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  • 11/26/2005

The Women of Karbala

Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shi'i Islam

Kamran Scot Aghaie

6 x 9 in.
304 pp., 16 color and 39 b&w illus.
ISBN 0-292-70936-6
$55.00, hardcover, no dust jacket
ISBN 0-292-70959-5
$24.95, paperback
November 2005

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.
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, 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 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, 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 inShiraz.

In Chapter 4, 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 inIran, 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, 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 theta'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, 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, 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, Warnock Fernea and 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, 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.

Table of Contents:

A Note on Transliteration



Gendered Aspects of the Emergence and Historical Development of Shi'i Symbols and RitualsKamran Scot Aghaie

Part 1:

IranChapter1. Ta'ziyeh: A Twist of History in Everyday Life (Negar Mottahedeh)

Chapter2. The Gender Dynamics of Moharram Rituals in the Latter Years of Qajar Rule (Kamran Scot Aghaie)

Chapter3. "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)

Chapter4. The Daughters of Karbala: Images of Women in Popular Shi'i Culture in Iran (Faegheh Shirazi)

Chapter5. 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

Chapter6. Sakineh, The Narrator of Karbala: An Ethnographic Description of a Women's Majles Ritual in Pakistan (Shemeem Burney Abbas)

Chapter7. Sayyedeh Zaynab: The Conqueror of Damascus and Beyond (Syed Akbar Hyder)
Chapter8. Gender and Moharram Rituals in an Isma'ili Sect of South Asian Muslims (Rehana Ghadially)
Chapter9. Women of Karbala Moving to America: Shi'i Rituals in Iran, Pakistan, and California (Mary Elaine Hegland)

Chapter10. Women's Religious Rituals in Iraq (Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Q. Bezirgan)
Chapter11. From Mourning to Activism: Sayyedeh Zaynab, Lebanese Shi'i Women, and the Transformation of Ashura (Lara Z. Deeb)



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