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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Anna Akasoy

The role of women and men in Shiite communities is as diverse as among those of Sunnis. Much of the daily lives of Shiite women depends on the general living conditions in their environments rather than a specific Shiite doctrine or culture. The following aspects, however, deserve to be highlighted:

Shiite sacred narratives assign prominent roles to two female figures, Fatima Zahra (daughter of Muhammad, wife of Ali and mother of Hasan and Husayn) and Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and Fatima who was present at Karbala and led with the other women and children as a prisoner to Damascus. The symbolism of Karbala is used to promote certain ideals of femininity, such as the task to care for the young in the Iranian context, but can be interpreted in different ways. In Lara Deeb's study (An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon, Princeton, 2006), Zaynab is a revolutionary figure for the pious Shiite women of south Beirut who represents her faith and family in the public sphere.

According to some traditions Fatima is present during Muharram rituals, but Zaynab also offers a point to focus on during these rituals for women who relate their difficulties in everyday life, often arising from socio-economic circumstances, to her suffering. Likewise, the Gujarati community from East Africa in Canada whose use of the Karbala symbolism has been examined by Vernon James Schubel ("Karbala as Sacred Space among North American Shi'a: 'Every Day is Ashura, Everywhere is Karbala'," in Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf, Berkeley 1996, 186-203) has called the main hall of their community center Zaynabiyya—the Prophet's granddaughter witnesses the rituals of the community just as the historical Zaynab witnessed the events in Karbala.

The taziyah plays are another opportunity for promoting certain gender ideals. Actors, however, are typically male, even for the female characters. The male protagonists offer an ideal of manly behavior for the young actors and boys and teenagers in the audience. Even though the historical figures were already advanced in years when they took part in rebellions—Ali was 60 when he became caliph, Husayn was in his 50s when he was killed—in the plays they are presented as young men and thereby offer a model to those more likely to be actively and physically involved in political confrontations. The manly virtues Ali and Husayn embody are also expressed in iconography where Ali is often shown with his sword Dhu al-Fiqar, which he inherited from Muhammad. In posters showing scenes from Karbala, Husayn too is shown as a young man with a black beard.


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