An examination of the complex devotional lives of Shia women in urban India
How do pious Shia Muslim women nurture and sustain their religious lives? How do their experiences and beliefs differ from or overlap with those of men? What do gender-based religious roles and interactions reveal about the Shia Muslim faith? In Partners of Zaynab, Diane D'Souza presents a rich ethnography of urban Shia women in India, exploring women's devotional lives through the lens of religious narrative, sacred space, ritual performance, leadership, and iconic symbols.
Religious scholars have tended to devalue women's religious expressions, confining them to the periphery of a male-centered ritual world. This viewpoint often assumes that women's ritual behaviors are the unsophisticated product of limited education and experience and even a less developed female nature. By illuminating vibrant female narratives within Shia religious teachings, the fascinating history of a shrine led by women, the contemporary lives of dynamic female preachers, and women's popular prayers and rituals of petition, Partners of Zaynab demonstrates that the religious lives of women are not a flawed approximation of male-defined norms and behaviors, but a vigorous, authentic affirmation of faith within the religious mainstream.
D'Souza questions the distinction between normative and popular religious behavior, arguing that such a categorization not only isolates and devalues female ritual expressions, but also weakens our understanding of religion as a whole. Partners of Zaynab offers a compelling glimpse of Muslim faith and practice and a more complete understanding of the interplay of gender within Shia Islam.
is the director of continuing education and of the Mission Institute at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is widely published in the fields of gender, religion, interreligious dialogue, and peace building. D'Souza lived and worked in India for nearly twenty years, where she taught Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and conducted research on Muslim women's religious practices. She earned her doctorate in religious studies from Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
"South Asians are the largest ethnic group among the world's Muslims, and women hold up half of the sky. Unfortunately those lives and religious identities are often overlooked, or worse, ignored. This lovely book serves as a marvellous corrective, helping us to understand better the lives of Shi'i women in India."—Amir Hussain, Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies, Loyola Marymount University, and editor, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"Drawing on twenty years' residence in India, Diane D'Souza provides a closely observed analysis of Shia ritual as lived and practiced by women in the city of Hyderabad. Particularly appealing is how the author gives ample space for Hyderabadi women to describe their spirituality and religious self-understanding in their own words. This is original and compelling research, of interest not only to scholars in Islamic ritual and women's studies but also to general readers who want some sense of what it means to be a member of a devout Shia community. A sympathetic and highly readable account."—David Pinault, Santa Clara University, author of Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India and The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community
"Having lived among Shia women in Hyderabad for close to two decades, D'Souza is able to offer readers an extensive, profound, unique and extraordinarily readable close-up view of women's religious practices and beliefs. At the same time, while never losing sight of the importance of these practices and beliefs in and of themselves, D'Souza shows how a detailed focus on the content of women's lives expands our understanding of religion cross-culturally and historically. I highly recommend this book."—Susan Sered, professor of sociology, Suffolk University
"Diane D'Souza provides a vivid account of women's devotional life in a contemporary Indian Shi'a community. It is unsurpassed in the details she provides of the ritual spaces and practices that bind them with each other and with esteemed female members of Ahl-e Bayt (the sacred household of Mohammad), particularly Fatima and Zaynab. This is a welcome addition to scholarship on Islamic devotionalism and women's religiosity that will be appreciated by non-specialists and specialists alike."—Juan E. Campo, University of California–Santa Barbara, author of Encyclopedia of Islam