Contemporary Karbala Narratives and the Changing Gender Dynamics within Shi’i Communities

The commemoration of the ‘Battle of Karbala’, which took place in 680 A.D, is the locus or the ‘root metaphor’ around which Shi’i rituals and devotional practices are located. The Karbala narratives that are derivative from this historic event, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn being seen as a key moment in Shi’i history, form the basis of the Ashura commemorations and are therefore a defining paradigm in Shi’ism. In the earlier Karbala narratives, women were largely seen as passive victims of the Karbala tragedy and known largely through the trials and tribulations they faced. In the past few decades however a gender-dynamic transformation has taken place with regards to the transmission of the Karbala narrative which has consequently bought about renewed attention to and a re-evaluation of the role of women in the aftermath of the Karbala battle.

A key element in these transformation has been the reinterpretation of character of Sayeda Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn, which bears significant consequences for Shi’i women. The changing nature of gender construction through Zaynab’s character in the Karbala narratives is useful in exploring the way in which Shi’i women are attempting to reclaim their agency and are reformulating their roles in their societies. Given the fact that there is no ‘uniform Shi’i community’ and local cultural influences determine the development of the gender dynamics to a large extent, the changed gender constructions in the popular Karbala narratives in the differing contexts of Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan can underline the agentative role of Zaynab as a common factor in these transformations in diverse cultural contexts and also be used to explore how the present day socio-political conditions, which have contributed to the transformation of religious belief into a political ideology, have politicized the role of women. The consequence of this transformation has multiple meanings and implications for the future presence of Shi’i women in the public sphere and it can be argue that Shi’i women have always been present in the public sphere with their involvement in the Ashura commemorations, but that their presence has been ‘invisible’ until recent times . In this sense the positions and practices of Shi’i women are not only determined by the ethical and political landscape in their respective religious communities but also contribute to it’s construction.

The earlier, traditional Karbala narratives are largely focused on personal expressions of grief,  which reinforced the community identity built on ‘a shared sorrow and suffering’ and emphasized individual experiences of salvation rather than collective political or social activism. In the traditional accounts of Karbala, as a battle against corruption and evil which highlights persecution, exclusion and suffering of the Prophet’s family or the Ahle-Bayt, women have not been excluded from the narrative entirely but rather they have been ever-present but largely as invisible and subsidiary characters . In keeping with the traditional exclusion of women from public sphere and historical analysis throughout the field of history and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies as has been the norm,  Shi’i women’s significance and involvement in the symbols and rituals of Karbala have been overlooked or at least underemphasized. The Battle of Karbala is largely considered to be ‘a male event’ revolving around the sacrifice of Husayn and the lack of visibility of women in these narratives can be assessed in the  context of the fact that these narratives have been primarily written by men about men and for a male audience, which can account for the presence of women as ‘shadow characters’.Even in the instances when they are visible in the narrative the women of Karbala are only known through the suffering of their male kin and the hardships they endured in the absence of men. 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 for the women themselves and about women, rather than to them.

In some of the earliest available accounts Sayeda Zaynab, the central female character in Karbala is described as being ‘weak with grief’, ‘choked with tears’, ‘unable to control herself’ and ‘tearing at her clothes and hair in despair’ in the aftermath of Karbala. This trend of representations, portraying the Karbala women as weak and passive actors can be observed to have persisted until the twentieth century (Deeb 2006; Hamdar 2008; Bard 2010) and were in keeping with what was largely seen as the submissive position of Shi’i women in their traditional societies. The discussion on women in many classical Shi’i religious texts such as the Nahjul-Balagha affirm such subservient roles, depicting women as weak-hearted, feeble-minded and miserly(Hosseini 2002).The most conservative and traditional sections of the Shi’i society, supported by the majority of the ulema, have thus viewed the role of women as essentially being ‘domestic supervisors’ who are excluded from the larger society and are incapable of intellectual or political decision-making. In these accounts women are largely relegated to the private sphere where they have no mechanisms to ‘act independently of men’.

The new Karbala narratives attribute authority and significant intercessory power to revered female figures, in a way aligning Shi’ism itself with positive dimensions of the ‘feminine’. These contemporary Karbala narratives emphasize the courage and strength of the women and show them as ‘defiant in the face of tragedy’.The characters of the Karbala women are represented as active individuals whose struggle in the aftermath of Karbala is no less important than the men and their intellectual skills and oratory powers are equated with the combative powers of their male kin. In short they have become ‘equal partners’ in the narrative. The repositioning  of the narrative of the women’s as active witnesses of the battle of Karbala, whose mourning and defiance has even been described as a ‘jihad of words’ without which the tragedy of Karbala would have faded into oblivion.

It is significant to note that the increasingly gendered Karbala themes and narratives gathered momentum in the 1960’s clearly as a result of a combination of factors such as the heightened awareness of transnational feminist ideals in the modern era, the emphasis on ‘nativist’ ideals which did not subscribe to Western values, the rise of resistance movements against foreign occupations, and social and political developments. It was in this context that the ‘woman question’ entered the political discourse of the twentieth century emerging nation-states and that the Karbala narratives have undergone a  significant  transformation which involves the restructuring, reordering or reprioritization of the emphases of Ashura commemorative practices and their meanings. That is to say, while the soteriological aspects takes precedence in traditional Ashura commemorations, the new narratives are predominantly ‘political’ and ‘revolutionary’ in nature, which reflects on the way the role of women is framed in them.

The reinterpretation of Zaynab’s dynamic and proactive role has played an important role in inspiring hundreds of women in the southern suburbs of Beirut to volunteer their time and energy for the welfare of their community. Women in Iran are utilizing the salient example of Zaynab as an outspoken, strong, and compassionate activist to push the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable’ and ‘expectable’ for  Shi’i women by contesting and affirming religious mandates in order to expand their roles within their religious communities and national politics. In Pakistan a consequence of the shift in the Karbala narratives has been the increased visibility of Shi’i women in the religious sphere who are enacting their voice within their religious traditions to rival that of men, while attending to the changing political context with acute awareness. Therefore while the earlier Karbala narratives and rituals served to restrict female agency in certain ways and reinforce gender segregation, they are now providing opportunities for women to play significant roles in public and religious spheres, and to reinforce the centrality of women to Shi’i beliefs.

Note: This discussion is based on a research paper I wrote earlier. The complete paper is available here

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