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Expressions of Religiosity

Ambar Ahmad

By Diane D'Souza
Zubaan, Delhi, 2012, pp. 396, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

Diane D’Souza has presented a rich and fascinating insight into the devotional life of Shia Ithna Ashari (Twelver) Muslim women of Hyderabad in India. In an ethnographic study, based on participant observation, she has studied the religious rituals and activities undertaken by these women and the meanings that they attach to them. The author has presented the religiosity of these women on their own terms rather than evaluating them against some defined standard of official Shiite Islam. D’Souza has posed three main questions: How do pious Shia women nurture and sustain their religious lives? How do their experiences and beliefs differ from or overlap those of men? What do gender-based religious roles and interactions, if any, tell us about the Shia faith? Her entry point into the study is her dissatisfaction with traditional paradigms of religious studies in which religion is limited to abstract core principles and certain well understood routine practices, and most ritual activities undertaken by women are pejoratively dismissed. D’Souza presents the foundations of the Shia faith, focussing on the issue of the successor of the Prophet which is a primary source of contention between Shiite and other Muslims and hence a defining factor of Shiite Islam. She explains the centrality of the Prophet’s family—the Ahlul Bayt—who serve both as role models and intercessors. She then narrates the account of the setting up of Yadgare Husayni, the all women Ashur-khana (a place where people gather to mourn the tragedy of Karbala), as a sacred community space. She documents the problems encountered by the women from the conception of the idea to its realization, and how they found innovative ways to overcome them. The role of strong women leaders in the community was of pivotal importance. Their commitment and passion led to mobilization of resources, strategic alliances with men’s organizations and acceptance of the space as a legitimate meeting ground for Shiite women. In the context of gender segregation within the community life, this space provided women with the opportunity for active participation and leadership instead of being passive witnesses. It became a space not just to organize gatherings for mourning or celebration, but also tutoring young girls in religious matters. The author describes in painstaking detail the commemorative gatherings for mourning (Majlis) and celebrations (jeshn). Central to these is the role of the Zakira (female orator who delivers religious sermons). ...

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