Partners of Zaynab: A Gendered Perspective of Shia Muslim Faith

Partners of Zaynab: A Gendered Perspective of Shia Muslim Faith

Partners of Zaynab: A Gendered Perspective of Shia Muslim Faith

Partners of Zaynab: A Gendered Perspective of Shia Muslim Faith


How do pious Shia Muslim women nurture and sustain their religious lives? How do their experiences and beliefs differ from or overlap with those of men? What do gender-based religious roles and interactions reveal about the Shia Muslim faith? In Partners of Zaynab, Diane D'Souza presents a rich ethnography of urban Shia women in India, exploring women's devotional lives through the lens of religious narrative, sacred space, ritual performance, leadership, and iconic symbols.

Religious scholars have tended to devalue women's religious expressions, confining them to the periphery of a male-centered ritual world. This viewpoint often assumes that women's ritual behaviors are the unsophisticated product of limited education and experience and even a less developed female nature. By illuminating vibrant female narratives within Shia religious teachings, the fascinating history of a shrine led by women, the contemporary lives of dynamic female preachers, and women's popular prayers and rituals of petition, Partners of Zaynab demonstrates that the religious lives of women are not a flawed approximation of male-defined norms and behaviors, but a vigorous, authentic affirmation of faith within the religious mainstream.

D'Souza questions the distinction between normative and popular religious behavior, arguing that such a categorization not only isolates and devalues female ritual expressions, but also weakens our understanding of religion as a whole. Partners of Zaynab offers a compelling glimpse of Muslim faith and practice and a more complete understanding of the interplay of gender within Shia Islam.


This book examines the gendered expressions of Shia Muslim faith. My main interest is to understand how women from the majority Ithna Ashari, or Twelver, Shia community construct and experience their religious lives. To do so I take female stories and understandings as my starting point, drawing primarily on the lived experiences of women in one of the largest Shia communities in India, in the southern city of Hyderabad. The book is thus an ethnographic account of Muslim ritual that also makes use of textual material such as poetry, sermons, hagiography, and historical texts to analyze how gender impacts understanding of Shia faith and practice. This gendered lens is key, for most research and writing on Shia faith, whether by Muslim religious scholars or academics in religion or social science fields, implicitly or explicitly reflects male expressions and beliefs.

My aim is to answer three questions. First and most important, how do pious Shia women nurture and sustain their devotional lives within a patriarchal culture? In exploring this question five key entry points into female religiosity are identified—religious narrative, sacred space, ritual performance, female leadership, and iconic symbols—along with factors for each which impact women’s piety. My second question interrogates this primary material to ask what new insights into Shia faith are gained through a more complete grasp of the gendering of religious practice. Finally, I investigate how unexamined gender assumptions complicate the scholarly dichotomy between normative and popular religion and ask what alternatives might be considered for conceptualizing the diversity of religious behavior.

Defining Religion and Ritual

My initial encounters with Islam came through personal contact with Muslims, particularly women. It was only later that I began to make use of published writings to supplement what I learned. This pathway to knowledge was crucial in shaping my thinking. I recall learning, for example, from a friend who murmured a Quranic verse over a glass of water before giving it to her sick child to drink. She hardly thought about her action and struggled to articulate what she believed when she gently recited those memorized words. Our conversations helped me . . .

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