Look past the blood-soaked men, meet the women and kids of Ashura

Published October 22nd, 2015 - 17:46 GMT

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Warning: some of these images may be distressing for viewers. Tomorrow, millions of Muslims will celebrate Ashura, an important holy day that marks the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), in the year 680 at Karbala in modern-day Iraq; and the day Noah left the Ark. Every year the holiday spawns shocking images of blood and gore, self-inflicted wounds on a communal scale. Did you know it's not only men who take part? Continue reading below »

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On Ashura, babies are dressed to commemorate young Hussein. Families gather to watch reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, and some make pilgrimages to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala that is regarded as Hussein’s tomb. As with Mecca and Medina, this site is closed to non-Muslims.
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Image 1 of 9:  1 / 9On Ashura, babies are dressed to commemorate young Hussein. Families gather to watch reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, and some make pilgrimages to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala that is regarded as Hussein’s tomb. As with Mecca and Medina, this site is closed to non-Muslims.

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Some parents slice the tender foreheads of their small children, causing profuse bleeding with dramatic symbolism but with little real physical harm (though we can't speak for psychological damage).
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Image 2 of 9:  2 / 9Some parents slice the tender foreheads of their small children, causing profuse bleeding with dramatic symbolism but with little real physical harm (though we can't speak for psychological damage).

Enlarge
According to Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Morocco's Chouaib Doukkali University, Ashura bonfires are lit by young men in the presence of girls, adults of both sexes and little children. While boys circumambulate the flames, girls sing what Moroccans call “the Songs of Baba Aishur.”
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Image 3 of 9:  3 / 9According to Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Morocco's Chouaib Doukkali University, Ashura bonfires are lit by young men in the presence of girls, adults of both sexes and little children. While boys circumambulate the flames, girls sing what Moroccans call “the Songs of Baba Aishur.”

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Does dousing bonfires with magical potions harm nearby children? His field studies observed women tossing herbs into the fires, casting spells and dispelling others' magic. Others prefer to burn their spells indoors using small braziers, as they believe outdoor magic can harm innocent kids.
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Image 4 of 9:  4 / 9Does dousing bonfires with magical potions harm nearby children? His field studies observed women tossing herbs into the fires, casting spells and dispelling others' magic. Others prefer to burn their spells indoors using small braziers, as they believe outdoor magic can harm innocent kids.

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Maarouf's studies found that Ashura carnivals are mainly performed by rural females who belong to uneducated, poor, urban societies. Educated women from modern-middle-class urban families typically do not  participate in the holy day's ritual parades, chanting or covering their clothes and faces in mud.
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Image 5 of 9:  5 / 9Maarouf's studies found that Ashura carnivals are mainly performed by rural females who belong to uneducated, poor, urban societies. Educated women from modern-middle-class urban families typically do not participate in the holy day's ritual parades, chanting or covering their clothes and faces in mud.

Enlarge
Many believe that, on Ashura, all wells and springs flow from the sacred Meccan well, Zemzem. Before dawn, women head to wells to collect water to splash on one another, a purifying ritual that extends to ceremonial bathing in rivers and in the sea.
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Image 6 of 9:  6 / 9Many believe that, on Ashura, all wells and springs flow from the sacred Meccan well, Zemzem. Before dawn, women head to wells to collect water to splash on one another, a purifying ritual that extends to ceremonial bathing in rivers and in the sea.

Enlarge
There are many other examples of Ashura purification rituals. In the Doukkala region of Morocco, girls hollow out dates, fill them with strands of their hair, and then march in a procession chanting and beating drums before burying the dates in a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility.
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Image 7 of 9:  7 / 9There are many other examples of Ashura purification rituals. In the Doukkala region of Morocco, girls hollow out dates, fill them with strands of their hair, and then march in a procession chanting and beating drums before burying the dates in a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility.

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On Ashura, women feel free to violate patriarchal norms. They chant songs that challenge and deride male power. A verse common across Morocco says, “Baba Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule”, meaning Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity.
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Image 8 of 9:  8 / 9On Ashura, women feel free to violate patriarchal norms. They chant songs that challenge and deride male power. A verse common across Morocco says, “Baba Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule”, meaning Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity.

Enlarge
Renewed interest in magic during Ashura links to belief that charms used now last until next Ashura. In rural areas, it's thought that yarn spun before Ashura fires from wool taken from Eid sacrifices brings good fortune to the spinner. Men may star in Ashura's goriest photos, but the hidden role of women and children is as provocative.
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Image 9 of 9:  9 / 9Renewed interest in magic during Ashura links to belief that charms used now last until next Ashura. In rural areas, it's thought that yarn spun before Ashura fires from wool taken from Eid sacrifices brings good fortune to the spinner. Men may star in Ashura's goriest photos, but the hidden role of women and children is as provocative.

Enlarge

1

On Ashura, babies are dressed to commemorate young Hussein. Families gather to watch reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, and some make pilgrimages to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala that is regarded as Hussein’s tomb. As with Mecca and Medina, this site is closed to non-Muslims.

Image 1 of 9On Ashura, babies are dressed to commemorate young Hussein. Families gather to watch reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, and some make pilgrimages to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala that is regarded as Hussein’s tomb. As with Mecca and Medina, this site is closed to non-Muslims.

2

Some parents slice the tender foreheads of their small children, causing profuse bleeding with dramatic symbolism but with little real physical harm (though we can't speak for psychological damage).

Image 2 of 9Some parents slice the tender foreheads of their small children, causing profuse bleeding with dramatic symbolism but with little real physical harm (though we can't speak for psychological damage).

3

According to Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Morocco's Chouaib Doukkali University, Ashura bonfires are lit by young men in the presence of girls, adults of both sexes and little children. While boys circumambulate the flames, girls sing what Moroccans call “the Songs of Baba Aishur.”

Image 3 of 9According to Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Morocco's Chouaib Doukkali University, Ashura bonfires are lit by young men in the presence of girls, adults of both sexes and little children. While boys circumambulate the flames, girls sing what Moroccans call “the Songs of Baba Aishur.”

4

Does dousing bonfires with magical potions harm nearby children? His field studies observed women tossing herbs into the fires, casting spells and dispelling others' magic. Others prefer to burn their spells indoors using small braziers, as they believe outdoor magic can harm innocent kids.

Image 4 of 9Does dousing bonfires with magical potions harm nearby children? His field studies observed women tossing herbs into the fires, casting spells and dispelling others' magic. Others prefer to burn their spells indoors using small braziers, as they believe outdoor magic can harm innocent kids.

5

Maarouf's studies found that Ashura carnivals are mainly performed by rural females who belong to uneducated, poor, urban societies. Educated women from modern-middle-class urban families typically do not  participate in the holy day's ritual parades, chanting or covering their clothes and faces in mud.

Image 5 of 9Maarouf's studies found that Ashura carnivals are mainly performed by rural females who belong to uneducated, poor, urban societies. Educated women from modern-middle-class urban families typically do not participate in the holy day's ritual parades, chanting or covering their clothes and faces in mud.

6

Many believe that, on Ashura, all wells and springs flow from the sacred Meccan well, Zemzem. Before dawn, women head to wells to collect water to splash on one another, a purifying ritual that extends to ceremonial bathing in rivers and in the sea.

Image 6 of 9Many believe that, on Ashura, all wells and springs flow from the sacred Meccan well, Zemzem. Before dawn, women head to wells to collect water to splash on one another, a purifying ritual that extends to ceremonial bathing in rivers and in the sea.

7

There are many other examples of Ashura purification rituals. In the Doukkala region of Morocco, girls hollow out dates, fill them with strands of their hair, and then march in a procession chanting and beating drums before burying the dates in a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility.

Image 7 of 9There are many other examples of Ashura purification rituals. In the Doukkala region of Morocco, girls hollow out dates, fill them with strands of their hair, and then march in a procession chanting and beating drums before burying the dates in a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility.

8

On Ashura, women feel free to violate patriarchal norms. They chant songs that challenge and deride male power. A verse common across Morocco says, “Baba Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule”, meaning Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity.

Image 8 of 9On Ashura, women feel free to violate patriarchal norms. They chant songs that challenge and deride male power. A verse common across Morocco says, “Baba Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule”, meaning Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity.

9

Renewed interest in magic during Ashura links to belief that charms used now last until next Ashura. In rural areas, it's thought that yarn spun before Ashura fires from wool taken from Eid sacrifices brings good fortune to the spinner. Men may star in Ashura's goriest photos, but the hidden role of women and children is as provocative.

Image 9 of 9Renewed interest in magic during Ashura links to belief that charms used now last until next Ashura. In rural areas, it's thought that yarn spun before Ashura fires from wool taken from Eid sacrifices brings good fortune to the spinner. Men may star in Ashura's goriest photos, but the hidden role of women and children is as provocative.

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Ashura is observed worldwide for different reasons and in different ways. Sunnis consider it as a day of atonement. For Shiites, the day commemorates the Hussein's martyrdom. It always incites a carnival-like atmosphere with testosterone-charged rituals of bonfires, self-flagellation, and mud-throwing.   

Take a look at some of the important roles women and children play in the holy day.

 

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