Muharram majlis: A space to mourn and vent for Shia women in Kashmir

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Maryam Mir never misses out on going to a majlis, a commemoration gathering of mourning during Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar and the second holiest after Ramzan. 

Last week, seventy-five-year-old Mir sat in a corner of an Imambara, a congregation hall for Shia Muslims, in Srinagar’s Zadibal area, and amid the collective mourning, she forgot her personal loss. 

“Right now, I don’t remember all that has happened to me. I’m amongst all these people, mourning our martyrs,” Mir told me.

Mir recited marsiyas, elegiac poems commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and his comrades in the seventh century battle of Karbala. 

At the imambara, a huge gathering of women was dressed in ritualistic black as they read verses in unison and beat their chests in a gesture of mourning. 

As a child Mir learnt marsiya and had memorised seventy-five of them, she said it was when she also got married at the age of 9.

Within a few years, she lost her husband, leaving behind their five children – all of whom she raised alone since. While she battled with a decades-long struggle to survive and sustain, she said her life’s turmoil faded the memory of several marsiyas she had learnt as a child.  

It didn’t stop there for her. In recent years, she also lost her two children. “Since their death, I have not been able to be at peace. When nobody is around, I speak to their pictures,” she said. 

“And they often reply.” 

On the fourteenth day of Muharram, Mir had woken up early and joined a separate majlis for women in Zadibal’s Imambara. She had also prepared sweet dishes and sherbet for mourners. “This is what all women do,” she said. 

‘Learn and unlearn’

Women in muharram
Women during a Muharram majlis in Srinagar. Photograph by Shefali Rafiq for The Kashmir Walla

Amid the wails and elegies, Mir finds peace looking at women coming in through the big gate of Imambara and children running around in colourful bandanas with Ya Hussain written on them. 

When the Zuljanah, a symbolization of a horse used by Hussain ibn Ali in Karbala, and the alam, an ensign of Hussain Ibn Ali in Karbala, passes through a sea of people, women gather at a nearby park to get a glimpse for a few minutes. 

“We stand in the park, zuljanah is sent there for one or two hours and we touch it there only. But we are not able to spend more time the way men do,” she said. 

However, majlis gives women a chance to not only mourn but to come out of their homes to sit and talk – a collective space. Mir, who waits for Muharram throughout the year, said that it makes her feel better to attend majlis.

Like Mir, twenty-two-year-old Mehru N Nisa has been a witness to majlises all her life and as she grew up, she started to understand its “importance and essence”. “One of my earliest childhood memories is going to the Imambara with my grandmother, brother and cousins in winter,” said Nisa. 

Nisa, a resident of the Bemina area of Srinagar, has been visiting her ancestral home in north Kashmir’s Pattan during Muharram to attend a women-only majlis.

Such majlises have not only provided her with a space to be a part of a gathering for women but have also taught her “how Karbala acts as a school for the world to be better and to stand up against injustice”. 

“In these majlises, women can ask questions without someone interrupting or judging them,” she pointed out.

Other than one of the biggest majlises organised on the 14th Muharram in Zadibal’s Imambara, women often organise smaller majlises in their neighbourhoods and invite their friends and relatives to come together, said Nisa, who finds majlises as an opportunity for women to come together.   

During Muharram, majlises provide a safe space for women to gather and have discussions about things ranging from religion to their personal lives, said Nisa. “Women get an opportunity to learn and unlearn things from Karbala and from other people present there as well,” she added. 

‘Lessons of Karbala make us humans’

Women during muharram
Women praying during a Muharram procession in Srinagar’s Hassanabad area. Photograph by Shefali Rafiq for The Kashmir Walla

The month of Muharram has a major significance in Islam, as Tahira Najma, an Islamic Studies scholar from Magam village of Budgam district, added that Karbala is an important incident in the history of Islam and even 1,400 years later, people still mourn. 

“The battle of Karbala makes us differentiate between right and wrong,” said Najma. “[The lessons from the battle of] Karbala make us humans.”

Islam does not differentiate between men and women, said Najma, especially when it comes to spirituality. “Islam doesn’t stop women from participating in anything related to spirituality while they follow the guidelines set for them by our religion,” she said. 

Women have always played an important role in uplifting the society and have set examples even during the battle of Karbala, she said. “During the battle, women joined Hazrat Hussain,” said Najma. 

During the battle, Najma said, some women not only participated but made sacrifices when there was a threat to the religion; “they accompanied Hussain Ibn Ali to Karbala and played an important role in the battle”.

“Zainab [Hussain Ibn Ali’s sister] not only joined the battle but also headed those who were left after her brother, Hussain, was martyred,” she said. “She led them by remaining strong and patient.” 

Najma stated that among the other females include Sakina, the 3-year-old daughter of Hussain ibn Ali who chose to remain thirsty for three days rather than asking the enemy for water. Umme Wahab, whose husband was killed, still gave away her son for martyrdom. 

“When it comes to mourning all of these martyrs, men and women are equal,” she said. “After getting educated, women can lead more majlises.”

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