During my visit to Bibi Zainab’s (RA) shrine in Damascus several years ago, I could not help but notice the presence of women of diverse ethnicities, ages and nationalities. We were all different but united in our reverence for Bibi Zainab (RA). In our own ways and languages, we recounted her experiences, recited elegies and called for her intercession. Some of us prayed on our tasbeehs while others read from prayer books, unable to control their tears.
While Bibi Zainab (RA) is a salient figure for Muslim women worldwide and has given life to myriad devotional practices, her life and narratives also offer searing commentary on political oppression and the gendered nature of violence, which are a lesson for us all.
Bibi Zainab (RA), Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace be upon Him) granddaughter, Imam Ali (RA) and Bibi Fatima’s (RA) daughter, and Imam Hussain’s (RA) sister, accompanied her brother to Karbala to stand up against the atrocities of Yazid. She had left her husband behind and according to historian Syed Akbar Hyder, is often viewed as a co-hero of Karbala in Shia narratives.
Indeed, Bibi Zainab (RA) played a crucial role on the plains of Karbala. She not only cared for the wounded but also protected her nephew, the Prophet’s (PBUH) great-grandson, Imam Ali ibn Hussain Zayn al-Abidin (RA).
After the massacre of Karbala, Bibi Zainab (RA), along with other women and children of the Imam Hussain’s (RA) household, was taken prisoner and marched to Yazid’s court in Damascus. The severed heads of those who were martyred at Karbala, including Imam Hussain’s (RA), were paraded before her. It was at that moment that Bibi Zainab (RA) confronted Yazid, delivering a defiant speech that is instructive for Muslims even today. On the eve of the death of her brother and two sons, standing up to their killer on whose mercy her life depended, she showed that speaking truth to power, even in the direst of circumstances, is incumbent upon Muslims.
“O Yazid, do you believe that you have succeeded in closing the sky and the earth for us and that we have become your captives just because we have been brought before you in a row and that you have secured control over us?… You think that you have achieved worldly good that your affairs have become stabilised and our rule has fallen into your hands. Wait for a while. Do not be so joyful. Have you forgotten Allah’s saying: ‘The unbelievers should not carry the impression that the time allowed to them by us is good for them. Surely we give them time so that they may increase their evil deeds, and eventually they will be given insulting chastisement [3:178].”
Historian al-Tabari narrates a particular moment that sheds further light on Bibi Zainab’s (RA) courage. While in Yazid’s court, a Syrian man asked Yazid to give him Bibi Fatima bint Ali (RA), Bibi Zainab’s younger sister. Bibi Fatima (RA) shuddered thinking about the fate that awaited her and held onto her older sister’s skirt. Bibi Zainab (RA) fearlessly resisted the Syrian’s claim, noting that Yazid did not have the authority to give away the young girl. When Yazid disagreed, she retorted: “You, a commander who has authority, are vilifying unjustly and oppress with your authority.”
Bibi Zainab’s (RA) sermon also highlights the gendered nature of violence as she narrates the ways in which Yazid and his armies humiliated the women of the Prophet’s (pbuh) family:
“O progeny of the freedman of the Prophet (pbuh)! Is this your justice? Your daughters, your slave girls, your dear women are all sitting behind the curtain and the daughters of the Prophet (pbuh), in shackles, unveiled, stand before you. Your men take us from town to town where all sorts of people, whether they be residents of the hills or of riversides have been looking at us.”
Gender Studies scholar Fadwa El Guindi has noted that veiling in that historical moment communicated the status of the individual and the group’s identity; it had less to do with notions of modesty or shame. By unveiling the women of Prophet’s (PBUH) household, Yazid took away their privacy and deprived them of their elite status.
This particular form of violence against Bibi Zainab (RA) and other womenfolk signals how women have always functioned as symbols in and through which rulers exercise power. It was through the dishonouring of these women that the ruler established his complete victory. That even the Prophet’s (pbuh) family was not spared this treatment should give us pause as we reflect on modern-day patriarchy.
Today, violence against women is codified not only through law but also familial practices. Religion is deployed to further the surveillance and policing of women, and tired tropes about women’s weakness and emotional states keep women away from positions of authority. Tragedies such as the shooting of innocent civilians by the state machinery in Model Town, Lahore, or the burning of poor workers in a factory in Baldia Town, Karachi, occur without society shedding a tear. Years pass by without justice being served. The ‘mafia’, to quote the honourable Supreme Court, rules with prejudice and we citizens remain quiet.
During this month of Muharram, let us recount the life of Bibi Zainab (RA). Let us reflect on her words and deeds, and take courage from her to reform our own societies.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2017.