class, ignoring all the voices out there who represent a vastly broader range. Politics and spirituality have also been treated as mutually exclusive. We have to get past those polarizations. We need an integrated view that sees the inter-relationships, all the way to the root level. I’m trying to provide information to support that perspective.

One of my goals is to get this empowering information to the youth, to women in recovery and in prisons, to places where women are in pain and searching for answers. Maybe being an academic outsider will pay off after all, because I’ve been teaching on the grassroots level all along.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of culture in moving people to action—or blocking it—because it motivates and shapes values, creates consensus, gives voice to protest, and builds momentum for action. This wasn’t understood in the wars between politics and spirituality in the 60s and 70s, because some activists saw change primarily in terms of military force or mobilizing categories of people, and didn’t get how crucial it was to build consensus, using not just facts, but the arts and human connections to transform consciousness. That was what happened in South Africa. Not that they’re done yet; the neocolonial economics is still in place, and violence against women is a severe problem. But the overthrow of apartheid was a great victory, and achieved through non-violence.

Who are some of your favorite women from history? Why?

That would be a very long list. My first was Hatshepsut, back in sixth grade when I read a historical novel making her a villain for taking the throne away from the male heir. And she remains a very impressive figure, this female pharaoh who reigned for a quarter century, built major temples all over Egypt, and sent an expedition to Somalia.

There’s Sosipatra, a 4th-century philosopher, seeress and teacher who lived near the coast of what is now Turkey. Lady Wei, known as the founder of Shangqing Taoism. Lalla, the mystic poet of Kashmir, and Savinirmadi, a commoner who never married but became a scholar in 11th-century Karnataka. Anacaona, the Haitian chieftain who was also a talented composer of areitos, the sung poetry of the Tainos. The renegade nun Okuni who founded Kabuki theater, from which women were later banned.

The bisexual poet Walladah bint al-Mustakfi in Spain a thousand years ago, who refused to marry or take the veil. She fell in love with the poetess Muhga, who wrote, “A peach may be the same beautiful shape as a breast, but their uses are different.” A later Spanish lesbian, Elvira de Cespedes, who was jailed by the Inquisition for marrying a woman and practicing medicine dressed as a man. Then there are the 17th century mavericks imprisoned in spin-houses “where incorrigible and lewd women are kept in discipline and labor.” We learn about these women only from records of their repression. Others managed to carve out a space for themselves, the lesbian “Ladies of Llangollan,” the painter Romaire Bearden, and the butch singer Gladys Bentley.

Other kinds of rebels: Samsi, the Arab queen of Nabataea who fought back against the Assyrian war machine. Judith the Fire, a charismatic Ethopian leader who overthrew the Christian kings in the 10th century. The legendary female shaman Quilaztli who challenged the war chiefs in Aztlán. Libushe, a witch who Czech tradition says co-governed with her sisters in the 7th century, and Vlasta, said to have led an amazon revolt after the men took over under a duke. The anonymous “sibyls” who prompted the pagan Stedinger revolt against church and state feudalism in northwest Germany in the 1200s.

The courageous old Afghan woman, her name now lost, who grabbed the reins of the sultan Sanjar and berated him for his tyrannies, at Herat during the 1500s. The equally anonymous mother who killed a Mossi dictator in Burkina Faso by beating him to death with her grain pestle after he ordered her to pound her own child to death. Mauricia la Bruja, a Venezuelan Indian tried by the Inquisition for gathering people in a cave “to sing and shake the little rattle” and urging them to hold on to their ancestral culture. Kasamba, foundational priestess of the Goba people in Zimbabwe, and Ruwej, a Lunda chieftain in southern Congo, who successfully resisted her brothers’ attempts to topple her.

More recently, Olympe de Gouges, Anna Julia Cooper, Teresa Urrea, Matilda Joslyn Gage, all of whom advocated liberation from oppression on multiple levels. Weetamu, Nanyehi, and Lozen, who fought for Indian sovereignty in North America. Wanankhucha, a mganga seeress who led the Zigula and other enslaved Bantu peoples on exodus to freedom in Somalia in the 1840s. Qurrat al-Ayn, the educated Iranian theologian turned fiery orator, who was executed as a heretic. Pandita Ramabai, who came out of a harrowing girlhood to become a major feminist leader in India, and Kartini Solo, a tomboy who was forced into female seclusion but founded the first school for girls in Java.

What challenges have you faced trying to bring the knowledge you've generated through SHA to the forefront?

The greatest obstacle has been lack of funding, which has hobbled my work from the beginning. For want of a nail, many times, the realm is lost—at least for the time being. This is unpaid work, and having to earn a living takes time that I would have spent writing books. Not having a degree has been another barrier, which has made it difficult to work as a historian. I did manage to overcome this to some extent, getting bookings to speak at universities, starting in 1980. This was a major breakthrough for a renegade scholar without portfolio, like me. But things are tightening up in academia, including Women’s Studies, and so it is getting harder to be a freelance teacher. I just keep going. Somehow all this will get published, hopefully sooner than later. I’m trying to beat the clock, given the urgency of our world situation, the biggest challenge of all.

How can the feminist community support this vital work?

Spread the word. Tell young people that this resource is online, and let people in universities and organizations that hold conferences and other events know about the presentations. Visit and read the articles and book excerpts (this does help by raising the search engine ratings of the site). Most of all, make a donation so that there is funding (and therefore the most important factor, time) to produce new movies, books, and web articles. Pointing potential donors toward the Archives is also helpful, and sponsors for presentations too.


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