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Women's Religious Rituals


In addition to observing their formal religious duties, women of various religious communities have developed their own rituals to meet their spiritual needs and personal aspirations.

Traditionally, women in all the major religious communities in the Middle East and North Africa have had less access to religious learning than have their male counterparts; they have been excluded from the formal clerical hierarchy, and their active role in official and public communal rituals has been, to different degrees, limited. Muslim women's access to the mosque has been restricted, as has that of Jewish women to the synagogue, and these restrictions are sometimes more the result of tradition than of religious law. At the same time, women have created their own rituals, which allow their active involvement in gender-segregated settings, often in the private sphere.

Rituals at Home and outside the Home

One woman-dominated activity is visiting neighborhood shrines and other holy sitesa practice common among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Women use these occasions to pray, ask intercession, and find support from other pilgrims. Some of these shrines are dedicated to female holy figures, such as Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem and the shrine of Zaynab in Damascus; a number are guarded by women and visited solely by female believers. In North Africa, the veneration of marabouts, holy men and women, living and deceased, plays a central role. Their graves and their descendants are frequented by women for blessings (baraka) and guidance.

Many women's rituals take place at home, transforming domestic spaces into places of worship. In addition to individual prayers of petition (duʿa), Muslim women sponsor collective rituals, like prayer meetings of gratitude or entreaty, and gatherings to

read the Qurʾan, chiefly during the month of Ramadan. The Prophet's birthday is celebrated with the chanting of poems about his life. Shiʿa women especially partake in a great variety of religious rituals. The days of birth and martyrdom of the imams, as well as significant dates in the lives of some of their female relatives, are commemorated with either festive gatherings or recitals about their sufferings and ritual crying. Women from Iran and Central Asia also prepare and offer a sofreh, a ritual meal dedicated to a holy figure.

For Christian women in the Arab world, the month of May is a special time of religious devotion, processions, prayer services, and reflection. This is the month of the Virgin Mary, a period during which women ask special favors, make pledges (nadhr), and attend daily prayer gatherings and special masses in church. May is also a time of religious processions to shrines to Mary, in which members of other faith communities frequently participate, as in the procession to the church at Harissa in Jounieh, Lebanon.

Food and cooking play a central role in women's ritual activities throughout the Middle East. In addition to the religious obligation of lighting the Sabbath candles, Orthodox Jewish women are responsible for kosher cooking. Zoroastrian women prepare the food offerings for the religious ceremonies, and during Ramadan Muslim women prepare special meals for their families and guests to share after sunset to break the daily fast. A common ritual is the distribution of votive dishes.

Vows, Cults, and Holy Women

Vows are an integral part of women's religious rituals. In personal or collective prayers, they ask God for favors, or petition a saint to intercede with God on their behalf, promising to fulfill some kind of return servicefor example to help the poor. The assistance of supernatural forces is sought for problems over which women have little control: illness, infertility, the lost love of a husband, financial problems, or worries about children. In times of crisis women also contact local ritual expertsreligious authorities, holy women and men, healers, midwivesfor amulets, divination, and cures. Many rituals concern the individual life cycle. Prayers, recitations from the holy book, and amulets serve to ensure a quick conception, a safe pregnancy, or an easy delivery, or to ward off evil influences harmful to the mother and newborn child or to a newly married couple. Muslim women gather at weddings, chanting religious songs. They gather for the formal naming of a child and for a circumcision. They perform the lament for deceased family members at home and recite prayers for their souls.

Particularly in North Africa, Egypt, Sudan, the countries around the Persian Gulf, and Yemen, Muslim women also take part in spirit possession and healing cults, most commonly referred to as zar. Ritual masters, who are often women, try by means of trance and dance to pacify the spirits that have afflicted the women who consult them. They are sometimes also consulted by Christian women. By claiming to be possessed by a malevolent spirit, women can overstep the boundaries of acceptable behavior and demand, in the name of the spirit, concessions from their husbands.

Women may also become members of Sufi orders. Especially in North Africa, Turkey, and Pakistan the zikr (remembrance of God) includes ecstatic chanting, dancing, and drumming. These rituals are sometimes connected to a healing cult.

In addition to their religious importance, rituals serve to gain merit for a woman in the next world and to secure the well-being of women and their family membersliving as well as deceased. The women sometimes perform the ritual in the name of a male relative or a child, acting as representatives to the supernatural. In all Middle Eastern religious communities, women have played a central role as preservers and transmitters of faith. Further, at collective rituals, women can establish emotional and supportive bonds with others not family members. For traditional women, these rituals often represent the only socially accepted activity outside the house. Excluded from the male religious hierarchy, women find in rituals the possibility of acting as religious experts, thereby gaining esteem, income, and mobility.

Women have developed a great variety of rituals, which differ from country to country and change with historical circumstances. Some are performed by women as well as men, others exclude men. Urban women generally have developed a richer religious life than village and nomad women. Popular rituals are the sphere in which the boundaries between the different religions are most fluid. Zoroastrian women display sofreh like Shiʿa women, and in Egypt and Lebanon Muslim women may in times of crisis visit a church or consult a priest. Many women's religious rituals have an ambiguous status and are dismissed by the religious orthodoxy. In Saudi Arabia under the Wahhabis, most Muslim women's rituals have been forbidden. In Soviet Central Asia, women's domestic rituals played an important role in the survival of religious beliefs. With increasing literacy and access to religious learning, women have begun to renegotiate their role within the religious tradition and their activities have become more visible. At the same time Muslim women's less orthodox traditional rituals have become a point of attack by Islamic revivalists, male as well as female, who regard them as superstition.

see also gender: gender and education; marabout; muwahhidun; sufism and the sufi orders.


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Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. Getting God's Ear: Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Fernea, R. and Fernea, E. "Variations in Religious Observances among Islamic Women." In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Hegland, Mary E. "Gender and Religion in the Middle East and South Asia: Women's Voices Rising." In Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East, edited by Margaret L. Meriwether and Judith E. Tucker. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Mazumdar, Shampa, and Mazumdar, Sanjoy. "Ritual Lives of Muslim Women: Agency in Everyday Life." Journal of Ritual Studies 13, no. 2 (1999): 5870

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