Gender, Faith and Politics: Locating Shia Women in Discussions on Kashmir

Ifsha Zehra

Based on semi-structured interviews of three Shia women, this essay examines the intertwined politics of faith, gender and politics in the context of loss in Kashmir. Through the commemoration of significant historical events in Shia Islam, women find respite from multiple restrictions that their bodies are subjected to. The essay posits that in a militarised conflict, faith and ritual practices become subversive, enable mobility and present a potential for agency. 


Figure 1. Shia women mourning in a Muharram majlis/2020

On August 29, 2020, the tenth day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar), religious processions of Shia mourners in Kashmir were subjected to disproportionate violence by the Indian state forces. The mourners, including Shia women, were injured.  Scores of people were detained and criminalised for violating a ban on religious processions and for exhibiting sentiments of self-determination (Ganai, 2020). This religious practice was, both, a cause for the marginalisation and the means of resisting it.

Despite the centrality of religion to the politics of identity and resistance, it remains unexplored and under-theorised in the case of Shia Muslims, and specifically, Shia women of Kashmir. A decolonial feminist understanding necessitates a shift from exclusive discourses to plurality. This essay seeks to, first, pose a question to a lack of critical work of this intersection of gender, politics and religion. Second, it attempts to examine a narrative underpinning the faith of Shia women amid an intersectional marginalised identity. In the context of oppression and loss, how are faith practices of Shia women important?  How do these uniquely Shia practices become agential for women? A vast body of work has examined and reinstated the historicity of these religious events, a lot of which remains contested even within different schools of thought in Islam. However, dwelling deeper into those discussions is beyond the scope of this essay. In the sections that follow, I write with the assumption that the reader has a basic level of familiarity with the Shia theological context.

My interest and understanding of Shia women’s faith practices are informed by my own experiences and observations of growing up as, and around, Shia women in Srinagar, Kashmir. These experiences have been shaped by a heightened awareness of the othering of Shia women based on their beliefs and practices. Keeping this mind, this essay attempts to confront this othering by telling the narratives of Shia women as experienced by them in their own subjectivities. I interviewed three women – Shahzada (73), Masooma (26) and Sadiya (20) (names changed), who are practising believers of Shia faith and have suffered first-hand violence at the hand of the Indian state. These women do not represent the entire community but offer a glimpse into the lived realities of Shia women in Kashmir.

Shia Faith, Evolving Practices and Ritual Intercession:

Shia is an Arabic word for ‘party’, as Shias claim allegiance to Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib (a.s) (Shiate Ali) and his descendants (Imams) and their family members (Ahl-al-Bayt) (Tabatabai, 1977). A difference in the fiqh (religious jurisprudence)  has been the cause of persecution over the fourteen centuries of their existence. In certain periods of time, this persecution became so atrocious that the concept of taqiyah or assimilation to protect oneself from being identifiable in the face of adversity was encouraged by the Shia leaders (D’Souza, 2012). In Kashmir too, this practice was observed by Shias for safeguarding their life, particularly after the downfall of the Chaks, in the period of Mughal and Afghan rule in Kashmir. The persecution of Shias, known as Taaraj-e-Shia, determined their preference in residence in Shia majority areas and discrete interactions. This alienation is one of the reasons for the conjectures, stereotypes and even, fascination with Shia Muslims.

It is in this context, that Shia faith practices have remained a subject of aversion in the larger discourse on Kashmir. In this backdrop, I am interested in understanding what these practices entail for Shia women whose religious lives form a major part of their identity, actions and life choices. Growing up in these communities, where everyone knows you, women’s actions become highly monitored and regulated. There is an emphasis on religious education in maktabs/dargsgahs (religious school), to read Quran, to become familiarised with the tenets of Islam,  the lives of Prophet (pbuh) and his family members, to learn distinct codes of conduct of piety and modesty. Shia believers learn the vocabulary of loss, early on, as they learn about the struggles of the Prophet and his family. So much so that they call themselves Azadaar, mourners. There is an emphasis on shahadat (martyrdom) of the Imams, of taqlid (learning through imitation), mazloom (victim), maqtal (place of death), zulm (oppression) , zorwar (oppressor), Hussainiyat becomes synonymous to truth and  Yazidiyat, to falsehood. This vocabulary is deeply embedded in their subconscious through language, devotional manoeuvring and rituals.

Figure 2. Women performing the ritual of chest-beating/2020

Described as an “agreed-on and formalized pattern of ceremonial movements and verbal expressions carried out in a sacred context” (Livingston, 2001, p. 98) rituals keep evolving and changing across the spectrum of time and context, often dictated by authoritative powers. For the women, these ritual practices happen daily, monthly and yearly, some are situational and often follow cyclical or repetitive patterns. These rituals are often coloured with sensibilities of loss- of life, of health, of happiness, of wealth, of stability, etc. Liturgical calendar of days that Shias remember (often of birth and death of important figures for Shia belief and other important events), forms an important part of the lives of Shia women. These rituals often happen in gatherings headed by men, and women take physical, and even, metaphorical, marginal positions (D’Souza, 2012). These practices mostly take place within homes but in the months of Muharram and Safar (second month in the Islamic calendar), they take women into public spaces, in Imambargahs (place of worship for Shia Muslims), in majlis and many gatherings are often held at the homes of other people. These gatherings are not only sites of religious congregation but also of socialising and interaction. Shia rituals, particularly the ones practised by women have evolved in the past few decades.  Shahzada, a 73-year-old woman, describes her childhood where she would participate in majlis (religious gathering) which would begin with a sermon by a religious leader, followed by marsiya (lyrical lamentation). Religious interpretation and women’s role in religion was told by men. Zanaan Majlis (women’s religious gatherings) were unheard of. In the last decade, there has been a shift in these rituals as women practice and interpret religion themselves, in the gatherings exclusively for women. These majlis are often dedicated to important women figures in Shia Islam like Hazrat Fatimah Zahra (as), Bibi Zainab (as) or even four year old Bibi Sakina (as). Often in these gatherings, women seek spiritual intercession and divine intervention to bear personal and (or) collective loss. These sites become synonymous with hope as women make dua-e-khaer (prayer) and offer niyaz (petition) to get their wishes fulfilled. Their participation in these gatherings allow women to leave their domestic spheres at ease, meet other community members and in these practices, they find a sense of respite from the multiple restrictions imposed by the state as well as by the local patriarchy.

Understanding Muharram through Experiential Portrayals.

There are two defining moments in Shia history- the selection of the rightful successor after Prophet Muhammad’s death and the Battle of Karbala. The tragedy of Karbala, which is south of present-day Baghdad, can be outlined as a narrative of the oppressor vs the oppressed, of truth against falsehood, and subversion over allegiance. In 680 A.D, Imam Hussain(as), the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, was called upon by the people of Kufa who were under the tyranny of Umayyad leadership of Yazid. In the battle of Karbala, seventy-two odd men were faced with thousands of Umayyad soldiers on the plains of Euphrates River. A predictable outcome of this tragic incident was the death of all the seventy-two men while women and children were taken as captives to Damascus, the Caliph’s seat of power (Tabatabai, 1977).

In the context of Tehran, the commemoration of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom provides “an idiom for the communication of conflicting claims over resources and power particularly under conditions of social change” (Gustav, 1972, p. 119). This commemoration has strong political connotations that provide impetus to oppressed communities (Kertzer, 1988). In Kashmir, this symbolism provides metaphors and meaning to the long-drawn struggle against oppression by the Indian state. It is almost prophetic to the famous Shia phrase, “every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala.”  Kashmir epitomizes this violence and loss.

Figure 3. Woman breaking into tears in a congregation/2020

These gatherings narrate events as they happened in Karbala, on the same day, through lyrical elegies, chest-beating (doug’e), passion plays, mourning hymns etc. These lamentations are remembrances of the atrocities that the Prophet’s family was subjected to. Themes of zulm (tyranny), thirst, powerlessness, captivity, sacrifice, resistance, loss of childhood are addressed in these gatherings.

Kertzer (1988) expounds that rituals can enable both continuity and change, which in this specific instance becomes possible. In Kashmir, Muharram rituals are often dictated by the state authorities- where, and how, one can mourn, is decided by the state. The commemoration of the incident of Karbala is not just a ritual practice but is a political act of defiance against the oppressors. State often employs tactics to depoliticise these commemorations, where any affirmation to self-determination-through symbols or slogans, becomes a subject of inquiry and a reason to discipline.

In Muharram, Shia identity is also politicised vis a vis oppression of the Shia community around the world- from Kashmir to Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, there is a collective sense of community enabled by the mobilisation in Muharram. This consciousness is drawn from the major persecutions of Shias in Kashmir, a reclamation of the otherwise threatened minority.  Shia processions are often met with violence around South Asia by hardliner majoritarian groups and in Kashmir, by the state force, almost replicating the message carried out in the processions of zulm (tyranny) against the besieged minority. For Shia devotees “spiritual world becomes one with the physical through this focal parable” (Hegland, 1998, p. 251).

Masooma, a young Shia journalist narrates multiple instances in her work where she could draw a stark resemblance between the events in Karbala and the ones in Kashmir. She describes one particular incident, vivid in her memory, where she had gone to cover multiple funerals of civilians and militants in Pulwama, in 2017. She remembers the incident as the unfolding of ‘real Karbala’ in front of her eyes:

That day people were on the streets as many militants and civilians had been martyred in indiscriminate firing… when we went to the ground, there was a sea of people, attending the funeral of a slain militant. Her sister was crying there like hell, saying ‘bayo, bayo’ (brother, brother) and his father could not walk as he had lost his only son.

She associates this with the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali Akbar (as), the young son of Imam Hussain, who was martyred by Yazid’s forces. It is often said in commemorations of this incident that the pain of losing his son, turned Imam Hussain’s hair grey overnight. Masooma then goes on to describe another funeral she attended that day:

In one village there were four funerals. Usually, when someone is martyred, there is matam (mourning), but in the house there was a body lying in the lawn without the usual number of attendees… there were so many funerals, where would people go? In every home there was a slain body, it felt like real Karbala. A brother, a son, a husband, everyone had died in that incident. It felt like even the sky was crying…

As she is narrating this incident, she is reminded of a nouha (lyrical lamentation):

khushnaseebi hai jo de baap ko beta kaandha, 

baap ka laashey jawaan, haaye uthana nahin acha

 fortunate is the one whose son shoulders his coffin

a father’ carrying a young one’s body is a travesty

This ritual of mourning is an act of remembrance by association. To Masooma, Ali Akbar epitomises the rebels martyred by the state in their fight for the freedom of Kashmir. It becomes a “hidden transcript” to fight the oppressor of the time, synonymous to Yazid (Scott, 1990, p. 6). For her, Muharram processions bear resemblance to the funeral processions that are carried out when militants are killed. The arrival of Zuljanah, the horse, comes bearing the news of the death of Imam Hussain. It is replicated on the morning of Ashura, when women gather around it, remembering the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, and touching the horse as a symbol of remembrance, invoking divine intercession for their adversities. In many funeral processions, women gather around the body of a slain militant in large numbers. Much like the Muharram processions, some women jockey for strategic positions, well veiled behind the curtains for a view of the funeral.

Reframing the Meaning of Loss and Resilience through Bibi Zainab.

In framing of the tragedy of Karbala, with women’s narrative at the centre, one can observe that they played an active role in the event, made important decisions and were the carriers of this narrative to the world. Zainab took charge of narrating the events of Karbala; what she did and how she upheld Islam, forms an important part of elegies and narrations for Shia believers.

Figure 4. Woman delivering a sermon about the struggles of Bibi Zainab/2020

Zainab holds the role of a witness of some of the key events of Karbala and of a narrator, in the court of Yazid where she explains the reasons for revolution and the testimonies against the oppressors in their court in Kufa and Damascus. She addresses Syrians directly in her verbal assaults against Yazid and his forces, refusing to cower to the oppressor. Her speech, key to the awakening of the Muslim world, is memorialised as that of courage and valour, virtues that were traditionally attributed to men. Her speech stirred unrest against Yazid forcing him to release the prisoners of war. She demanded the heads of the martyrs to be returned and commanded the martyrs’ burial in Karbala. This event is an exemplification of speaking truth to power, and becomes, as D’souza (2012) notes, ‘an alternative battlefield, a path of courageous action sanctioned to women.’ She initiated the lamentations and mourning rituals which are practised by Shia Muslims to this day. She is, indeed, the saviour of Islam as per the Shia discourse and an inspiration for many believing women.

In the violence unleashed on the Shia mourners in Muharram processions in the outskirts of Srinagar, Sadiya’s eighteen-year-old brother was subjected to arbitrary detention under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). In a household with only women, Sadiya faces imminent fear of nightly raids, especially after the evening Azaan (call to prayer). Twenty-year-old Sadiya, would confront the police personnel when they would come to interrogate the family. She derives her strength by thinking about “Jenab-e-Zainab” whose eighteen brothers were martyred in Karbala.:

The tyranny of my brother’s arrest is nothing infront of Karbala. In the Majlis, I would break down thinking of Jenab-e- Zainab, all her brother’s were martyred. At least, my brother has been imprisoned only for two months, and is alive… I’m proud of my brother that in Moula Hussain’s majlis they charged him with the Act, even though he is innocent. Even if he is martyred in the name of Moula, we won’t be sad.

Zainab becomes a powerful force in the face of oppression which has transformational power for any believer.  Like Sadiya, Masooma derives strength from the undaunting resolve of Zainab. She calls her an “iron lady” and an “inspiration” for a young journalist like her who speaks truth to power.

Not just Zainab, but even her mother Hazrat Fatimah Zahra, is one of the most revered women in Shia Islam. Shias firmly believe that Fatimah Zahra, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, is prophetic in her knowledge of sufferings that are to happen in future. In one particular instance, she tells Zainab of all the miseries that would be unleashed on her in the forthcoming future. To which Zainab responds, ‘if I call on you for help, will you come?’, and Fatimah reassures her that she will always respond to her call for help (D’Souza, 2012, p. 24). All Shia believers uphold this belief, that if invoked, Fatimah will be present in the time of hardship and difficulty. So much so, that her intercession holds the power of redemption in the hereafter and on the day of judgement.

Enhanced Agency, Mobility and Resistance through Majlis and Marsiya

After her brother’s arrest on the Fifth Muharram, Sadiya was unable to go about her daily activities. The thought of her brother’s condition would pain her and the only respite would come from participation in majlis and submission to Moula Abbas (as) who was the flag bearer in the Battle of Karbala. She says, “he was arrested while carrying Moula Abbas’s flag and now we rely on his commendation”.

In Kashmir, where there is no justice or redressal mechanism, the only guarantee is the justice in the hereafter (the day of judgement). This belief empowers women to stand firm in their fight against occupational injustice(s). ‘Agency’ as described by Myers (1987) is an aspect of autonomy that one describes by self-definition, determining how one perceives oneself in terms of the aspirations and the kind of person, with particular values and attributes, one considers oneself to be. However, this self-definition does not happen in a vacuum, as Abrams (1999) points out. It happens through disassociation of oneself from the dominant notion of attaching women with passivity. It presents a scope to work on the social conditions for facing extremities.

In situations where voicing one’s struggle is non-viable- religious spaces (physical and metaphorical) become alternative and transformative. It enables the believers/devotees to bear the loss or trauma from various oppressions. Scott (1985) frames these practices as the ‘weapons of the weak’ because the traditional ways of political assertion in the form direct expressions of political assertion, eg, organizing, mobilizing, campaigning etc are luxuries that Kashmiri women cannot afford. These “weapons” aid in the resistance against the power which is key in understanding the forms in which this agency is exerted. Resistance to the military occupation, hence, is not an end but a means to enable long term change through evolving practices and long drawn experiences. Women’s resistance is not a consistent movement but is rather manifested in covert and obscure forms within a limited framework of a militarised setting, as pointed out by Comaroff (1985). Through alternative practices and collectivisation through these ritual practices, their agency is enhanced.

It ushers women to arenas that were earlier unexplored – provides a chance for action and opportunity but within a socio-religious structure. In Kashmir, the practices associated with mourning have allowed collective control for women and individual unbinding as well. Women’s agencies are deeply intertwined with their subjectivities, both constantly evolving.

One of the most significant ways in which this agency is manifested is through women’s mobility and access to public spaces. Much like political assertion, mobility without reason and necessity is a luxury for women in Kashmir. An allpervasive fear of sexual violence, amplified by a militarised setting, takes precedent in determining the mobility of women in Kashmir. Easy access to public spaces poses a threat to their security as well as their reputation. This is exemplified by Masooma’s understanding of Muharram:

(in Muharram) we walk the streets, in the night, a girl… Nobody dares to stare at you …despite the crowd, there is no uncomfortable touch. Even if you enter men’s majlis, they will think it is a mistake. Even my Dad urges me to leave home, saying ‘the juloos (procession) has arrived,”.. Maybe on other days he will not say this.

Figure 5. A group of young girls waiting for the majlis to begin/2020

The ability to control bodies is one of the strongest affirmations of power, so is the reclamation of bodies in resistance against power. Outram associates bodies as a political resource (1989, p.1). It is a site of oppression and of resistance as well, a rejection of oppression and of self-inscription of symbols of resistance (Hegland, 1998, p. 249). In Kashmiri scholarship, body has been theorised in various ways. For instance, Batool. et al (2013) examine the body as a witness—‘bearing of wounds’ in the case of the mass rape of Kunan Poshpora, in the form of sexualised/desexualised body, but rarely has the Kashmiri body been discussed as a metaphor for mourning. The act of chest beating, doug’e, offers possibilities of nuanced engagement with the concept of embodiment through a feminist lens. Doug’e dyun or chest-beating in these gatherings affirms this ownership of the bodies of Shia women- they decide the meaning and adherence of these actions. The stronger the rhythmic beating, the more josh or passion is invoked- towing the line of the discourse on the gendered body. It is a political act of resisting a majoritarian religious belief, a political suppression by the state and also a challenge to the patriarchal dogma.

Debunking the Narratives of an Apolitical Shia

In the early nineties, Shahzada remembers hearing slogans “azaedi gayi” (freedom has been achieved) many a times in a small Shia residential pocket in Srinagar. Her family was a strong proponent of Tehreek ( freedom movement) and would often be woken up in the nightly raids by the Indian forces. In many of these “chap’e” (raids), the men would be frisked and women sometimes would stay indoors to protect their homes, guide the armed personnel to different rooms and at the same time keep an eye on their actions. Shahzada had a strong heart or as she says dil dor’e, and would protect valuables in the house by hiding it from the armed personnel. Many times, her sons would be detained for a few days. In one instance, they were taken to one of the most infamous detention centres in Srinagar for more than nine days. She promised to sacrifice a lamb as Niyaz (offering) if her sons would return safely. In those long days of their detention, she would recite Naad-e-Ali (a prayer invoking Hazrat Ali’s (as) intercession. After nine long days, her son’s were back but there was an imminent fear of detention and violence. Her son was associated with a Shia militant outfit, left Kashmir for education and eventually had to settle down outside of Kashmir, as coming back would pose risk to his life. Shahzada had to make many sacrifices for the Tehreek (freedom movement), separation from her son was one of them.

Last year, as Kashmir was incommunicado, she could not speak with her sons for a long time and was able to do so once she was outside Kashmir. Days later, her youngest son passed away. Shahzada, who used to keep a diary for marsiya, says she forgot everything after the death of her son, except one verse:

Mye bronh choun marun gasiha jaano,

Wath ba god’e qabri mye saawo..

O, myaani nawjawaano

your death before mine, would it be gracious?

Get up, first, put me to sleep in my grave

O, my young son

She finds solace in this couplet from a marsiya which eulogises the sacrifice of Hussain’s song in Karbala. Like many Shia women, Shahzada has borne the ramifications of the militarised conflict in Kashmir and has actively resisted against it in these covert forms.

Traditionally, the procession taken out on the day of Ashura (10th day of Muharram) has been banned since the early nineties, in a fear of their political affirmations to the movement of self-determination. Shias in Kashmir have actively participated in the struggle against the Dogras in the 1930s (Maqbool, 2020) or the armed rebellion of the 1990s. There were many who joined the rebel groups then and now, Kashmiri Shia are asserting their political views strongly. Part of the reason, of this narrative of an apolitical Shia, Masooma believes is the marginalization both economic and social, which impeded strong representation from the community. Therefore, these narratives did not find space in mainstream discourses. She gives her example, saying I was one of the first Shia woman who was a journalist. At work, her coworkers would often use slurs like “khod’e” while joking around or would sometimes take jibes at her that Shia community was not doing much for the freedom struggle. But contrary to these perceptions, Masooma understands her position differently. When asked, what does it mean to be Shia? , Masooma remarks:

To be Shia is to carry the message of Karbala forward and to not bow down to any kind of atrocities.

Thus, religion and faith are integral to Shia women’s understanding of Kashmir and it’s concomitant issues. It provides them with a sense of legitimacy and a vocabulary for loss and martyrdom. While some meanings in ritual practices may adhere to rigid patriarchal norms, actions, it presents hope to women in the face of oppression and scope of self-expression. These practices enable relief not just through divine intervention but also in the company of other women. Despite its inconsistencies and limitations, these practices enable a subversive political formulation for the women.

This essay is a preliminary discussion on the subject of Shia Kashmiri women’s subjectivities. Overall, a case was made for establishing Shia women’s capacity of embodied resistance through religious practices. In subtle ways, these practices enhance self-expression and a unique understanding of the militarized patriarchy in Kashmir. These flourishing practices hint at strengthening of political identity and offer a possibility of shifting a rigid gendered paradigm.

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Ifsha Zehra is a researcher at JKCCS who works on archiving and documentation of human rights violations in Kashmir. She has been a fellow at Salzburg Global Academy, a Charpak Scholar at Sciences Po, Paris and is a Mother Teresa Fellow at Ashoka University. Her interests include feminism and visual arts in Kashmir.