The battle of Karbala is largely considered a male event, revolving around the sacrifice of Hussain Ibn e Ali and the lack of visibility of women. The women of Karbala are known through the suffering of the male kin and the hardship they endured in the absence of men. The Karbala narratives that are derivative from this historic event, the martyrdom of Hussain being seen as the key moment in the history. In the earlier narratives, women were largely seen as passive victims of the tragedy and know largely through the trials and tribulations they faced. In some accounts the central female character Zainab bint Ali in Karbala is described as being weak with grief, choked with tears, in the aftermath of Karbala. This trend of representations, portraying the Karbala women as weak and passive actors changes adequately when you read the post Karbala events, the journey of the family of Holy Prophet from Karbala to Damascus as prisoners of war.
Zainab bint Ali’s character has been an integral part of the Karbala narrative, in her augmentative role Zainab is the epitome of command, who had her father’s fiery tongue and her mother’s forbearance. It was the night of the tenth of Muharram that Zainab took charge of her desolated household. The focus shifts to Zainab at the dusk of Ashura. From this point onward, she spoke with paramount authority and unrivalled courage. Zainab confronted Yazid at his court in Damascus, to redeem her family’s suffering and tell the world the reasons for which Hussain Ibn e Ali and his companions suffered. From this moment onward, Zainab evoked the far-flung conquest of Hussain, metaphorically turning Damascus into a variant of Karbala. Hussain’s martyrdom and his physical combat are reinforced through Zainab’s subsequent confrontation with Yazid; her battle with words and deeds. Zainab became the feminine face of Hussain and Abbas Ibn e Ali.
A rigid disunion between the emotional and the rationalised versions of Karbala narrative, where the traditional narrative only make people cry and the authenticated one teaches lessons is problematic because, it separate the political from the spiritual and tends to overlook the intrinsic spiritual message of Karbala. The characters of the Karbala women are no less important than the men and their intellectual skills and oratory powers are equal to the defiant powers of their male kin. The following excerpt of the sermon of Zainab bint Ali at Yazid’s court is a prime example of such courage:
Whatever you consider today, as a bounty would turn into reparation for tomorrow; whatever you have sent in advance would be received by you. Allah does not like oppression toward his servants. I complained to Him and put my trust upon Him; thus whatever deceit you want to practice, go ahead and do it; whatever endeavours and efforts you can make, try them.
By Allah you would never be able to remove our remembrance from the hearts, nor would you ever be able to destroy our revelations; you would never reach our splendourand majesty; you would never be able to wash this ugly spot of tyranny from your dress; your opinion and suggestions are invalid and unstable. The duration of your rein is very short, and your assembly would soon be scattered; on that day when the heavenly crier would announce: Praise be upon the Lord of the Worlds, and are beginning- with prosperity and salvation-and our end-with martyrdom and blessing. O You, Who is just and righteous toward us and who is the most compassionate among all the compassionate ones, we put our trust only upon you.
The late Fahmida Riaz who was a progressive Urdu writer, poet, human rights activist and feminist, depicted the address of Zainab bint Ali in a poem, titled Hazrat Zainab ka KhutbaSham key Darbar Mein. The poem ends with a declaration of defiance from Zainab bint Ali, and the defiance is immediately followed in the final couplet by a call to feminism.
You perpetrated a horrible crime, O murderer Yazid
Do not think it is glad tidings of victory decreed
But the very end of the low which you think to be a high
The men and women you over-ran with your army were a handful
The Gracious Lord from the sky watched the unjust slaughter
You have caused yourself a huge loss
The wrath you visited, your oppression upon our brood
You cut your own jugular, drank your own blood
The Prophet’s family have embraced martyrdom
Their heads held high, departing successfully from this kingdom
They shine on the firmament, will be remembered by the earth
The darkness of your face is now indelible, you accursed
There is great noise in every quarter over your tyranny
You deserve curses, and are worthy of a penalty
Humanity presents her a golden tribute
She elevated the world of femininity with a crowning attribute
Translated by Raza Naeem
Zainab was the third child of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatimah bint Muhammad. Like her two elder brothers, Hassan and Hussain ibn Ali, Zainab was named by Prophet Muhammad pbuh. The name “Zainab” means, “adornment of her father”.
She is a constant reminder that the human spirit will ﬁght against and triumph over oppression and is seen as a protagonist, not as a victim. And ﬁnally, women were given the right, or even the responsibility, to challenge male authority when a man acted in an impious manner, even if he was the ruling caliph. Hussain’s Jihad was marked partly by sword and arrows; Zainab’s Jihad was waged through words of eloquence. Hussain made Karbala immortal; Zainabassured the immortality of Karbala through her sermons in Damascus. The manifestation of her acts is seen in the words of her grandfather Muhammad pbuh:
The best form of jihad is to utter just words in the presence of a tyrant ruler.
The struggle of Zainab the conqueror of Damascus reminds us again and again that the minority must not be intimidated by the Majority.