Shi’a Women of NorthWest Pakistan and Agency through Practice: Ritual, Resistance, Resilience

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American Anthropological Association


Shi'a Muslim women in Peshawar, Pakistan used their perfonnances of mourning rites to practice an oblique, undeclared contestation against their subordinate position in a harshly patriarchal society, I found during my 1991 field research. In so doing, these women nurtured resilience in the face of constant reminders of their dependency and lack of agency. Their energizing ritual perfonnances allowed them to build up, within a protected framework, characteristics and abilities which they may later be able to apply more overtly for selfadvancement and influence. Brenneis (1987), Mankekar (1993), Peteet (1994), and Schieffelin (1985) argue that audiences of ritual or media are not passive recipients but participants in construction of meaning. Based on participant observation at women's majales (sing. majles--communal mourning rituals) in Peshawar, I extend this argument to perfonners as well as audience. As actors and audience simultaneously, Peshawar Shi'a women managed to drown out messages inherent in the mourning rituals about the inferiority, dependency, and disruptive nature of females by devising keener communications from their own validating ritual experiences. They subverted Shi'a rituals of martyrdom recitations, mourning chants, self-flagellation, and male primacy to build up their own skills, self-esteem, and self-confidence. 1 These valuable abilities and characteristics--created through their ritual practices and fueled by growing literacy, opportunities through education, and evolving social and economic conditions--then fonned a realm of contention and negotiation over gender power, control, and change extending beyond the majles.