Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Women Join Shia Revival

The collapse of the Ba'athist regime has given Shia women a chance to learn about their once-suppressed faith.
By Usama Hashem

Twice a week at 2 pm, the male congregation of a small Shia mosque in a suburb of Baghdad files out into the alleyway, and a curtain is drawn across the main door.

For the next two hours, this mosque - whose name the custodians request not be given lest it become an extremist target - will host a religious seminar for around 30 to 50 local women, as the men stand guard with their Kalashnikovs.

Two weeks ago, moreover, the mosque instituted what it believes to be an unprecedented women-only Friday sermon, delivered by a female preacher to an all-female audience.

After decades of suppression under the old regime, the Shia faith is currently undergoing a revival - and some of the main beneficiaries are women, who under the old system had little awareness of the fundamentals of their religion.

Even Shia men were wary of congregating in mosques during Saddam's rule, but for women the danger was far greater. While a man would face arrest for discussing religion, a woman might have her family taken into custody as well.

In public schools, meanwhile, only the principles of Sunni jurisprudence were taught. The tradition of the Shia - who make up a majority of Iraqis, but who were excluded from most positions of power - could only be taught in special religious colleges, which were only open to male students.

Today, however, women are being taught the fundamentals of their faith - the importance of the Prophet's family, the role of the clergy and other points which differ strongly from the Sunni version of Islam.

The two-month-old programme, organised by the independent Association to Commemorate Religious Rituals, now runs in three mosques in Baghdad.

A number of prominent clerics have also instituted their own programmes for women, but the association's curriculum tries to expose the women to Iraqi Shiism's different currents of thought without endorsing a specific trend.

One of the lecturers is Ruqaya Talaqani who for four years secretly studied the Shia faith at home under the tutelage of the wife of a prominent scholar. "If we were caught, we would have been put to jail and severely punished," Talaqani said.

The long years of suppression, however, have created a demand for religious instruction now that the fear is gone. "Women are so thirsty to learn their faith in the correct manner," she said. "Because of Saddam's oppression, they were deprived of everything."

For Abd al-Sattar Lafta, the head of the Association to Commemorate Religious Rituals, the courses do not just teach women about the faith but also inoculates them against extremist ideas.

"Terrorists would not be able to recruit young people if their mothers were politically and religiously aware," he said. "It is the mothers who spend most of the time with their children and not the fathers."

Shia Islam, for example, places many more restrictions on the declaration of holy war than Sunnism. The course's organisers hope the students will learn to be sceptical of declarations of jihad from radical preachers.

The lessons also deal with contemporary politics and practical matters - discussing systems by which residents of a neighborhood can organise waste disposal, or the importance of telling children not to pick up suspicious objects from the streets, in case they're bombs.

College graduates, students and even illiterate women attend Talaqani's classes. "The illiterate ones are the most eager," she said. They are allowed to take their exams orally, though some insist on trying to write.

Encouraging women to think and solve problems for themselves is the main aim of the classes, Lafta says. In a typical session, a student suggests a problem and the others brainstorm solutions.

"The course boosted our religious understanding. We can now discuss religious affairs with better knowledge and more logical ways," said Raghad Saeed, a secondary school teacher involved in the programme.

"Before we were chained to what the former regime dictated to us."

Another graduate, Maha al-Asadi, described this new freedom as a "dream come true". "We always prayed for this and we could never imagine that this day would come," she said.

On completion of the six-month course, the students are entitled to teach other women. The formal Shia system of religious education - which involves decades of study before one is qualified to explain Islamic precepts to the public - remains the province of men.

Like the classes, the sermons have a strong political dimension. "We are against everyone who wants to harm this country," Talaqani told the audience in her inaugural talk two weeks ago. She spelled out who she considers as the main enemy of the new Iraq, "We will fight the Ba'athists and the Wahabis."

She condemned the recent suicide attacks against the police stations in Baghdad, and ridiculed the perpetrators for considering themselves martyrs after killing themselves and innocent Iraqis.

The sermon closed with chants of "God is Great" and "Death to Saddam".

Usama Hashem Rida is an IWPR trainee.

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