Syeda Zainab (s.a,) is a salient figure for people worldwide, the shining sun in the history of Islam and of humanity. She has given life to myriad devotional practices, but her life also offers a searing commentary on political oppression and the gendered nature of violence, which hold lessons for all.
The history of Karbala is based on two pillars: the rising of Imam Hussein (a.s.) and the rising of Zainab. We have heard trials and tribulations that Sayida Zainab bint Ali had to endure after the martyrdom of her brother, Imam Hussain ibn Ali, her children, family members, and companions. But what practical lessons do we as a community take from her immense contribution to humanity? How well do we appreciate the monumental impact she made on the establishment of our faith and the implications that may have on our lives today?
After the martyrdom of Imam Hussain it was Zainab who ensured that the message of Imam Hussain did not vanish from the pages of history. It was with the constant remembrance of the tragic events of Karbala, in the form of majalis and sermons that the message of Imam Hussain has remained pulsating with life until today.
In the earlier narratives, women were largely seen as passive victims of Karbala and were known largely through the difficulties they faced. In some of the earliest available accounts. Syeda Zainab, the main female character in the story of Karbala, is described as being ‘weak with grief’, ‘choked with tears’ and unable to control herself in the aftermath of Karbala. It was largely considered to be ‘a male event’ revolving around the sacrifice of Imam Hussain and the lack of visibility of women. These narratives can be assessed in the context of the fact that they 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 were 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 about women rather than to them. This trend of representations, portraying the Karbala women as weak and passive, can be observed to have persisted until the twentieth century and was in keeping with what was largely seen as the submissive position of women in their traditional societies.
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 brought about renewed attention to and a re-evaluation of the role of women in the aftermath of the Karbala battle. A key element in this transformation has been the reinterpretation of character of Sayeda Zainab with significant consequences for Muslim women. The changing nature of gender construction through Zainab’s character in the Karbala narratives is useful in exploring the way in which Muslim women are attempting to exert their agency and are reformulating their roles in their societies.
Intellectuals and religious scholars like Dr Ali Shariati and Shaheed Murtaza Muttahhari questioned and dismissed the passivity of the Karbala women as mere mourners to be a ‘wrong practice’ which was ‘untrue’. Shariati highlighted Zainab’s role in sustaining and furthering Hussain’s movement ‘at a time when all of the heroes of the revolution are dead’ and lamented the fact that she has been turned merely into ‘a sister who mourns’. He criticises both Muslim women who unquestioningly accept their traditional role and modern westernised women who by aping the west become mindless puppets. He saw the latter as conforming to an imposed definition of femininity. The role of women was deconstructed to involve an active participation in the socio-political context. Narratives of Syeda Zainab were presented as an alternative to the Western ideals of women, as the role models and educators for women in general.
These narratives attribute authority and significant intercessory power to revered female figures, in a way aligning Muslims with positive dimensions of the ‘feminine’. These contemporary Karbala narratives emphasise the courage and strength of women and show them as ‘defiant in the face of tragedy’. The Karbala women are represented as active individuals whose struggle in the aftermath of Karbala is no less important than of 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. The repositioning of the narrative of the women 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.
In this context the character of Syeda Zainab was seen as the ‘Lioness of Karbala’ and was re-energised and has been instrumental in establishing and constructing new female identities in world, so much so that the ‘Zainabic way’ ostensibly became ‘the ideal way’ for all Muslim women. The ‘authenticated’ figure of Zainab bint e Ali and her character has been an integral part of the Karbala story. Her role is of the ‘protagonist par excellence’ who had inherited ‘her father’s fiery tongue’ and ‘her mother’s endurance and forbearance’. In her famous speeches in Kufa and Damascus she is seen as performing the ‘highest forms of jihad’ and representing the voice of the opposition at a time when it was ‘an unthinkable option’. Her speech was marked by great force and persuasiveness. She had complete mastery over language and chose the most appropriate words to convey the message. Zainab’s stoic heroism in the face of adversity becomes comparable to her brothers and affirms her centrality in it. Zainab’s speeches to Yazid are seen as manifestly having accomplished a number of goals tied to Imam Husain’s struggle, dismissing the authority of Yazid and bringing shame and disgrace upon him, so that ‘her words were sharper than the swords’.
Syeda Zainab’s speeches and sermons, which were considered to be extensions of Imam e Husain’s uprising, had a significant effect on the public and political climate of the time and consequently her role is seen as a major catalyst in the creation of ‘a full-fledged movement’ in the aftermath of Karbala. In this way it was Syeda Zainab’s power and strength of words that shook the foundation of Yazid’s rule, set the scene for its fall, and kept the Karbala tragedy alive by setting a precedent for mourning commemorations that have lasted for centuries. It is in this context that Cole underlines the central role of Syeda Zainab as the ‘conqueror of Damascus’.
There are many exemplary women who followed in the footprints of Syeda Zainab and dedicated themselves to the improvement of the status of women and their empowerment in society. Zainab teaches us that it’s not always easy to stand up against an oppressor. Our oppressor can come in many forms and in many hierarchies, but it’s important, even vital, to recognise them, to have courage to face down those who seek to tear us down. We must trust in our values and in ourselves to be strong and steady. Zainab defied the odds and stood up to the heinous and powerful oppressor of her time, becoming a pillar of strength and hope. Zainab’s stand at Karbala and her journey to establish education shows the traces of feminist ideals long before feminism became a mass movement. The lessons of Zainab are not unique to Islam, but lessons that can be used everywhere in the contemporary world. When one would think that her story was over, she proved her strength through education. The life of Syeda Zainab as the herald of Karbala will continue to be a beacon for all those who are engaged in the struggle to uphold human dignity and freedom for all.
Let us recount the life of Zainab. Let us reflect on her words and deeds and take courage from her to reform our own societies.