Recently, Muslim women in South Africa were expressing outrage. They were saying, ‘We want to pray in mosques, too,’ and were questioning religious patriarchy and inequality practised at the Durban and Johannesburg mosques. Keeping the Sabarimala issue in mind – where temple authorities continue to deny entry to women of menstruating age – we are learning that almost all organised religions have had a hand in marginalising women and imposing gender bias, on the premise that the female gender is inferior and weak.
Jalaluddin Rumi in the Mathnawi says, “Woman is a ray of God. She is not just the earthly beloved; she is creative, not created.” And Zaynab is the perfect example of women exploding the stereotypical image.
A Sufi mystic, with her ingenuity and fearlessness, thwarted gender stereotyping in colonial times. Lalla Zaynab, an Algerian Sufi intellectual from the Rahmanya order, was born in 1850. She had an excellent scriptural knowledge and lived with her father Muhammad ibn Abi al-Qasim – who was known as Shaykh – in the zawiya (Islamic monastery/ religious school) of El Halem. She inherited the Baraka, a spiritual force, and the zawiya from him.
For local French authorities, a woman running the Sufi lodge was unacceptable. They saw her as a threat to their authority and were paranoid about any politically active Sufi brotherhood as a threat to the French empire.
The French tried to appoint Sidi Mohamed, the Shaykh’s nephew, to lead the zawiya. Well versed in the French language and faithful to French interests, Mohamed was an important pawn for the French authorities. Captain Crochard came up with a letter that he said was given to him by the Shaykh, confirming Mohamed as successor. But, Mohamed, excited to take over the wealth and power after the death of the Shaykh, had to deal with the iron-willed lady, Zaynab, who rejected Mohamed’s spiritual and moral authority. Despite Mohamed’s threats to lock her up in the harem, she gained immense support from her followers who rose against him. All doubts were quashed when a voice apparition from her father announced that Zaynab was the rightful heir as all healing and supernatural powers were transferred to her.
In order to counterattack Crochard and being aware that she won’t be able to outlive military coercion, she pressed charges against Crochard and used French colonial laws against him. The Sufi mystic drew attention to the military administration’s failures and accused them of misogyny and of disrespecting the indigenous peoples.
Zaynab’s judicial case was brought before Jules Cambon, governor-general of Algeria. Jules who had a keen inclination towards Sufism later instructed to relinquish all military intervention against the El Hamel Zawiya.
Imbibing the role of a healer, pious ascetic as well as political leader, Zaynab demonstrated how women with their numerous avatars can easily transform themselves from a calm ocean to a thunderous storm. Her vision for tackling the French authorities was progressive and ahead of her time. With her defiance, authority and wisdom, she successfully saved the monastery and chose the pen instead of the sword. The erudite scholar ran the zawiya for many years and became an esteemed figure.
Today when there is much talk of women’s empowerment, why do we still have to ban their entry to religious places? Women are a storehouse of power. It is time to use that power to bring about social transformation and transition.