Amongst the many challenges of growing up female in the 21st Century, I have found the greatest to be that of figuring out my identity as a woman. ‘Who am I?’ becomes a question that has overtones coloured by my gender. I am torn by the various ideas presented both by society and faith. Am I to be a secular feminist, finding liberation in breaking boundaries, voicing my opinions and going against the norm or am I to bind myself in the seemingly-domesticated role that religion presents to me, giving in to a greater cause? Should I be a dutiful daughter, sister, wife and mother or should I simply be a woman, seeking out greater achievements and heights to rise to?
Over the decades, I have oscillated from one extreme to the other and paused at almost every stop in between. I have come to believe that finding – and maintaining – that sweet-spot of balance is part of our life-long journey. The process of discovery would have been futile though, had it not been for the presence of role models such as Sayyida Zaynab(a). To know of her, to read her words and to have the blessing of coming back again and again to her story is a point of stability that re-aligns the spiritual compass.
One of the things I find most amazing about Karbala is how timeless it is. This is an aspect that is mentioned often in sermons, but the various ways it proves itself to be so is what is wondrous. The particular issue of the role and identity of women in Islam is a prime example. When I was younger, I would hear my grandmother and mother speak of the lessons we could learn from Sayyida Zaynab(a) and they would usually list her hijab, her patience and her ability to carry the burden of sorrows with nobility as highlights.
Over the years, as women have expanded their horizons and sought new boundaries, I hear of her strength and courage, of her fearlessness in standing up to the dictators of her time. The shift in focus has been reflective of our journey as women. So for example, history says that she sounded like her father – Ali bin Abi Talib(a) – when she delivered her eloquent sermons in Kufa and Syria. As children, we heard this interpreted in a more literal sense, in that her hijab was protected even in her voice. Now we are able to appreciate that this referred to a deeper quality of the actual content and style of her words. We have grown from speaking of her sermons to actually studying what she said.
All of this is amazing progress. However, the conflict within us (within me at least!) continues. How to reconcile the things Islam asks of me – dutifulness, patience, humility – in the face of what the world demands of me – progress, action, confidence. I think the answer lies not just in the one or two years of Sayyida Zaynab(a)‘s life when she was highlighted in history, but in the five decades that history is silent about.
We know of her in those years only through a few statements made by those around her. Her grandfather spoke of the sorrows she would bear throughout her life, that she would be Umm al-Masa’ib (The Mother of Sorrows). Her father would travel with her at night, under the cover of darkness. Her husband said she was the best of wives. We know that she had a wealth of knowledge that she shared with the local women, educating and empowering them so much so that Imam al-Sajjad(a) refers to her ‘Aalimah Ghayr Mu’allamah, meaning, she who has knowledge without being taught.
This smattering of facts is what we have as a background history. Yet, it is this silent period in her life that provided the foundation upon which she was able to become the saviour of the message of Karbala, and in essence, of Islam. To this day, the greatest sacrifice in history, the Dhibh al-‘Azeem spoken of in the Qur’an, is inextricably entwined with Sayyida Zaynab(a) such that it is impossible to speak of one without mentioning the other.
I truly believe this is because Sayyida Zaynab(a) focused her life on being a servant of God and everything else was defined by her goal in seeking His Pleasure. When the need was to fulfil her responsibilities as a member of her family – daughter, sister and wife – she gave herself to it fully in the manner expected of her by Islam. When circumstances demanded more of her, she rose to fill whatever role was needed. In the space of one afternoon, she went from being a woman protected by her brothers, her sons and the sanctity of Islam to be the protector of others, defender of the Imam of her time, spokesperson, activist and protestor against oppression – all while being a prisoner of war.
She went from doing things that only a woman can to achieving things that even a man could not. The pure contrast and range of roles that Sayyida Zainab(a) took on though is so complex and varied that she stands out as a unique example of what women can achieve. She was able to not only stand up, speak out and protest against the greatest dictator of the time, but she was able to do it because she was female, because she was not seen as a ‘threat’ in the same manner as Imam Husayn(a). While men could be met on the battlefield and killed, women could not be treated in the same way. This gave her the opportunity to pass on a message that men would not have been allowed to even voice.
The fact that Sayyida Zainab(a) had both the foresight as well as the courage to do take advantage of this shows an inner strength and confidence that surpasses circumstances. In her sermons, she often declared her complete reliance on God. In Syria, she stated to Yazid: “I express my complaint only to God and have trust in Him.” This utter faith reflected in her every word, expression and act was the culmination of a lifetime spent in building and nurturing her relationship with God. Only someone who knew that she had placed her life in the Hand of the Greatest Power could have the courage to stand up to those who were perceived to be powerful in the world.
It also shows – I believe – that Islam suggests, but does not impose, roles on men and women. We tend to think that religion divides the human race into two distinct – complimentary – halves and that, men and women have gender-based spaces to occupy in society. However, these roles are not mutually exclusive.
For women today, the conflict between choosing a life based on personal preferences as compared to Islamic ones is too common. Where does one draw the line between creating an identity and sacrificing it? Does submitting to what Islam (i.e. God) asks of you mean you are restricting your potential? Is freedom in choosing what you want to do or in choosing what you believe God is asking of you?
These questions plague women in all walks of life, through all their years. I have found that rephrasing these questions sometimes leads to the easier answer. Instead of wondering: ‘Why should I have to give up my career to have children?’ asking ‘Why has God entrusted the next generation of human beings to my care?’ changes one’s perspective. Is the question: ‘Why should I have to choose between marriage and a career?’ or is the question: ‘should I restrict myself to succeeding alone or should I dedicate myself to building a new, healthy unit of society for the future’?
At the end of the day, the best lesson from Sayyida Zaynab(a) is to always ask yourself: what does God want and what does Islam need from me? And then to fully submit – lovingly – to your Creator in achieving that, regardless of how society or your own ego might view it. Perhaps then we may, God-Willing, be amongst those that He is pleased with.