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The Women of Karbala

The Women of Karbala
Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shi'i Islam

Twelve ethnographic essays that explore women's roles in the rituals that commemorate the Battle of Karbala, the central religious observance of Shi'i Islam.

November 2005
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309 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 b&w illus. |

Commemorating the Battle of Karbala, in which the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hosayn and seventy-two of his family members and supporters were martyred in 680 CE, is the central religious observance of Shi'i Islam. Though much has been written about the rituals that reenact and venerate Karbala, until now no one has studied women's participation in these observances. This collection of original essays by a multidisciplinary team of scholars analyzes the diverse roles that women have played in the Karbala rituals, as well as the varied ways in which gender-coded symbols have been used within religious and political discourses.

The contributors to this volume consider women as participants in and observers of the Karbala rituals in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and the United States. They find that women's experiences in the Shi'i rituals vary considerably from one community to another, based on regional customs, personal preferences, religious interpretations, popular culture, and socioeconomic background. The authors also examine the gender symbolism within the rituals, showing how it reinforces distinctions between the genders while it also highlights the centrality of women to the symbolic repertory of Shi'ism. Overall, the authors conclude that while Shi'i rituals and symbols have in some ways been used to restrict women's social roles, in other ways they have served to provide women with a sense of independence and empowerment.

  • A Note on Transliteration
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Gendered Aspects of the Emergence and Historical Development of Shi'i Symbols and Rituals
  • Kamran Scot Aghaie
  • Part 1: Iran
    • Chapter 1. Ta'ziyeh: A Twist of History in Everyday Life (Negar Mottahedeh)
    • Chapter 2. The Gender Dynamics of Moharram Rituals in the Latter Years of Qajar Rule (Kamran Scot Aghaie)
    • Chapter 3. "Oh, My Heart Is Sad. It Is Moharram, the Month of Zaynab": The Role of Aesthetics and Women's Mourning Ceremonies in Shiraz (Ingvild Flaskerud)
    • Chapter 4. The Daughters of Karbala: Images of Women in Popular Shi'i Culture in Iran (Faegheh Shirazi)
    • Chapter 5. Iconography of the Women of Karbala: Tiles, Murals, Stamps, and Posters (Peter J. Chelkowski)
  • Part 2: The Arab World, South Asia, and the United States of America
    • Chapter 6. Sakineh, The Narrator of Karbala: An Ethnographic Description of a Women's Majles Ritual in Pakistan (Shemeem Burney Abbas)
    • Chapter 7. Sayyedeh Zaynab: The Conqueror of Damascus and Beyond (Syed Akbar Hyder)
    • Chapter 8. Gender and Moharram Rituals in an Isma'ili Sect of South Asian Muslims (Rehana Ghadially)
    • Chapter 9. Women of Karbala Moving to America: Shi'i Rituals in Iran, Pakistan, and California (Mary Elaine Hegland)
    • Chapter 10. Women's Religious Rituals in Iraq (Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Q. Bezirgan)
    • Chapter 11. From Mourning to Activism: Sayyedeh Zaynab, Lebanese Shi'i Women, and the Transformation of Ashura (Lara Z. Deeb)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Kamran Scot Aghaie is Associate Professor of Islamic and Iranian History at the University of Texas at Austin.


This book deals with the minority group called Shi'is, which today make up approximately fifteen percent of Muslims. While Iran has the single largest concentration of Shi'is, our analysis will include Shi'i communities in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Before discussing the arguments put forth in this book, we should review the emergence and historical development of Shi'i symbols and rituals.


Karbala and the Emergence of Shi'ism


The roots of the Sunni-Shi'i schism lie in the crisis of succession that occurred upon the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 CE. However, this sectarian division took several centuries to fully develop. Upon the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the main challenge facing the young Muslim community was who should succeed the Prophet and in what capacity. It was also unclear who had the right to select a successor. The caliphate is the system of government that evolved out of this crisis. According to this system, the empire was ruled by a caliph, who commanded both temporal and religious authority but did not possess any of the supernatural or metaphysical qualities of the Prophet, such as infallibility, supernatural knowledge and ability, or the ability to receive revelation. While some Muslims supported the ruling caliphs, others believed that the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, Ali Ebn-e Abi Taleb, should have succeeded the Prophet upon his death. Later, they believed that Ali's descendants should be his successors, beginning with his two sons, Hasan (d. 669) and Hosayn (d. 680).


These Muslims believed that the Prophet named Ali as his successor on more than one occasion before his death. For example, they believed that the Prophet gave a speech shortly before his death at a place called Ghadir Khom; according to one account, "he took Ali by the hand and said to the people: 'Do you not acknowledge that I have greater claim on each of the believers than they have on themselves?' And they replied: 'Yes!' And he took Ali's hand and said: 'Of whomsoever I am Lord [Mawla], then Ali is also his Lord. O God! Be thou the supporter of whoever supports Ali and the enemy of whoever opposes him." Over the centuries support for Ali slowly evolved into a belief called the "imamate." The "imamate" differed from the caliphate in that the imam had to be a descendant of the Prophet and was usually considered to have supernatural qualities and abilities, such as infallibility and supernatural religious knowledge. The imam also had to be appointed by either the Prophet or the previous imam in an unbroken chain of succession leading back to the Prophet. According to this view, the Prophet endorsed the imamate before his death in 632. Sunnis and Shi'is have passionately disagreed about both the authenticity and the correct interpretation of these accounts. This crisis of succession after the Prophet's death, followed by a series of political events that unfolded during the first few centuries of Islamic history, led to this religious division.


The term "Shi'i" derives from the phrase "Shi'at Ali," or "partisans of Ali." The term "Sunni" derives from the phrase "Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah," which means "those who follow the [prophetic] Traditions and the [official/orthodox] Consensus." As these terms imply, the term "Shi'i" derives from their support of the Prophet Mohammad's progeny as his successors, beginning with Ali. Sunni orthodoxy, which developed largely in response to Shi'i ideological and political challenges, rejected this notion in favor of the caliphs, who in fact did succeed the Prophet and who actually ruled during these early centuries. While the disputes and schisms may have begun with the crisis of succession, they evolved in accordance with later political and theological trends. For example, regional, ethnic, or tribal loyalties frequently sparked political rebellions. Sectarian rhetoric often accompanied such rebellions. Proto-Shi'i sentiments were often the most effective way to challenge the legitimacy of the ruling caliphs. The Shi'i imams, who were descendants of the Prophet and who had varying degrees of popular support among the masses, were rivals of the Sunni caliphs, who actually ruled the empire. For much of their early history, Sunnis have been associated with the state and the ruling elites, while Shi'is were more often associated with political opposition to the Sunni rulers and elites. While there were several Shi'i states, particularly in the tenth century, their long-term political influence was at its greatest when it took the form of opposition movements that challenged the legitimacy of the ruling caliphs.


After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, political divisions began to manifest themselves right away. The authority of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, was challenged by Arab tribes that tried to secede from the empire. During the reign of the third caliph, Osman, discontent with his policies led to protest, which eventually turned violent, and he was killed by an angry mob in 656. However, the conflicts that had the greatest impact on the Sunni-Shi'i split were a series of challenges to Ali's authority between 656 and 661, as well as the Battle of Karbala, which took place in 680. For example, in 656 the Prophet's widow, Ayesheh, led a rebellion against Ali, which was later called the Battle of the Camel. This was followed in 657 by a rebellion, called the Battle of Seffin, by the leading Muslim general, Mo'aviyeh, with whom Ali was forced to negotiate. Mo'aviyeh established the Umayyad caliphate in 661 after Ali was assassinated by a radical political opposition group called the Khavarej.


One of the most consistent and significant trends throughout the early centuries of Islamic history was that Shi'i imams, who were descendants of the Prophet and who had varying degrees of popular support among the masses, were rivals of the Sunni caliphs, who actually ruled the empire. This rivalry was particularly intense during the Umayyad period and came to a head with the Battle of Karbala in 680, during the reign of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid (d. 683). In this battle the Prophet's grandson, Hosayn, along with seventy-two of his family and supporters, were massacred by Yazid's troops. Many different accounts of this important battle have been written by such prominent historians as the classical Arab scholar al-Tabari (d. 923). However, we are not concerned here with the historical accuracy of the narratives that purport to recount the details of this battle. For our purposes it is only necessary to keep in mind what Shi'is have historically considered to be the "correct" representations of this event.


Like many other famous historical events, the Battle of Karbala has been told and retold over the centuries without a single authoritative version emerging to completely supplant all others. The most commonly accepted narratives of the Battle of Karbala begin with an account of the discontent of Muslims (especially in southern Iraq) under the rule of Yazid (r. 680-683). Yazid is portrayed as politically oppressive and morally corrupt. The Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hosayn (in Medina) received several letters from the caliph's subjects in southern Iraq asking him to travel to Iraq in order to lead them in an uprising against Yazid. After sending scouts to assess the situation in southern Iraq, Hosayn and a number of his close relatives left the Hejaz and began the trip to Iraq.


The caravan was surrounded by an overwhelming force sent by Yazid, and a standoff ensued in which Hosayn refused to give an oath of allegiance (bay'at) to Yazid. At the end of ten days of waiting, negotiating, and occasionally fighting, a final battle took place; Hosayn, all his adult male relatives and supporters, and some of the women and children were brutally killed. The survivors, consisting of women and children, along with Hosayn's son Ali (Zayn al-Abedin) (d. 712-713), who was too ill to take part in the fighting, were then taken captive and transported, along with the heads of the martyrs, which had been placed on spears, to Yazid's court in Damascus. Along the way they were exhibited in chains in the public markets of the cities through which they passed, and a series of unpleasant incidents occurred, as a result of which Hosayn's relatives, especially his sister Zaynab and his son, Zayn al-Abedin, publicly condemned Yazid for his cruelty toward the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad. The important roles of these women in the symbolism of Karbala are the focus of this book.


Mourning for Hosayn, Zaynab, and the martyrs of Karbala began almost immediately, as Hosayn's surviving relatives and supporters lamented the tragedy. As part of the long-term trend toward the development of popular mourning rituals based on commemoration of Karbala, popular elegies of the martyrs were composed during the remainder of the Umayyad period (680-750) and the first two centuries of Abbasid rule (roughly 750-930). Karbala symbolism was important in many rebellions throughout this period, including the political overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids in 749-750. The political uses of Karbala symbols and simple mourning practices date almost as far back as the Battle of Karbala itself. However, the earliest reliable account of the performance of public mourning rituals which in any way resemble what we now call Moharram processions (especially with a political connotation) concerns an event that took place in 963, during the reign of Mo'ezz al-Dowleh, the Buyid ruler of southern Iran and Iraq.


The Buyid rulers, who were Shi'is themselves, promoted Shi'i rituals, along with a celebration of the Ghadir Khom incident, in order to promote their religious legitimacy and to strengthen the sense of Shi'i identity in and around Baghdad. It should be noted, however, that during this period popular sentiment for the family of the Prophet was not restricted exclusively to the Shi'is. The famous fourteenth-century Arab historian Ebn al-Kathir states that "on the tenth of Moharram of this year [AH 352], Mu'izz ad-Dawla Ibn Buwayh, may God disgrace him, ordered that the markets be closed, and that the women should wear coarse woolen hair cloth, and that they should go into the markets with their faces uncovered/unveiled and their hair disheveled, beating their faces and wailing over Hussein Ibn Abi Talib." He continues somewhat apologetically, "The people of the Sunna could not prevent this spectacle because of the Shi'a's large numbers and their increasing power (zuhur), and because the sultan was on their side. One of the interesting aspects of this account is that it demonstrates that women have been involved in these rituals from the very beginning and that their role was significant enough that it was singled out for comment. Rituals like this in which believers mourned and commemorated the tragedy of Karbala continued to be practiced throughout the middle ages.


A major development in Shi'i rituals occurred with the establishment of the Safavid state in 1501 in a territory largely encompassing the modern state of Iran. The Safavids were originally a Sufi order, but the founder of the dynasty, Shah Isma'il, decreed that the official state religion would be orthodox Twelver Shi'ism. Shi'i symbols and rituals were very important to the self-definition of the Safavid dynasty. They made fairly liberal use of Shi'i symbols and rituals (such as the Moharram procession) to promote their legitimacy vis-à-vis their Sunni rivals to the east (the Uzbeks and the Mughals) and their more dangerous rival to the west (the Ottomans). Shi'i rituals took on new meanings and new forms during the Safavid era. The fact that the rulers themselves were Shi'is meant that these rituals could be used to bolster their legitimacy. It also meant that public rituals could be performed without any regard for Sunni attitudes toward these rituals. Shi'is could publicly express their sense of community identity and their negative sentiments toward Sunnis. Earlier rituals had been performed within a society in which the Sunnis made up the majority, but the Safavid period created a new environment that was relatively more isolated from Sunnis. Because of the large numbers of Shi'is living under Safavid rule, rituals became more elaborate and the demand for talented authors of elegies dramatically increased.


One of the most important rituals that became popular during the Safavid period was the rowzeh khani, a ritual sermon recounting and mourning the tragedy of Karbala. This ritual was inspired in part by Hosayn Va'ez Kashefi's 1502 composition, Rowzat al-shohada (The Garden of Martyrs). This seminal work became one of the main sources for a series of "Karbala narratives" and is one of the most often quoted sources in later narratives and histories retelling the story of the battle and its aftermath. Excerpts from Kashefi's work also served as the basis for scripts that were used in the rowzeh khani sermons, which eventually became one of the primary rituals of Shi'is around the world and which bears the same name as Kashefi's book. Rowzeh khani consists of a sermon based on a text like Rowzat al-shohada, with a great deal of improvisation on the part of a specially trained speaker. The speaker strives to move the audience to tears through his recitation of the tragic details of the Battle of Karbala. Mourning for the martyrs of Karbala has been viewed by Shi'is as a means of achieving salvation, a belief illustrated by the often-repeated quotation, "Anyone who cries for Husayn or causes someone to cry for Husayn shall go directly to paradise."


From Iran and Iraq, Shi'ism spread into parts of South Asia as well. According to popular belief in South Asia, Shi'i rituals were first introduced into South Asia at the end of the fourteenth century by the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), who is believed to have converted to Shi'ism prior to his invasion into the Indian subcontinent from Afghanistan. As Cole has argued, Shi'ism spread along with the migration of Iranian elites (i.e., scholars, poets, artisans, merchants) from the Iranian plateau and Iraq into South Asia. One important side effect of this influx of Iranians into the region was the establishment of Persian-influenced elite culture. In some cases this elite culture was also Shi'i, which led to the spread of Shi'ism in parts of South Asia. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shi'i states were established in southern India. For example, the Nizam Shahi dynasty (r. 1508-1553) ruled in Ahmadnagar, the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1512-1687) ruled in Hyderabad, and the Adil Shahi dynasty ruled in the Deccan kingdom of Bijapur. These dynasties were able, to varying degrees, to encourage Shi'i practices until Mughal dominance or even conquest discouraged such practices.


While this period was characterized by Shi'i rule in certain provinces, one should be careful not to overstate the importance of these political trends. In many ways, the more subtle spread of Persian, Shi'i, elite culture was a more influential factor in the spread of Shi'ism in South Asia. This is particularly important to keep in mind northern Indian areas like Kashmir and Awadh, where large Shi'i minorities lived, mostly under Sunni rule. This elite culture survived well into the modern period, and was quite influential in certain areas, where Shi'i elites (including some women) promoted Shi'i beliefs and ritual practices, depending on the degree of tolerance of the Sunni rulers. For example, elegies were recited both in private and in public, public processions were sometimes organized, the Karbala narrative was told in the form of sermons in domestic rituals in the homes of Shi'i elites, and replicas of the tomb of Hosayn (ta'ziyehs) were built for use in these various rituals, and they remain a central feature of South Asian Moharram rituals today.


Similar trends can be seen in the Arab Shi'i provinces that were located outside of Safavid control. In Iraq and Lebanon, major Shi'i communities flourished while living under Sunni rule, which fluctuated between tolerance and persecution. In fact, during the eighteenth century, when political decentralization, economic chaos, and Afghan invasions were weakening the religious establishment in the Iranian plateau, the Shi'i shrine cities in southern Iraq, in particular Najaf and Karbala, flourished relatively independent of state influence. The important influence of the Iraqi Shi'is continued in some ways into the nineteenth century as well. During the period of decline of Iran's religious establishment, many of the greatest Shi'i scholars were either from Iraq or chose to study and work there. In this environment, Shi'i beliefs, practices, and rituals continued to develop and evolve, as they had in previous centuries.


While state sponsorship was not a necessary component in the preservation and evolution of Shi'i beliefs and ritual practices, it was nevertheless important. In nineteenth-century Iran, after the Qajars brought greater security, prosperity, and religious patronage, a newer and more elaborate ritual emerged, called either shabih khani or ta'ziyeh khani. The ta'ziyeh (i.e., different from the South Asian ta'ziyeh) was an elaborate ritual drama or theatrical performance of the Karbala story based on the narratives used in the rowzeh khani. The ta'ziyeh involved a large cast of professional and amateur actors, a director, a staging area, elaborate costumes, and props. This ritual reached its greatest level of popularity during the late Qajar period, after which it underwent a slow decline until it became much less common in the large cities in the 1930s and 1940s. However, ta'ziyehs have persisted in Iran on a smaller scale to the present day, especially in traditional neighborhoods in cities and in rural areas.


While Moharram rituals were more prevalent in areas where Shi'is were concentrated, such as Lebanon, Iran, southern Iraq, Hyderabad, and Awadh, some Sunnis (especially those oriented more toward popular culture and Sufism) also commemorated Karbala in similar observances. In some areas, such as South Asia, Sunnis have often been enthusiastic participants in Shi'i rituals. In the modern era, the rituals of Sunnis and Shi'is have become more distinct from each other. However, throughout much of Islamic history the differences between them based on ideological constructs were often less prevalent. This was particularly true of popular practice, which could often be at variance with the views of the elite ulama. In the twentieth century, Sunni involvement in commemorations of Karbala has declined, whereas Shi'i involvement has continued to evolve and change as it did in previous centuries.


Gender Dynamics and Scholarship of the Karbala Paradigm


The story of Karbala is centered on the battle and martyrdom of Hosayn and his followers at Karbala. This is the axis around which the story revolves. For Shi'is, the event is the axis around which all of history revolves. However, historians have typically emphasized the battle, which in turn has led to an overemphasis on the male martyrs and a virtual exclusion of any focus on the role of women.


Here, we extend our analysis of the historical narratives to include the events leading up to the battle, those surrounding the battle, and those following the battle—all of which involve women. The authors in this volume will demonstrate the importance of the gender-coded symbols derived from these aspects of the original narratives, despite the fact that modern historians have often considered them to be marginal to the symbolism of Karbala. This approach to studying the Karbala narratives allows for a more comprehensive portrayal of the events under study, while at the same time providing a basic theoretical construct within which gender concepts can be analyzed.


While traditionally the exclusion of women from historical analysis throughout the field of history and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies has been so common as to be more or less the norm, there are several specific reasons why women's involvement in the rituals and symbols of Karbala have been at times overlooked or at least underemphasized by many historians. First, as stated above, the most central component of the event itself, being a battle involving Hosayn and his male followers on the battlefield has often been assumed to be not only a male event, but also the source of nearly all of the symbols of Karbala. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that in the primary sources used to reconstruct the rebellion itself, the role of men on the battlefield is an important part of the narrative. However, it is inappropriate for a historian to focus exclusively upon symbols derived from the battle itself without understanding the broader conceptions of the movement of Hosayn. This point has often been stressed by Muslim writers representing a more or less normative perspective. According to this argument, the "event" of Karbala should not be defined as simply the battle itself, but rather it is best understood as including the events leading up to the battle, surrounding the battle (i.e., on the sidelines), and following the battle. This basic battle narrative then must be placed within a universalist narrative which begins with Adam and ends with the return of the mahdi at the end of the temporal world, all of which has historically been included by most Shi'i scholars within the "Karbala narrative."


When the modern historian examines the events before, around, and after the battle itself, he or she sees that both men and women participated in these "peripheral" events, and that many of the important symbols of Karbala are drawn from these events. For example, it would be inappropriate to treat the public statements and actions of Hosayn's sister Zaynab, immediately following the battle as separate from the movement itself. For example, Morteza Motahhari (the prominent modern Shi'i theologian) has portrayed Zaynab as spokesperson for the cause after the massacre as the second half of Hosayn's movement (i.e., not merely a marginal role). Zaynab's public criticism of Yazid and his followers has been stressed in most of the narratives.


Furthermore, Fatemeh's role as mother and educator of Hosayn, as well as her role as one of the purified fourteen who suffered for the cause of Islam, cannot be separated from the Karbala event, even though she was not present at the battle itself (although in many narratives she is brought into the narrative symbolically or metaphysically). There have been countless books with such titles as The Fourteen Purified Ones, which present the biographies of the twelve imams, the Prophet Mohammad, and Fatemeh. In these books, all fourteen are portrayed as suffering for the same cause regardless of whether they were present at Karbala or not. The importance of Fatemeh is also demonstrated by the large number of poems and Moharram chants devoted to her memory. And as demonstrated earlier, Fatemeh is given a great deal more coverage than most of the male characters in some narratives, like Va'iz Kashefi's Rowzat al-shohada.


Similarly, Hosayn's followers, both men and women, were not only prominent players in the events themselves, but have also been important sources of symbolism for Shi'ism and have very often served as role models. For example, many of the poems chanted during Moharram rituals are based on such figures as Moslem Ebn-e Aqil, Zaynab's two sons, Zaynab, Fatemeh, the other eleven imams, the Prophet, Qasem, and Abbas. Furthermore, Hosayn has always been a role model to be emulated in various ways by both men and women. What has not been sufficiently developed in the research is the ways in which certain qualities Hosayn represents have been gender-coded as "male," "female," or "gender-neutral." An approach that takes these factors into account also shows how women, not just men, have at times been talked about as role models for both women and men.


And, although Muslim historians and religious scholars have written more about male actors in the event, women have not been excluded entirely. Rather, men have primarily written about men and to a male audience, with women being ever-present yet subsidiary characters. This trend can be observed throughout the twentieth century and beyond. For example, when using the symbolism of Karbala in writing about a contemporary social issue such as the legitimacy of the Iranian monarchy, male political or religious leaders were often addressing primarily other male activists and leaders using the symbolism most closely associated with men at Karbala. This dynamic has been complicated by the practical realities of these movements, which involved a great deal of active involvement of women as protesters, and in some cases as fighters and martyrs. For example, Khomeini often referred to the active involvement of women in the struggle against the shah: "This movement [the revolution] was a national movement . . . women, men and children all rose up." And after the revolution, women served in certain capacities in the domestic security forces, charged with the task of policing women's social behavior.


Furthermore, when women were mentioned in these texts, as was frequently the case, they were usually placed outside the discussion in the sense that men were the speakers and they were speaking about women rather than to them. Thus it is possible for women to have been so often mentioned without necessarily being explicitly addressed as an audience. This is an important point in regard to more recent sources dealing with women or explicitly gender-related issues: topics and issues that had previously been underemphasized were brought to the foreground or even focused upon exclusively.


An example of the underdevelopment of gender analysis in relation to the Karbala paradigm is the research on ta'ziyeh, which has often been of interest to scholars primarily as a theatrical form. Ta'ziyeh, which entails a theatrical reenactment of the Karbala narrative, has historically included male performers and a mixed audience of men and women. However, many researchers have focused upon the performers at the expense of the event as a whole, which has led to an overemphasis on males.


While ta'ziyeh has typically not featured female actors, it does have female characters, such as Zaynab or the martyr Roqayyeh Khatun, which can be analyzed as such.


This problem has been further complicated by two recent trends in Iran, the first of which has been the televising of ta'ziyeh since the Islamic Revolution in 1978-1979 (which led to increased government control over such activities).


Another good example is provided by a trend that has begun recently in Iran. The ta'ziyeh tradition has been displaced in certain ways by a new movie genre that has represented the historical event in a radically different format. While the movie genre is not actually a ritual it serves a similar role as the ta'ziyeh in the sense that it has been one of the primary vehicles for public viewing of the narrative of Karbala. The televising of ta'ziyeh has led to the excision of women characters from the play because the government sponsors the view that men should not dress up as women. This has also led to innovative ways of including (or excluding) female characters without using actual actors: hearing a female voice off stage, speaking to these women without getting a response, or merely cutting out certain parts altogether. Thus women as characters have become less visible on stage.


The second trend is significant because the new movie genre has reached a broader audience, allowing women to view the performance without having to leave the privacy of their homes, thus redefining the public sphere and their participation within it. Another important development has been the inclusion of women actresses in key roles in these movies. So while female characters have been disappearing from view in ta'ziyeh, female characters and actresses have been appearing in new and more visible forms in the movie genre.


Another reason why scholarly interest has traditionally underemphasized or ignored gender is that Western historians have privileged the political over the social and cultural, focusing on Hosayn as a symbol of martyrdom and rebellion, with the female characters and gender-coded symbols being ignored or at least underdeveloped. While this study is not entirely an exception to this general rule, it is hoped that it does not focus on such political issues at the expense of other important issues such as those related to the various uses of gender-coded symbols as a form of social discourse.


The "Karbala narrative" is centered on the battle of Karbala, in which Hosayn and most of his followers were martyred. However, this battle is only the central axis around which the story revolves. The Karbala narrative, in turn, is the axis around which all of history revolves for Shi'is. Modern historians studying this set of symbols have often placed primary emphasis on the battle itself. This has led to an overemphasis being placed upon the male martyrs at the expense of female characters in the narrative. Similarly, research on Moharram rituals has often focused almost exclusively upon the central procession and the physical self-flagellation of male participants in these rituals. The net result has been the exclusion, almost entirely, of the participation of women in these rituals.


The Present Study


The main arguments presented in this study are as follows:


  • Shi'i women have generally been very actively involved in religious rituals, both in women-only rituals and in gender-mixed public rituals. While women's roles are similar in some ways to those of men, they are also distinct. Space and activities are often gender specific, but the two genders often interact, mirror, or contrast each other. Close examination of the gender dynamics present in such rituals can illuminate broader gender dynamics in these societies.
    Shi'i symbols have been gender coded in significant ways. These symbols have been used to define the ideals of women's behavior. Further, some symbols are gender specific while others are gender neutral. These sets of symbols have been used to reinforce distinctions between the genders, while at the same time stressing the centrality of women to the symbolic repertory of Shi'ism.
  • While Shi'i symbols and rituals have been used at times to restrict women's activities and social roles, they have also served as a means for empowering women and have helped to promote a sense of gender-specific identities for women.
  • While there are various universalistic components to Shi'i beliefs and practices, the religious experiences of Shi'i women have generally been extremely diverse and varied. Practices may vary on the basis of personal preferences, religious interpretations, popular cultural practices, ideals or norms of gender interaction/segregation, regional customs, education levels, or socioeconomic background.


In Chapter 1, Negar Mottahedeh analyzes the gender dynamics of ta'ziyeh ritual dramas as they developed during the Qajar period. She discusses the significance of female characters in this theatrical tradition, along with the practice according to which male actors usually played female characters. She argues that women in some instances organized ritual dramas that were attended and performed exclusively by women.


Chapter 2, by Kamran Scot Aghaie, focuses on the gender dynamics of Shi'i symbols and rituals in Qajar Iran. Shi'i symbols and rituals served a variety of social, psychological, and spiritual functions for Iranian women. While rituals served to reinforce gender segregation, they also provided opportunities for women to play significant roles in both public and private religious events. Women were enthusiastic patrons and participants in both gender-mixed rituals and women-only rituals. These rituals helped women to promote their social status and to develop and maintain social networks. The rituals also gave women a means for spiritual growth and emotional release: a means to ask for divine intercession in their spiritual life, as well as in their practical personal and family crises. The symbols involved in these rituals were gender coded in that they portrayed ideals of male and female behavior. While these symbols served to restrict female behavior in certain ways, they also helped to provide a sense of female identity and to reinforce the centrality of women to Shi'i beliefs.


In Chapter 3, Ingvild Flaskerud analyzes women's religious rituals in modern Shiraz, especially ritual space, objects, and visual imagery. She focuses on how Shi'i women participate in rituals in order to achieve salvation and divine intercession in this world and the next. After explaining the origins and dynamics of a distinctively Shi'i aesthetic tradition, she discusses the iconography of images, space and objects in women's rituals in Shiraz.


In Chapter 4, Faegheh Shirazi studies the diverse representations of female characters in elegies, chants, and slogans in popular Iranian rituals. She argues that women are represented as participating in social and political struggles, such as jihad, although not always in the same ways as men. These popular representations were used to promote a sense of religious and nationalist support for the Islamic regime in Iran, as well as Iran's efforts to win the war against Iraq. Role models such as Fatemeh, Zaynab, Roqayyeh, and Sakineh were used to promote ideals of motherhood and domestic responsibility, which were in turn linked to the nation's political success and survival. Shirazi argues that these representations of female characters demonstrate the central role women and female religious characters have played both in Shi'i history and in contemporary Iranian politics.


In Chapter 5, Peter J. Chelkowski studies visual representations of female characters in Shi'i religious dramas, in particular Zaynab and Shahbanu, the Persian wife of Hosayn. He discusses how the female characters portrayed in visual representations serve as models of chastity, purity, and self-sacrifice. He then explores the diverse ways in which the Islamic regime in Iran has used these images to represent ideals of social and political behavior for women. He describes and analyzes samples of this iconography in many different forms, including performances, as well as posters, stamps, and murals. Throughout this chapter, Chelkowski demonstrates the continuities and discontinuities between the ta'ziyeh iconography and recent political iconography.


In the next chapter, Shemeem Burney Abbas analyzes how gendered themes are expressed through the narrative voice of Sakineh in women's mourning rituals in Pakistan. Her ethnographic account of the rituals, along with a linguistic analysis of the contents of the ritual chants and sermons, shows that in Pakistan, much of the oral history of the Karbala tragedy is reenacted in Sakineh's voice.


In Chapter 7, Syed Akbar Hyder examines the diverse ways in which Zaynab is represented in modern Urdu poems and pious elegies, in particular the elegies of the prominent South Asian Zaker Rashid Torabi. He then discusses several other poets, including Iftikhar Arif, Vahid Akhtar, and the female poet Parvin Shakir. He explores the central role of Zaynab as the "conqueror of Damascus" in the symbolic narratives of Karbala. Hyder's literary analysis explores the symbolic rhetoric and stylistic devices used in representing Zaynab within the South Asian tradition. He concludes by showing how Shi'i symbols and ideals have been articulated within the discourses on gender in South Asia.


In Chapter 8, Rehana Ghadially studies one of the diverse manifestations of Shi'ism, the Isma'ili, in the Bohra community of India. In analyzing mixed-gender public rituals, she finds that both men and women are heavily involved. However, the more public the ritual, the less involved women tend to be. Conversely, the more private the ritual, the more active the women participants are. She also demonstrates how space and activities are gendered, as well as the central role of women in the process of reinforcing universalistic Shi'i ideals and maintaining communal identities through ritual practices. She argues that women-only rituals provide women with stronger sense of their centrality to the Shi'i faith. She also explores the tensions between patriarchal social norms and the emancipatory aspects of women's involvement in these rituals.


In Chapter 9, Mary Elaine Hegland compares the two major Shi'i immigrant communities in the United States of America, Iranians and South Asians. Her comparative analysis demonstrates that the religious practices of these two communities are quite distinct. She argues that South Asian women are far more active in Shi'i rituals than their Iranian counterparts, attributing this to the different socioeconomic backgrounds and demographics of these two communities, along with their distinct religious and political experiences. She also finds that their beliefs and practices have changed over time and across regions. As these women migrated to the United States, their attitudes toward rituals underwent varying degrees of change as they adapted to their new environments and priorities. Her research demonstrates how Muslim women's religious experiences can significantly differ despite their shared religion.


In their study of women's rituals in Iraq, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Q. Bezirgan call into question the long observed assumption of a rigid dichotomization of public versus private space in Muslim societies. Instead, they propose using a far more nuanced conception that allows for relative fluidity between what would traditionally have been labeled "women's world" and "men's world." They observe that men and women are both involved in public rituals. Furthermore, men play a supporting, or "instrumental," role in women-only rituals, while women play a similar role in male-dominated rituals. Fernea and Bezirgan further argue that the gender dynamics observed in the rituals are similar to the patterns one would see in other spheres of Middle Eastern society.


In Chapter 11, Lara Z. Deeb studies recent changes in Lebanese Shi'i rituals, which have been brought on by many factors, including urbanization, modernization, and the political ascendancy of Shi'i parties such as Amal and Hezbollah over the past decade or so. The mobilization of the Shi'is as a communal group began in the 1970s under such leaders as Musa Sadr. In recent years a new method of ritual performance has emerged alongside the more traditional rituals. These shifts in ritual practice were influenced by trends in Iran. Proponents of these new ritual practices argue that the newer practices are more "authentic" because they are closer to the original intent of the Karbala narrative. Divergent interpretations of the role of Zaynab in the battle of Karbala are indicative of this discourse. The shift has been toward using Zaynab as a role model for women becoming more directly involved in social and political activism. Women's rituals have slowly transformed in tandem with the broader trends in ritual observance.




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