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India's hair-chopping 'mystery' leaves villagers baffled

In a village near New Delhi, three women went "mysteriously" unconscious at the same time and woke up to discover their hair was chopped. DW examines the interplay between superstitions and psychological issues in India.

It takes some 20 minutes by car to reach Kanganheri, a small village with only 5,000 inhabitants, from New Delhi's international airport. Last week, the village made headlines in the national press when it was reported that three women from Kanganheri had their hair chopped "mysteriously" on the same day.

Some villagers believe there is a supernatural force behind the hair-chopping incident, with rumors rife in the area that black cats are turning into women who then chop off the hair of other women. For a week, the mood in the village has been tense.

"I continue to suffer from debilitating headaches," Sri Devi, a middle-aged woman whose hair was chopped, told DW.

"The incident happened after I returned home in the evening. As soon as I entered the courtyard of my house, a severe headache gripped me and I lost consciousness," Devi added.

"I found her lying on the floor after I heard her screaming," Pooja, Devi's daughter-in-law, said. "I looked at her head and saw her hair had been cut off," she narrated, adding that her husband took his mother to the hospital where she regained consciousness.

Devi told DW the next day, about the same time, she again went unconscious and more hair was missing.

Lacking any logical explanation, the villagers attempted to make sense of the "mysterious" hair chopping in a supernatural way: ascribing it to spirits and consulting a local priest to deal with the issue.

"Things returned to normal only after a havan (a Hindu rite) was performed," said a local official, who wished not to be named.

A hard life

But police say such incidents are often pranks aimed at drawing media's attention, or in some cases, the victims are suffering from mental or sexual issues.

"It allows these women to have a break from their daily lives," Sudhir Kakkar, a psychoanalyst, told DW.

Kakkar has extensively researched the phenomenon of spirit-possession in India, which largely involves women. The psychoanalyst believes it is a subconscious manifestation of the desire to escape from a rigorous life and social rigidness.

In Delhi, such incidents usually take place in the city's outskirts that remain underdeveloped. Several women DW spoke to in Kanganheri complained about their hard lives and male domination.

"Our day starts early with feeding the cattle, cleaning the house and cooking," a Kanganheri woman told DW on condition of anonymity. "We get a break for a couple of hours when the children go to school. Once they are back, our work restarts. Taking care of the children as well as household chores is the responsibility of women and men do not participate in it."

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Deadly accusations of witchcraft in India

A lack of health services

Hardly any medical help is available to these women. Health care continues to be scarce in villages like Kanganheri, and mental health is not even considered a health issue.

According to the most recent World Bank data, there are only 0.7 doctors for 1,000 people in India. In comparison, China has 1.9 per 1,000 citizens, the United Kingdom 2.8, and Cuba 6.7.

The situation is even worse in case of mental and emotional health doctors in the South Asian country. There are just over 7,000 professionals dealing with mental health, including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psychiatric social workers and psychiatric nurses for the entire population of 1.3 billion people in India.

With mental health care reserved for the rich and people living in big cities, Indian villagers are more likely to interpret psychological issues through religion and superstitions. The situation also allows quacks to exploit people and make money.

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