Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Synopsis

Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India combines historical data with years of ethnographic fieldwork to investigate women's participation in the culture of Sufi shrines in India and the manner in which this participation both complicates and sustains traditional conceptions of Islamic womanhood. Kelly Pemberton's fieldwork offers an assessment of the contemporary circumstances under which a woman may be recognized as a spiritual authority or guide--despite official denial of such status--and an examination of the discrepancies between the commonly held belief that women cannot perform in the public setting of shrines and her own observations of women doing precisely that. She demonstrates that the existence of multiple models of master and disciple relationships have opened avenues for women to be recognized as spiritual authorities in their own right. Specifically Pemberton explores the work of performance, recitation, and ritual mediation carried out by women connected with Sufi orders through kinship and spiritual ties, and she maps shifting ideas about women's involvement in public ritual events in a variety of contexts, circumstances, and genres of performance. She also highlights the private petitioning of saints, the Prophet, and God performed by poor women of low social standing in Bihar Sharif. These women are often perceived as being exceptionally close to God yet are compelled to operate outside the public sphere of major shrines.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1994 I traveled to India for the first time as a graduate M.A. student at the University of Washington. The journey came at the end of three years of studying Hindi and Urdu and was intended to improve my Hindi and Urdu speaking skills. During my stint at the Landour Language School in the town of Mussoorie, located at the foothills of the Himalayas, I became aware of the existence of a number of small, locally renowned Sufi shrines, but what intrigued me was the adulation ordinary people I encountered lavished on deceased and living Sufis. While many people de scribed them as true seekers of God, others praised the work living shaikhs did for the most unfortunate members of society, in part through langar khanas, or “free kitchens” established at some shrines to feed the poor. I returned to the States at the end of the summer and scoured the bookshelves of my university’s library for more information about shrines and Sufis in South Asia but found surprisingly little on the “lived experiences” of Sufis and the pilgrims who patronized Sufi shrines.

Women and Sufi Shrines in Contemporary India

By the time of my second sojourn in the Subcontinent in the summer of 1996, now as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, I had decided to investigate the question of contemporary Sufis by looking at a number of shrines in northern and central India. After three months spent traveling in sweltering, dusty government buses from the northwest corner of Rajasthan down through Madhya Pradesh and northeast to Bihar, I had amassed a large body of notes, tape-recorded interviews with Sufi men and women, and experiences I could not have imagined beforehand, but had no clue how to make sense of all this information. After my return to academic life, Professor Jack Hawley suggested, in light of what I had seen and reported to him, that I focus on the question of women’s roles in Sufi orders today when I returned to India the following year. The thought of pursuing this topic was daunting.

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