Ashura and the Ritual Emancipation of Women in Morocco

Ashura and the Ritual Emancipation of Women in Morocco


Mohammed Maarouf
Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box]

El Jadida, Morocco—Anthropologically speaking, the popular Islamic ritual of Ashura has been approached as a pagan survival in Morocco. There is a traditional thesis on Ashura that it is an Islamic ceremony incorporated by the newly Islamized Berbers as early natives to substitute the ancient practice of burial and resurrection of the vegetation deity. Westermarck refutes the thesis of a primeval God burial on the basis that there were no left traces of sacrifice for the deity of vegetation before the coming of Islam though Westermarck remains faithful to the pagan survival theory and considers Ashura as the sequel substitute for l-‘ansera that the Berbers used to celebrate at the end of the agricultural harvest. In general, Ashura has been explored within the scope of both solar and purificatory theories presented by Frazer and Westermarck respectively but the whole anthropological debate now seems to be moribund and does not trespass the evolutionary theoretical models of the epoch.

Ashura from an interdisciplinary cultural perspective appears to be an act of survival; it offers ‘a ritual free space’ for subordinate female social agents to discharge their discontent and exert their power, a resource which they tap into to carve out a moment of becoming reversing male domination. The ritual of Ashura allows us to see how female agency emerges from, and is continually reconstructed through their engagement by their practice of magic and ceremonial alfresco gatherings, chanting songs of challenge to the male authority.

The ethnographic image of Ashura delineates how a cultural and religious ritual may play the role of establishing and sustaining cultural hegemony. It forwards into a position of prominence the carnivalesque aspect of the ritual. The cultural authority of the male is transgressed, mocked and crushed down by the joyful moment of female becoming in a ritual outlet that permits the male cultural authority to rejuvenate its yoke of domination over women in the normal existing social conditions. It is a carnival, a form of social control of the low by the high and thus serves the interests of the official culture that it apparently opposes. As Shakespeare’s Olivia remarks “there is no slander in an allowed fool.” Thus, hegemony permits the ritual inversions of hierarchy and status degradations, a safety valve for, re-affirming the status quo, for renewing the system but women cannot change it.

In fact, Ashura seems to be double-edged. From bottom–up resources it emerges as a form of cultural resistance but from a top-down perspective it seems to be licensed in that it reflects the force of the establishment that contains it. In other words, it is a cultural resistance that spins in a vortex of authoritarian relations fixed up by the cultural establishment. The resistant female subject’s revolt bumps against the shields of the dominant cultural and political institutions and shrinks back to her initial subordinate position.

We list here three main findings our fieldwork research has discovered (for a full treatment of the ritual of Ashura see Maarouf 2009). First, there is a female emancipatory discourse articulated in the form of songs women chant outdoors on the night of Ashura. These songs may be termed “the female songs of emancipation”. Females chant collectively open air songs challenging patriarchal authority and deriding male power. As an example, female emancipation is epitomized in the archetypal verse recited by women everywhere in Moroccan plains from ‘Abda, Doukkala to Shawiya: “Baba Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule” (Baba Ayshur ma ‘lina bi-hkam a lalla/ ‘id l-milad bi-hkam rijal a la lalla)! It is saying that religious festivals such as the Prophet’s birthday ceremony may be performed under male control but Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity. In their outdoor collective songs, women also exult at their bravura in jihad (holy war) against the colonizer and sing of bearing arms and embarking on long journeys to rescue victims even if the call for help as their metaphor goes reaches them from a donkey agonizing in a remote land (a white donkey wailed in the desert, The town girls took up rifles /wa shka hmar byad f s-sahel / wa bnat l-mdina hezzu l-mkahhl).

These songs recall to mind the songs of Hate in Gluckman’s ethnographic example of ritually insulting the King in Swaziland (1985, 51-2). This ritual is intended to strengthen feelings of loyalty towards the king, especially among potential traitors. It is like a carnival where license is permitted and strong resentments against authority are exteriorized. Potential traitors may evince strong feelings of guilt and untrustworthiness while face-to-face with the loyal subjects of the king. In the same way, females in Ashura go outdoors in parades to subvert the gender-marked established roles, menace male prerogatives, and blow up in obscenities thus draining their tensions and hostilities and consequently consolidating the hierarchical status quo.

Females’ songs of emancipation also aim at transferring feelings of aggression onto scapegoats, constructing an outsider enemy alien to the clan to strengthen the social sentiments of belonging to the same group; examples of such songs run as follows: (Play with us we play with you! You are arrogant and arrogance has undressed you! [la‘bu m‘ana nla‘bu m‘akum/ fikum shshiki u shshiki ‘arrakum] Blind the enemy’s eye! He who hates us! [ta‘mi ‘ayn la-‘du lima ibghina] Our clan is table and glass! Your clan but basket and hoe! [wa duwarna gha tabla u l-kas/wa duwarkum gha l-guffa u l-fas] Our tree is full of flowers oh lalla (honorific female title)! He who hates us, sickness be upon him oh lalla [shajeretna ‘amra ward ya lalla/ lima ibghina i‘tih l-mard ya lalla]! Our clan is a belt of silk! Your clan but donkey hooves! [ wa rifna ‘a majdul l-hrir/ wa rifkum ‘a fraqsh l-hmir])

Once a year then, Women see themselves as authorized to violate the patriarchal norms. By reversing the roles of domination and acting out the sexual conflict, the ritual of Ashura paradoxically adds force to the hierarchical social cohesion. Men and women obeying the established traditions submit to a ritual from which the community hopes to derive its prosperity and harmony.

The second finding is about purification rituals. There are many examples of purificatory rituals collected from the field but I will cite one example because of space constraints. On Ashura holy day, girls in Doukkala region hollow dates and fill them with hairs, and then march in a collective procession chanting and playing on drums with the intent to bury Baba Aishur. They go to an abandoned deep well which they circumambulate while throwing the dates, hence disencumbering themselves from their old hair. The well is a symbol of sacred water. Waarab (2003) argues that people believe that, on the day of Ashura, all wells and springs are flowing from the Meccan well of Zemzem. Before dawn, women head towards wells to get water to splash over each other, a purifying ritual named after the sacred pit Zemzem—needless to mention in this respect ceremonial bathing in rivers and at sea on Ashura day (Westermarck, 1905).

In other villages, girls bury the dates underground in remote forsaken areas so that people do not step over them and may get harmed. Sometimes, girls take with them rags, pieces of underclothing, residue of molted hair (mshaga) or fingernails belonging to their mothers or other members of the family to throw in a pit (these are belongings of tab‘a, a female jinni pursuer keen on burdening the targeted person’s way with impediments); it is an act of contagious magic, a congruence which is supposed to exist for instance between someone and the severed portion of their hair, so that what happens to the part happens to the whole. The burial of the hairs in dates is a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility. But the gesture also re-enacts the burial process of the old year with its residues; the girls bury the old hair with the old year and wish for a new hair with a new year.

This act of contagious magic may also be interpreted within the cultural frame of power relations of gender. The girls and their mothers are enacting a ceremonial ritual to preserve their feminine gender capital which they think may insure their importance to the male. The ritual shows that the male gaze is present in female popular imagination. Though the ceremony is feminine and offers females a space of freedom and challenge to male authority, women seem to experience themselves in terms of their relationships with males. In a nutshell, the ritual seems to be andocentric with the male at the centre of female attraction. By interring Baba Aishur, girls inter their mishaps and wish for more hair beauty, more male attraction to them and more self-importance in a patriarchal world.

The third finding is about the practice of magic. Ashura is the ritual occasion for the feminine practice of witchcraft. To secure their position in the patriarchal household, women may consult diviners and sorcerers, looking for magical recipes to insure continual domestic power and male emotional attachment to them. There are women who consult sorcerers or work personally in brewing spells in order to burn them during Ashura bonfires. Other women who are worried of being harmed by malevolent doings buy incense (bkhur) to avert evil influence caused by malevolent spirits. Spells may be used to harm enemies or charm people dear to the heart. This renewed interest in magical practices during Ashura implies that the social actors are aware of the annual transition (end-beginning of the year) and its sacredness. They yearn to do or undo spells during the occasion because as most interviewees maintain “charms used or renewed during Ashura may last for the whole year from Aishur until the coming Aishur.”

Ashura bonfire (sha“ala) seems to be the most convenient time when the women who believe in magical emancipation decide to burn their spells. Bonfires are lighted by male youths in streets in the presence of girls, grownups of both sexes and little children. When it blazes, the boys commence to circumambulate and leap over the flames; girls standing by sing what Moroccans term “the Songs of Baba Aishur.” At this point, one may notice female spell doers neighing the fire, and casting their spells and charms in it under children’s hurrahs. Those who do not like to expose themselves in the limelight may offer fire ingredients—for instance, an old stuff mattress—to children to burn in fire. The latter run happily dragging the bits and pieces along into the bonfire unaware that the gift might have been filled with spells.

There are women who prefer to burn their spells indoors using small censors rather than cast them in outdoor fires. Their alibi is that they do not want boys and girls playing outside to step over the spell because in their belief it may harm them. In the countryside, some women may spin wool in front of the outdoor fire to produce a magic charm. It is believed that if women spin yarn from the wool fibers stored from the Great-Feast victim’s fleece in front of Ashura fire, fortune will guide the hand that grasps the spun thread. The woman equipped with her distaff and spindle forms a thread taller than her body height. The thread may be cut into small pieces and then given to nubile girls as well as to people who desire to sell their cattle in weekly markets. All are believed to find fortune on their side.

Ashura night in fact turns neighborhoods into different sorts of perfume from gam-amoniac, alum to benzoin. Some believe that fumigation may fortify them against evil influence and others think that their spells if burnt ceremonially in Ashura may incontestably bewitch the targeted individual.

Ashura therefore is the ideal occasion for women to exert their magical power. Living in a male-oriented social world where they believe that men’s authority and prerogatives are natural and inherent in their masculinity, married women, especially from the uneducated lower social strata, generally derive their power from their sexual capital—as long as they are sexually desirable and active. In fact, their sexuality, domestic skills and child-rearing skills form the capital of their importance in the household. Their access to other sources of power is almost denied.  Therefore, they scheme and practice magic, in fact using whatever means available to them, in order to act effectively on their husbands. This measure of domestic influence or ‘unassigned power’ is ritually accentuated in socially accepted avenues such as marriage ceremonies, carnivals of Ashura, carnivals of the Great feast, jinn evictions and other ritual practices. It seems that male authority allows itself to be ritually transgressed in order to tighten its grip over women in the course of normal social life.

The carnivals of Ashura are mainly performed by rural female social agents and those who belong to uneducated poor urban social classes. Educated women from modern-middle-class urban families—not to mention the rich and high bourgeoisie—,who are rising to power in the public and private sectors and gaining more freedom, challenge these cultural forms of traditional society. They will by no means descend in streets to be enrolled in ritual parades of Ashura playing on oblong drums to express their feminine liberty. Some Islamist female respondents condemn Ashura outdoor practices as heterodox; nevertheless they do not seem to question the legitimacy of male authority over them because in their eyes it is decreed by the Islamic Tradition.

Here I do not want to end up my analysis on a pessimistic tone. As it is revealed, Ashura practices do not threaten the social reproduction and maintenance of female docile subjects in society. They do not menace the social inequality of gender relations, and historically shift identity with the vagaries of domination. However, if Ashura’s emancipatory discourse may be practiced outside its ritual process authorized by the popular tradition; if women grow aware of their empowerment, such is the case now in rising feminist activism, all this may pave the way for political female agency.

Now, counter-hegemonic seeds of resistance in rituals of Ashura, trance dancing and jinn possession still prevail and subordinate women who cannot escape their social position can leastwise escape the conventions that go with it—they may feel free somehow at a symbolic level; they may transgress, be outrageous and throw out the norms at least for a while. Of course this can be seen as a `ruse of power` to licence a blowing off of steam, but these anti-hegemonic alternative meanings and dispositions remain latent and available for future uses and can be raised with a more likelihood to subvert the social structure, especially with new cultural attachments under new favourable social, political and economic conditions. 

To be followed by a sequel article: “Ashura in Orthodox Islam.”

[symple_box] Mohammed MaaroufDr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box]