Signs of Shia courage

Despite the latest wave of suicide attacks in Iraq, millions of Shia Muslim pilgrims continue to flood to the shrine of Hussein in Karbala.

Several years ago, I met an Australian man who had converted to Islam (and, specifically, to Shia Islam). He told me that, in 2003, he had been watching the news one evening and was astonished by scenes of two million Iraqis streaming towards the holy city of Karbala, chanting: "Hussein, Hussein." For the first time in three decades, in a globally televised event, the world had caught a glimpse of Shia Iraq from the inside.

With the Sunni Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein toppled, Australians, like everyone else, were eager to see how Shia Iraqis would respond to a new era of freedom. "Where is Karbala, and why is everyone heading in its direction?" he recalls asking himself. "Isn't Baghdad the capital of the country? Isn't that where all 'the action' is? Who is this Hussein who motivates these people?"

They were the first in a long line of questions that eventually led him to relinquish his Roman Catholic faith and instead embrace Shia Islam.

What he witnessed in that single, 60-second television news report was especially moving because the imagery was unlike any he had seen before. There was something intense about the commotion. A fervent sense of connection turned human pilgrims into iron filings, automatically aligning with each other as they drew closer to what could only be described as Karbala's powerful magnetic field. It was more than intriguing; it was astonishing and inspiring.

Long trek

In 2007, I travelled to Karbala, my own ancestral home, to find out for myself why such scenes are so captivating. What I witnessed proved to me that even the widest-angle camera lens is too narrow to capture the spirit of this tumultuous, annual Shia ritual.

Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children -- but mostly black-veiled women -- filled the eye from one end of the horizon to the other.The crowds were so huge that they caused a blockade for hundreds of miles. I had the privilege of being driven to Karbala in armoured vehicles with a police escort throughout the nine-hour journey. But the road was overflowing with pilgrims on foot.

The 425-kilometre distance between the southern port city of Basra and Karbala is a long journey by any measure, and must be unimaginably arduous on foot. It takes pilgrims a full two weeks to complete the walk. Some push their parents in wheelchairs. People of all age groups trudge in the scorching heat of the sun during the day and in the bone-chilling cold at night.

They travel across rough terrain, down uneven roads, through terrorist strongholds and dangerous marshlands. Without even them most basic amenities or any travel gear, the pilgrims carry little besides their burning love for "The Master" -- their imam, Hussein. Flags and banners remind them, and the world, of the purpose of their journey.

One banner I saw on my journey read:

O self, you are worthless after Hussein.                                            
My life and death are one and the same,                                                  
So be it if you call me insane!                                                                

The message recalled words said to have been uttered by Abbas, Hussein's half-brother, who was also killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680AD while trying to fetch water for his thirst-stricken nieces and nephews.

Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is adored by all Shias. Millions of Sunnis also revere him, as Sayyid ash Shuhada, the "prince of martyrs". He was killed in Karbala on Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, having refused to pledge allegiance to the corrupt and tyrannical Ummayad caliph, Yazid.

He and his family and friends were isolated in the desert, starved of food and water and then beheaded. Their bodies were mutilated. In the words of the English historian Edward Gibbon: "In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hussein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader."

Shias have since mourned the death of Hussein each year, in particular on the days of Ashura and Arba'een. The latter is the Shia holy day of religious observation that occurs 40 days after the day of Ashura. Forty days is the usual length of mourning in many Muslim (and Middle Eastern) cultures. This year, Arba'een falls on Friday 5 February.

Care and devotion

The horrific bomb blasts of late January and early February in Baghdad and Karbala, which killed dozens and wounded hundreds, illustrate the dangers facing Shias living in Iraq, and the insecurity that continues to plague parts of the country after the war. So it is striking to see so many people -- young and old, Iraqis and foreigners -- making the dangerous journey to Karbala.

And it is far from easy to understand what inspires these people. On my own trip, I saw a woman carrying two children in her arms, old men in wheelchairs, a man on crutches, a blind boy holding a walking stick.

I met a 46-year-old man who had travelled all the way from Basra with his disabled son. The 12-year-old had cerebral palsy and could not walk unassisted. For most of the trip, the father put the boy's feet on top of his own and held him by the armpits as they walked. It is the kind of story out of which Oscar-winning films are made, but no Hollywood director or screenwriter dares venture into Iraq these days.

One image that never failed to grab my attention was the sight of thousands of tents, with makeshift kitchens and medical clinics set up by the local villagers who live around the pilgrims' path. The tents (called mawkeb, or "caravan") are the only places where pilgrims can find a space to rest from the exhausting journey.

More surprising were the people asking pilgrims to join them for food and drink. They intercept the pilgrims' paths to invite them, plead with them and eventually prevail on them to take a short break by the side of the road, without asking for payment. They would say: "Please honour us with your presence. Our masters, bless us by accepting our offerings."

Entire towns in Iraq seemed to shut down as millions converged on the holy city. One local tribal leader -- who, in keeping with Iraqi tribal traditions, bows to no one and is treated by his followers as a king -- was standing on the road, calling out through a loudspeaker: "Welcome, o pilgrims of Hussein. I'll kiss the soles of your shoes. May I be sacrificed for you!"

Sacrifice for truth

Just looking at the crowds leaves you breathless. What adds to the peculiarity of the phenomenon is that, as the security conditions get worse, even more people are motivated, it seems, to challenge the terrorist threats and march in defiance to Karbala.

When, days before Arba'een, a female suicide bomber blew herself up after inviting pilgrims to eat in her tent in Alexandria, 45 kilometres south of Baghdad, the crowds turned out in even greater numbers. They chanted in unison:

If they sever our legs and hands,                                                               
We shall crawl to the Holy Lands.                                                               

And it is not just peasants who take part in this multimillion-man march. There are doctors, engineers, teachers, academics, as well as wealthy entrepreneurs and leading politicians, all of whom participate in what is today one of the biggest annual mass demonstrations in the world. They journey from all over the globe -- Iran, India, Pakistan, Britain, Canada, the United States.

This year, the total number of pilgrims visiting Karbala for Arba'een is officially estimated to have reached ten million. Some say that as security improves in Iraq the figure may one day top 20 million.

Seeing the crowds and joining the procession of pilgrims, I was reminded of the questions that my Australian friend had asked himself when he witnessed the Arba'een procession of 2003: "Who is Hussein? And how does he continue to inspire so many people, over 13 centuries after his martyrdom?"

For Shias, Hussein is the ultimate moral exemplar: a man who refused to bow in the face of tyranny and despotism. Shias see his martyrdom as the greatest victory of good over evil, right over wrong, truth over falsehood. In the words of the Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal: "Imam Hussein uprooted despotism for ever till the Day of Resurrection. He watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, and indeed he awakened the sleeping Muslim nation . . . Hussein weltered in blood and dust for the sake of truth."

Holy of holies

But why would all these people walk for hundreds of miles to remember a painful event that took place over 13 centuries ago? Visitors to the shrine of Hussein and his brother Abbas in Karbala are not driven by emotion alone. They cry because they make a conscious decision to be reminded of the atrocious nature of the loss and, in doing so, they reaffirm their pledge to everything that is virtuous and holy.

The first thing that pilgrims do on facing his shrine is recite the Ziyara, a sacred text addressing Hussein with due respect for his status, position and lineage. In it, the Shia imams who followed him after the massacre in Karbala instruct their followers to begin the address by calling Hussein the "inheritor" and "heir" of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

There is something profound in making this proclamation. It shows that Hussein's message of truth and freedom is viewed as an inseparable extension of that list of divinely appointed prophets.

Pilgrims go to Karbala not to admire its physical beauty, or to shop, or to be entertained, or to visit ancient historical sites. They go there to cry. They go to mourn. They go to join the angels in their grief. They enter the sacred shrine weeping and lamenting.

It is as though every person has established a personal relationship with the Imam. They talk to him and call out his name; they grip the cage surrounding his tomb; they kiss the floor leading into the shrine; they touch its walls and doors in the way one touches the face of a long-lost friend. It is a picturesque vista, on epic proportions. What motivates these people is something that requires an understanding of the character and status of Imam Hussein and the spiritual relationship that Shias, and in particular Shia Iraqis, have developed with his living legend.

"Who is this Hussein"? For millions of Shia pilgrims, questions this profound, which can cause a man to relinquish his religion for another, can be answered only when you have marched to the shrine of Hussein for 14 days on foot. The verses of a Shia friend of mine sum it up:

The closer I get and when you I'll be seeing,                               
My emotions take control, with love I begin to shake.                              
I look at you now and my life has new meaning.                              
From you some painful beauty with me I must take.                              

O Karbala, I feel what you're feeling,                              
O land of loving sorrow, O land of heartbreak,                              
O land where my leader does rest,                              
Welcome me as a pilgrim, please make me your guest.                              

Sayed Mahdi Al-Modaressi is a Shia cleric and chief executive of Ahlulbayt Television Network.

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Welcome to feminism's new gross out frontier

This new movement normalises women by focusing on their bodies, warts and all.

Vaginas are so hot right now. If that sentence shocks you, then you’ve been out of the cultural loop. Thanks to a new wave of television and autobiographies by some very funny women, female privates have moved to the front and centre of popular entertainment.

Male bits, once the only game in town, are now chiefly of interest only as a sidebar to hilarious female riffs on misfiring, awkward and unsatisfactory sex, thanks to recent work by the likes of Lena Dunham, Britain’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer, actor and star of BBC series Fleabag), and now Amy Schumer, whose smash hit “femoir”, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, recently hit stores.

This is all part of a new movement – what I like to call “gross-out feminism”. It is gleeful, honest to a fault, and practised exclusively by women who long ago kissed goodbye to the capacity to be embarrassed. Its goal – apart from to make people laugh – is to provide a kind of shock therapy to those still harbouring the notion that women don’t have bodily functions, trapped gas, or insubordinate periods. Or that women must either be thin or desperately wishing they were so.

Gross-out feminism works by normalising women through focusing on their bodies: traditionally, the first and final frontier of femininity. It violently pushes all remaining cats out of the bag. Women have smelly, sometimes even extremely malodorous vaginas – Schumer’s smells like “chicken ramen”; “baby diaper” morning breath; explosive diarrhoea; acne. They sometimes fart during sex.

You’d be right if you noticed that this type of feminism doesn’t look like the iconic polemics of Shulamith Firestone, Naomi Wolf or Germaine Greer. It does not fit the sociological paradigm of Natasha Walter, Ariel Levy or Laurie Penny, all of whom have tackled a classic 20th century feminist subject – objectification – with political panache. And no, it’s not related either to the brainy fiction of Erica Jong or Marilyn French.

But gross-out feminism owes much to these. The classic texts of feminism laid down the parameters of the various struggles women engage in on a daily basis. One of these was the battle to be taken as full humans, complete with an independent sexuality. As far back as the 1790s, Mary Wollestonecraft raged against the reductive construction of doll-like femininity.

The new feminism builds on all this, but its toolbox is drawn not from an intellectual arena but rather from a peculiarly modern fascination with personal and especially sexual transparency. Honesty shall set us free: as sociologist Richard Sennett lamented, we moderns trade first and foremost in intimacies. But wrapped tightly in gut-busting hilarity, the relentless personal honesty of Schumer et al loses its potential for hollow narcissism and instead becomes powerful, adding vim to the traditional message to women to be strong and confident.

Schumer in particular paints an honest, if troubling picture of the impact of what Naomi Wolf so famously addressed in The Beauty Myth. Money, pain, time: a bewildering amount of these are required in order for most women to feel presentable, let alone attractive. Schumer nails this, but also admits to her own “beauty myth” victimhood.

Before a date she too waxes, straightens her hair, fasts, and tries to squeeze into Spanx so tight that they threaten to splice her guts in two. Schumer, then, is taking one for the team. She’s performing her truth so that we can exorcise our demons. The intriguing implication is that she, like Dunham and Fey, is an everywoman as well as herself. “I am myself,” in her words. “And I am all of you.”

A new sisterhood

Might this signal a reinvigoration of the idea of a universal “sisterhood” that since the 1970s has buckled under the weight of concerns about racial, ethnic and class difference? Perhaps so.

In her hit sitcom Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge does similar work to Schumer, if less autobiographical. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance, but when an attractive man calls in the middle of the night asking to come over, waking her up, she excruciatingly manufactures the appearance of having just come in from a night out. She throws off her pyjamas, pulls on her glad rags, a coat, and swigs some wine in preparation. She is soon speaking deadpan to the camera while being taken up the backside. Her sexual honesty is eminently relatable to by millennials, and tinged with sadness. Waller-Bridge’s genius is reading with jaded perfection the sexual proclivities of men half her intellect and beauty.

There are caveats, of course. Some might argue that bringing feminism back into the body merely reaffirms the idea that women are principally bodies rather than whole people. And putting sex front and centre emphasises a potentially one-dimensional representation of what it is to be human. Both of these objections are fair. But when it comes to mainstream, massively entertaining representations of women, gross-out feminism may finally be what has been missing all these years, showing once and for all that the “fair sex” is human in both body and spirit. Warts and all.

Zoe Strimpel is a doctoral researcher in history at the University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.