Legal Scoop | Dump that racist Obeah Act?
Obeah and other forms of spiritualism have become far more acceptable in modern society.
Obeah women now live in gated complexes, while obeah men hold retirement parties heralded in the media with tickets going fast. But what do the laws of Jamaica say about the practice of obeah?
To begin with, there is still an Obeah Act (The Act) in Jamaica, yep. A 19th-century legislation, to wit. The act is very short, only four pages, and its purpose is clearly to suppress the practice of obeah in Jamaica.
The act defines obeah as having the same meaning as myalism. The online Oxford dictionary, in turn, defines ‘myalism’ as “the earliest documented Jamaican religion with African roots ... a Jamaican folk religion focused on the power of ancestors, typically involving drumming, dancing, spirit possession, ritual sacrifice, and herbalism.”
Given the meaning of myalism, the purpose of the act, therefore, is clearly to suppress and stymie an African religious form retained by the displaced Africans, forcibly taken to Jamaica.
A person practising obeah
The act defines a person practising obeah as, “Any person who to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use, any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge ... .”
Punishment for practising obeah
The act provides for a mandatory sentence of 12 months, no fining option, for a person convicted of practising obeah. This seems a rather draconian provision and the Legal Scoop found it even more curious to find that once convicted, the court can even order regular police supervision thereafter.
There is no similar provision in place in our laws, not even for repeat sex offenders or repeat murderers. The slave masters sure were ’fraid a obeah, sah.
Consulting a person practising obeah
Persons who visit the proverbial obeah woman/man across the street or take a drive to ‘country’ to get a bath are not exempted from penalties under the act.
The act provides that such persons are liable for imprisonment up to 12 months or a fine of $100. Back then, J$100 would have been a staggering amount of money.
Obeah literature suppressed
In the continued thrust to silence the feared African religious retention, the act also provides that if any person shall compose, print, sell, or distribute any pamphlet, or printed matter calculated to promote the “superstition of obeah”, he shall be guilty of an offence against this act, and shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding J$40, or in default, to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term not exceeding six months.
This is the provision which established media houses continue to rely on to turn away ads promoting obeah services. I challenge them to start taking such ads to compel parliamentary action. How beautiful it would look to see our media heads going to prison for the right to practise obeah.
There you go folks, you practise obeah, visit obeah practitioners, or print or distribute anything that could be deemed to be promoting obeah under penalty of imprisonment.
By contrast, the Indian mystical ads, which frequently appear in the media, are not under the same legal impediments. This is because the definition of obeah in the act is so closely pegged to myalism, a religious form with African origins, and since the ads of the ‘others’ pertain to a religious form with Indian and not African origins, they get a pass.
The Obeah Act is a relic of an era that strove to suppress African identify, strove for tabula rasa and should be abolished.
It cannot be that in a country of largely African descents, a religious art form with African origins is illegal but not those with Indian or Chinese origins.
I am convinced that obeah has no real strength, anyway, and is only purely symbolic. Nevertheless, I am against its practice being criminalised. The legislation was clearly racist to begin with and definitely has no place in 21st-century Jamaica, or does it?
- Shena Stubbs-Gibson is an attorney-at-law and legal commentator. Send feedback to: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter:@shenastubbs. This column is published every other week.