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The Gender Segregation in Muharram Ceremonials in the Safavid Period

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 5230 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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[One] participates in the meaning of being a muslim through ritual action, not merely through a profession of faith (Winter 1995: 36)


  The battle of Karbala is the most symbolic event to the Shiites after the death of the Prophet in 632. The month of Muharram in Safavid Iran was the month of mourning to commemorate the sacrifice of Imam Husayn and his comrades in the battle in 680. Appearances of different gender in the Safavid Muharram ceremonials were largely segmented and differentiated. While women were represented as mourners that crying for their loss of this tragedy and the death of the Imams and their loved ones, men became the embodiment of the ultimate worrier and martyrs who actually fight on the battlefield and sacrifice themselves. Shah Abbas’ construction of Ali Qapu on the Maidan is essential in understanding the relationship s between ritual, space and power. European travelers who provided an unprecedented amount of testimonies of Safavid socio-cultural life have always observed Muharram ceremonies take place in the Maidan-I Naqsh-I Jahan. Specifically, the Ali Qapu on the west of the Maidan served as the main ceremonial gate into the palace precinct bearing both political and religious significance [Fig, 1].[1]

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  This article is a study focuses on the gender segregation in Muharram ceremonials in the Safavid period. Both men and women played important roles in the rituals of mourning, however, their different ways of performing revealed distinctive expectations for the two genders. Current research based heavily on the central procession on Muharram rituals, especially with activities such as self-flagellation of the male devotees with an almost ignorance of female appearance as public spaces.[2] This essay will be focusing on the role of women in Safavid Muharram ceremonies. Question of where there are significances of establishing and presenting gender segregation in religious rituals in public spaces, especially the Royal Maidan will be the main argument. I am aiming to explore the ultimate relationship between gendered space and power consolidation of Safavid kings, and the necessity of opposing sexes in constructing a Shi’i state. Western travel accounts with detailed description of the manifestation of Shi’ite rituals as well as valuable information of female appearances in public spaces, as well as battle standards which were the most important physical items in Safavid Muharram processions survived will be discussed in terms of demonstrating the performance of gender and power in the Maidan.

  Both men and women were actively participated in Muharram ceremonials, but they played distinctive roles in the procession. According to the account of French traveler Jean Chardin, during Muharram, men go through the town, coloured themselves in black, knocked little stones on each other and smote breasts with each other while keep saying “Husayn, Husayn, Husayn” to express their sorrow.[3] He has also spotted that various decorations such as “shields, “lion and tiger skin” and “steel suits of armour” were prepared for men and horses to bring the ultimate link of the ceremonial with the battle. Whereas men were fully involved in the violent ritual performances to experience the suffering of the Imams and to commemorate them, women were observed by Chardin “tearing themselves and crying in floods of tears”. Joy and grief were mixed in Muharram rituals when women visit the procession.[4] Professional female mourners even used various aids such as onions, grilled seeds of millet, lentils and rice to provoke tears and increase weeping in rituals.[5] In his account, there was no stop of loud crying of women’s mourning assemblies. Weeping of them could be supposed as nearly instantly.[6] He was surprised by the passion and enthusiasm of the religious piety of the participants in the ceremonials.

  Such gendered dichotomy was a manifestation of the Karbala narrative and in turn reinforced this paradigm with the different expectations of both gender. In the battle, approximately seventy-two men as well as several women and children that accompanied Husayn were surrounded by Yazid’s company in the dessert Karbala when they were summoned to travel to Iraq. Men were massacred one by one in the combat and women and children were taken in chains as prisoners to Yazid’s court in Damascus.[7] This tragedy was understood by the Shiite as an extreme humiliation of justice and suffering of humanity. Even though both male and female had exhibited their loyalty and the courage of self-sacrifice, martyrdom can be considered here as a gender-coded symbol since men were depicted as brave fighters whereas the ideal women were represented as educator and inspiration of men’s sacrifice rather than being martyrs themselves. They were expected as spokesperson and transmitter of Husayn’s message.[8]

  Even though a few female members were involved in the battle, the number and emphasis in the narrative resulted a large overwhelm by the male participant. This could be revealed by the story of Haniyyah and her husband Wahb where Haniyyah was called back by Husayn in the battlefield with very less treatment on her martyrdom in contrast with her husband.[9] Such situation happened as well in the story of Zaynab, Husayn’s sister, that she was called back from the conflict to take care of the women and children. In addition, compare to the accounts of women martyrdom, descriptions of women being captivated and humiliated dominated portrayal of female ideals in the Muharram. Husayn as the central focus of the narrative has clearly defined the battlefield as a male space and discourage of female of being manipulating this space. Female were expected to be merely spiritual inspiring and morally supportive to the male participants and at the same time as symbol of the next Shiite generation. Their appearance in the narrative was supposed to be channels to represent commemoration and devotion to the Imams.

  The performance of Muharram ritual at the Maidan is by means of recalling and reminding the tragedy of Iran Husayn and his comrades as one of the greatest event in Safavid Persia. By restrictedly following the distinct gender roles in the Karbala narrative, many of the the rituals aiming at reappearing the dreadful event at Karbala became authorised. Muharram rituals provided a rare opportunity for the gathering of both sexes in a society practising sexual discrimination and segregation. Public ceremonials made its passage directly to real life. women mourning towards their injured loved ones not only reinforced the ideal role of women in the Karbala paradigm, but also affirmed the socially expectations of women in ordinary life. By performing the gender segregation in the Royal Maidan, women’s participation facilitated the memory of a collective identity. In terms of physical limitations, gender segregation in this instance provided the chance for ‘martyrs’ as a whole group being available of committing themselves into the extremely violent and intensive performance that women would not. ‘Mourners’ therefore are able to express the enormous sorrow and grief to create a tremendous experience that can only be achieved through collective forces. The tragic atmosphere of the performance was to be evoked and addressed by women. Gender segregation in the ceremonies allowed a greater impact on the roles each gender performed in the public space. the stereotype of the opposite sexes would be further reinforced.

  The tradition of women performing mourner can be revealed in Firdawsi’s the Bier of Iskandar [Fig, 2] in the Great Mongol Shahnameh as well. This image illustrated the intense grief at the death of Iskandar of his troops, his mother, his wife as well as his nobles.[10] Observed by the regular composition of furniture and physical settings, the mourning is portrayed in a relatively formal register. In this depiction, both mem and female were immersed in dreadful sorrow, but it is the female who crowd irregularly disorganised the composition. In contrast with the male members standing on the two sides expressing their sorrow through facial expression, most of female members were denied of revealing their faces but to present their emotions through exaggerated and dramatic gestures. Two women in the foreground lifted their hands up over their heads, showing their shock and pain of Iskandar’s death. The other women next to the two women stretched her arms over her head in the same gesture as Iskandar’s mother before the coffin. The mother is depicted exactly in the centre with dramatic gesture which would directly drive the attention of the viewer, emphasised the primary role of female of being mourner of the dead, at the same time addressed their important responsibility in rituals of highlighting and addressing the tragedy. A similar situation in later Safavid Muharram rituals could be imagined. This sort of catalyst of emotive feelings of the tragic death of the Imams had been a practice widely spread in popular Shi’ism.[11] Women has been stereotyped in such practices as incapable of reason and intellect that their actions are driven by emotions. Their sorrowful bodies and dreadful cries were used to create emotional chaos of grief.

  A precise evolution towards dramatisation of Muharram ceremonies appeared during the decline of Safavid power. There was an emergency demand of provoking lamentation and self mortification.[12] Processions of religious groups were observed by Western travelers notably by della Valle were acting as military parades, extensively fight together to show their eagerness of experiencing the dreadful tragedy of Husayn.[13] led horses at the front with its saddle heavily decorated by weapons such as bows, arrows and shields were to represent Ali or Husayn’s mounts.[14] The French traveler Mr. de montheron recorded in on elf his letters in 1641 that, a great number of men surrounded several machines and coffins decorated with trophies, arms and weapons. They were all naked, dancing, fighting and screaming. An infinite number of men armed with big sticks, evolved in all kinds of fights and battle with fury. Many of them were wounded with blood gushing from their body. Observed by della Valle, alams, the giant standards carried especially in Shiite processions particularly at the Muharram ceremony were used to symbolised the martyred imam’s weapons as well.

  While most of the props and decorations used in the ceremonies were lost and refreshed into new forms, alams were almost the only type of physical evidence affirming the theatrical performances on Safavid Muharram rituals that are recorded in contemporary documents. Those standards were originated in battle standards to indicate the presence of the ruler. Eskandar Beg Munshi (1560 – 1632), the Safavid historian of Shah Abbas I describes the personal standard of Shah Tahmasp at a battle defeat the Ottomans. The Venetian traveler Michele Membré (1509 – 1595) has also provided a detailed account of how the banner is present in front of the emperor that “In front go the banners, which they call alam, which are lenses covered with red broadcloth, with two points, and on the top of the lance a circle, and, inside the circle, certain letters of copper, cut out and gilded, which say, “Ali wali Allah; la blah ill Allah; ‘Ali wali Allah wa Allah Akbar…” They are carried in the band on horseback.”[15] According to Xxxxxxx, alams decorated and dressed up with flags, feather and flags only in Muharram processions in Safavid Iran were embodiment of Persian soldiers and their plumed helmets.[16] The large group of Safavid alams in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul are presumably reached to Ottoman by the several wars between the Safavids and the Ottomans suggested by the explicitly Shiite messages inscribed on the roundels with the names of the Imams [Fig,  ]. Given the richness of imagery evidence from the illustrations of alams in the Shahnameh commissioned by Shah Tahmasp, a distinctive relationship between alam, sovereign and warfare can be demonstrated. In the battle of Pashan Begins [Fig,  ], alams dressed up with colourful flags and ribbons were illustrated at the background as indicator of the presence of emperor and well as the battlefield. They are the symbols of warfare together as the various weapons illustrated. This type flat almond-shaped alam has particularly stand out during Safavid times.

  Evident from textual descriptions, it probably started to appear in religious processions in around the sixteenth century at the time of the establishment of Shiism as the state religion of the Safavid dynasty. They copied and symbolised the alams as the standard Imam Husayn and his comrades carried at the battle of Karbala. The ultimate relationship between the Imams’ martyrdom and the ritual processions can be demonstrated from the alam made in the seventeenth century Iran in a shape of sword [Fig,  ]. It symbolizes Zufiqar, the sword used by Ali in the battle [Fig,  ]. On its openwork inscription, the names Allah (God), Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan and Husayn and the invocation ‘O Ali!’ has all been included to indicate its ritual functions.

  The devotion and commemoration of the death of Husayn and his family would be especially evoked and enhanced by alams with a hand-shape. There is an alam in the Metropolitan Museum of Art made in early eighteenth century, with one finger missing, still have the shape of hand clearly represented [Fig, ]. The hand-shaped steelwork inscribed with prayers and auguries raised on the stick, signified the severed hand of Abbas, the revered half brother of Husayn, who were both killed at the battle of Karbala.[17] This man as the standard-bearer leading the whole branch of the Third Shia Imam, represented the loyalty to his religion. As such, alams became the symbol of firm devotion and courage of defending for the religion. In Muharram processions, alams are embodiment of the tough fight of Husayn and his army in Karbala. Standard-bearers and participants in the ritual processions became the followers of the martyrs, who are eager to show their determination of self-sacrifice in commemoration of the Imams. The standard-bearers who stands at the front serves a same role as Abbas, leads his band in the Muharrum procession. The alam would indicate the presence of the leader, motivate the branch by recalling the entire tragic event and the sacrifice of the Imams. Those long standards not only evoke a spectacular visual effects, the various inscriptions that generally called to the Prophet and Imams would also provide a sensory experience of sound to the public by calling to the names of the Imams. The large amount of surviving alam has not only proved the crucial notion of battle and warfare in the rituals, it has also made a huge contrast with the absence of object of female mourning.

  Described by Mr. de Montheron, “all these fancies representing the death of Husain and all his family with him, which made weep and scream so many men and women, and which lasted three or four hours passing before the king, may be called with reason a true spectacle of grief.” With the positive foreign policy promoted by Shah Abbas I, an increasing number of European travelers settled in Persia. Many of them provided a considerable amount of travel reports with detailed observation of the social, religious and political life of Persia. Observed by Olearius, when foreign guests and the royalties presented themselves to the public, dramatic and spactacular devices were adopted in the ceremonials to enhance the commemoration and mourning.[18] The display of props, luxury, weapons, as well as the use of music and poet in the procession, all contributed to the sensory experience of both the performer and the spectator, and which has also completely transit the ritual service to a theatrical play.[19] After Shah Abbas’s deliberate development of Muharram ceremonials, it has become a public drama spectated by him the emperor, and the foreigners the true audiences.

  According to Jean Calmard’s table listing information of Muharram ceremonies under the Safavids in the main travel accounts, rituals observed by Western travelers in Isfahan are all located at the Royal Maidan. In some of the reports the location is detailed to Ali Qapu; some of them record the processions performed at the Maidan in front of the Shah. The Maidan is located in the centre of Isfahan with four monumental structures articulated on the four sides: the royal bazaar, the Ali Qapu palace, the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Chapel-Mosque on the east and the Royal Mosque [Fig,  ]. In particular, the Maidan and its Ali Qapu palace was the specific site of viewing and an embodiment of both religious and political power. Standing on the talar of Ali Qapu with the Shah would have heighten and enhance the spiritual and sensory experience of the ritual.

+ evidence of Ali Qapu’s role

For example, take a palace like the Ali Qapu in Isfahan. The five-story building served as a place for the judiciary to hold office on certain days of the week and as a place for ceremonial functions. Such palaces were special to Isfahan in the 17th century, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty. They had elegant wooden pillared porches in front (known as talar) which were open on three sides, allowing for a full 180-degree viewing stage overlooking the public square or gardens. They were spacious enough to host hundreds of guests, including governors, ambassadors, high-level European merchant representatives, and so forth. The distinction here lies in the fact that the Shah hosted these feasts, while the Ottoman Sultan was never seen in such ceremonies, nor were the Indian Mughal emperors personally engaged in eating and drinking with their guests.

babaie – 237 – Ali Qapu’s role

  Muharram is essentially recognised as a site of communication capable of producing a persuasive effect on creating a collective social identity and social reality through the projection of sanctioned behaviour and symbols. Being actively participated by both genders, individual emotions are transferred to a collective communication in the public space. Shah Abbas’ special taste for spectacles such as gladiatorial displays is observed in encouraging conflicts and fights between different socio-religious groups during the ceremonials to prevent them from against the central power.[20] This reinforcement of gender role in a civic aspect would have assist the Shah of regulating his harem. Weeping of the Imam’s supporters is seen as moral merit. Formulating the image of an ideal women of being morally inspiring and capable of preserving the line of Imams as Zaynab did at Karbala would affirm the orderliness at harem as well as announce the dignity of the children given birth at the harem. The predominant status of the Shah is therefore projected through the spectacle of the gendered ritual.

  The battle serves as a religious model for behaviour, role models for men and women are regulated in the spectacle of Muharram ceremony as a social framework. Public gatherings with utilization of theatrical devices such as the side drums and ‘alams have a powerful impact in stimulating multi-sensory feelings of the public. Gendered space in the Royal Maidan serves the means of maintaining social order. Safavid social laws and expectations for the opposite sexes are manifestoed in Muharram rituals. By emphasising on the role of men making great sacrifice of the religion, the Shah would be able to claimed his dignity as the male leader who has taken up the position of Imams fighting against their rivals for the state. During the processions, the Maidan had became the battlefield and the shah became the spiritual leader as Husayn himself. In contrast with the captivity of women by the troops of Yazid in the battle that recognised by the Shiites as a huge humiliation, it is the “heroic” behavior of the male martyrdom the Shah would like to be projected in the spectacle in the capital city. A male dominance of space, especially important political and religious spaces must be addressed from the rituals which served as political propaganda of the Shah, especially in front of the Western travelers who the Shah processes eagerness of establishing a good relationship with in terms of diplomacy.

  Shah Abbas I infused his conception of power and kingship with the Shiite mourning rituals, the Muharram became a big festival in both civil and religious sense rather than limited to its devotional aspects.[21] The necessity of establishing legitimacy beyond dispute came to the foreground at the beginning of the Safavid rule. By claiming to being the representatives on earth of the Hidden Imams, the Shah is able to be the deputy on behalf of the Mahdi when he is absent. Its dynastic legitimacy pivoted no to the notion of the Shah being the perfect spiritual director, as well as the Shah being the mediation and agent of the Hidden Imams who ‘reveals his will to the Shah through the medium of dreams’.[22] It is the position of master of the Safavid Sufi order that gave the Shah an absolutist authority and legitimacy in spiritual and practical state affairs. Safavid kingship is not only deeply embedded with the personal chrisma as an alleged descent form the Prophet Mohammad through Imam Ali, it is also largely depended on the display of royal splendour (farr), a critical concept inherited from Perso-Shi’I imperial ideology in establishing royal dignity through the construction of effective architecture.[23]

  In transforming the mystically oriented rendition of Twelver Shiism to a more normative practice that root with imperial institutions and performances, there is an urgent need of furnishing a new capital city to the embodiment of religious justice and righteousness when the Shah is in charge while awaiting the return on the Mahdi. The Royal Mosque on the south side of the Maidan is the manifestation of the Shiite public confidence with the issue of kingship that had wrestled for a century.[24] Through the theatrical character of Safavid ceremonial processions, the officially regulated social norms are affirmed in shaping a shared collective identity. Muharram rituals as the re-enactment of the battle of Karbala performed in the Maidan turned the square into a symbolic site of martyrdom and the site of rule. The Maidan became an enclosed religious world of the Shiite. What the gendered Isfahani-Muharram ritual emphasises, is the complexity in the representation and performing of the rebounding violence in the Karbala paradigm of the self-sacrifice of the Imams and his troops that underlines the spiritual foundation of the Safavid Twelver Shiism order. While the dramatic tragedy of Husayn at Karbala being the focal centre of practicing during the procession in the Maidan, this re-enactment of male martyrdom by the participants embodies the spiritual merit of the Safavid state. As such, the Safavid Muharram ceremonials at the Maidan symbolised the eventual triumphal of Shiism over Sunni. Not only the anti-Sunni defiance is evoked, the spectacles becomes a reaction to the Ottoman insinuations of the Safavid legitimacy.[25] It affirms the state’s determination of bring a new life of justice and sacrificing for the coming of the new millennium.[26]

  This essay has aimed to discuss the gender roles and behaviour in Safavid Muharram ceremonies in public spaces, especially the Maidan. Women in rituals are restrict defined as “mourner”, which has not only been differentiated from men’s role as “martyr”, but also been denied from making huge sacrifice to Shi’i Islam. Being performed in the Maidan, rituals as spectacles become a spatial and temporal manifest of power, in terms of the performative aspect of a shared experience. This set of performances embodies a significant political symbolism where power is openly theatrised to the public, participants in this instance gained individual authority in shaping the ritual paradigm through the infinite shifting communications and interaction at the Maidan complex served as an embodiment of Safavid religious and political power.[27] This collective force on emphasising the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in the battle as the root of Shiite identity is largely facilitated in the legitimising process of the state. Attentions given on the self-sacrifice of the Imams through the encourage of battle and behaviors as self-flagellation of male participants recalled the Safavid collective identity, meanwhile project the Shah’s dignity as the spiritual leader on behalf of the Hidden Imams. Women’s participation within the society is largely neglected through the reinforcement of gender segregation of ritual performances. Gender segregation and discrimination is further reinforced.


[Fig, ] Shi’a religious parade standard, 1700/1799, brass, gold, made in Iran, Safavid, British Museum

[Fig, ] Standard, early 18th century, metal, made in Iran, Safavid, the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Primary Sources

Jean Chardin (Ferrier), the journey to Persia

Floor Willem, “Fact or Fiction: The Most Perilous Journeys of Jan Jansz. Struys” in Études Safavides, edited by J. Calmard, 57-68 (Paris: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1995)

Secondary Sources

Aghie Karman Scot, Gender-Coded Symbols and Public Religious Rituals in Post-Revolutoinary Iran ( )

Allan James W., The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi’ism: Iraq, iran and the Indian Sub-Continent (Azimuth Editions, 2012)

Babaie Sussan, Isfahan and Its Palaces: Statecraft, Shi’ism and The Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran (Edinburgh University Press, 2008)

Babayan Kathryn, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Harvard, 2002)

Babayan Kathryn and Najmabadi Afsaneh, Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire (Harvard, 2008)

Calmard Jean, Shi’I Rituals and power II: The Consolidation of Safavid Shi’ism ( )

Chelkowski Peter, Eternal Performance: Taziyeh and Other Shitte Rituals ( )

Mitchell Colin P., New perspectives on safavid Iran: Empire and Society ( )

Nakash Yitzhak. An Attempt to Trace the origin of the Rituals of Ashura ( )

Rahimi Babak, The Rebound Theater State: The Politics of the Safavid Camel Sacrifice Rituals, 1598-1695 C. E. ( )

Rahimi Babak, Theater State and the Formation of Early Modern Public Sphere in Iran (Brill, 2011)

Zahra Rahbarnia and Roshanak Davari, An Investigation into Taziyeh and Performance Art with an Emphasis on the Audience Interaction, Vol. 14/No. 49/Jul 2017 (Bagh-e Nazar)

Za’feranlou Shahram, Analysis of “The Evening of Ashura” Painting,


[1] gurral

[2] scot, p80, note2

[3] Ferrier, A Journey to Persia, p107

[4] jc, p170

[5] cj, p170, noye 128

[6] jc, p170

[7] Kamran Scot Aghaie, Peter, p46

[8] scot, p84

[9] scot, p83

[10] Purple motes

[11] Jean Calmard, p141

[12] calmard

[13] jc, p149

[14] jc, p149

[15] Allan, p124, note 19

[16] Allen, p127, note 41

[17] Allan

[18] JC, P156

[19] Calmard

[20] jc, p145

[21] Calmard, p143

[22] Antony Black, p224

[23] Babaie, p6

[24] Babaie, p86, note 59

[25] Babie, p87

[26] Nahimi, conclusion

[27] 9, p453


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