Shi’a Women’s Rituals in Northwest Pakistan: The Shortcomings and Significance of Resistance

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The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research


Contained by strong bonds with family, religious community, and Shi'a spirituality, Shi'a Muslim women in Peshawar, Pakistan did not overtly protest strict gender rules. Rather, they resisted the phallocentric messages in ritual symbolism and sermons through ritual performance. They redefined ritual meanings by applying them to their own purposes. Their recitation, chanting, preaching, self-flagellation, repertoire of chants, administration, and outreach activities in Shi'a ritual demonstrated their abilities and competence in dealing with the public, thereby non-verbally contesting belittling gender characterizations. While noting the short-comings of their accommodating resistance through ritual practice and the uncertainty of its results, this article, based on fieldwork conducted in the early 1990s, argues that even such subtle gender resistance sustains women's resilience. It provides opportunities for building confidence and for practicing resistance which may later be wielded with significant outcomes, should developing conditions allow.