Muslim Women and Shrines in Shiraz

Anne H. Betteridge

Anne H. Betteridge, “Muslim Women and Shrines in Shiraz,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 183–94.

Anne H. Betteridge taught anthropology at Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran. She graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College, received her M.A. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and was at the time of the symposium a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago with a dissertation topic on ziarat (pilgrimage) in an Iranian city. Professor Betteridge’s research was conducted in Shiraz, Iran, with the objective of understanding the nature of the relationship between man and God in Shi’i Islam.

Muslim women in Shiraz, Iran, [1] are more likely to enter upon local pilgrimage (ziarat) than are men. In writing about pilgrimage in Shiraz, I at first regarded this fact as rather unimportant, meriting only brief mention and cursory explanation. However, in the course of piecing together the relationship between women and ziarat, I began to realize that the relationship is significant and fundamental to understanding local pilgrimage as I observed it in Iran.

The nature of the association of women with pilgrimage is twofold. First, on a social or behavioral level, women make pilgrimage to local shrines more often than men. Doing so enriches their lives both spiritually and socially. Second, women’s local pilgrimages have a cultural aspect which touches the realm of belief and assumptions about the way the world is constituted. Because local pilgrimage is regarded as basically female in character, it is a ritual practice simultaneously suspect and beloved, not totally orthodox but to which many Iranians have a deep-rooted emotional attachment.

Shiraz is located in southwestern Iran; at the time of my residence there the population numbered just over 400,000. The character of religious observances in Shiraz, including local pilgrimage, is colored by the fact that most Iranians adhere to the Shi’i sect of Islam [2] and revere the Shi’i imams, a series of men regarded as the rightful leaders of the Islamic community after the death of the prophet Muhammad. The majority of Shi’a recognize a succession of twelve imams, and the people of Shiraz are no exception to this rule. Most of the shrines located in the city are the tombs of men and women supposed to be the descendants of the Shi’i imams. These descendants of the imams, or imamzadehs, are respected for their nearness to God by virtue of their descent and their great piety. On account of their privileged position, these saints are often appealed to by Shirazis who are in need of assistance, both material and spiritual. Men and women visit the shrines seeking cures, help with personal and family problems, and forgiveness of sins.

Men tend to frequent larger, more important shrines which are considered legitimate from a formal religious point of view. Women predominate at small, back-street shrines, often ramshackle sanctuaries of doubtful antecedents, mocked by men.

The extent of a woman’s participation in and devotion to pilgrimage activity depends on a number of factors. The degree of her religious orthodoxy is important; those with strict backgrounds and orthodox education may regard the practice as a distortion of religion based on ignorance or misunderstanding. Others with a more strictly businesslike or scientific outlook may see it either as a diversion for women who don’t know better or simply as a waste of time. A woman’s age and stage of life also influence her ability to spend time visiting shrines. It is difficult for those with extensive responsibilities for young children or meal preparation to get away as often as they might like. Class membership alone appears to be less relevant; women tend to show fewer status-group differences in religious behavior than do men. [3] At the shrines one sees well-to-do women as well as those with tattered veils. The expense of their vows and the status of the shrines they visit may vary, but the women are differentiated more by dress and wealth than by the degree of their attachment to pilgrimage.

One of the attractions of visiting local shrines is that it is not a formal, highly structured religious activity. Muslim women’s participation in formal religious activities is to some extent circumscribed by rules pertaining to their sex. A woman may not pray, enter a mosque, or touch a line of the Qur’an while menstruating. For young mothers the care of children and household duties make attendance at the mosque difficult. Should women, usually older or childless, go to the mosque, it is often very hard for them to become deeply involved in the services. There women are physically separated from the men, who sit in the central part of the mosque in front of the speaker. The women may, for example, be on a high balcony at the rear of the hall or seated in a side section of the mosque, often marked off by a curtain. In either case, it is none too easy to see the speaker or hear clearly, especially if the sound is piped to the women’s section by a faulty loudspeaker. The occasional presence of children in the women’s area and the social atmosphere which may prevail can also affect the seriousness of women’s attendance.

Interested in hearing a sermon, I went to the mosque one evening and was directed to a balcony over the courtyard where the men were gathered at the feet of the speaker, who was already seated on the minbar (stepped pulpit). The women around me were chatting, cracking the shells of seeds, and arranging themselves comfortably with a good view. I felt as though I were at a movie house rather than at a serious religious gathering. Needless to say, I was not able to attend to the sermon in detail. This is not to suggest that I agree with the view men sometimes state that women are constitutionally unable to involve themselves in the serious business of Islam. It is simply that the formal, public setting of the mosque, even when a woman is able to attend, works against her involvement.

Rather than attempt to integrate themselves into the male pattern of religious behavior, where they are often assigned the role of spectators and kept on the ceremonial sidelines, women have become very much involved in their own forms of religious activity, which give them greater scope for religious expression and allow them full ritual participation. Among these activities are the preparation and serving of ritual meals, sermons recited by and for women, classes conducted especially for women and girls, and pilgrimage to local shrines. On these occasions women are not relegated to peripheral positions and passive roles.

In contrast to the mosques, the structure of shrines and the way in which they are used encourage informal religious activity and allow women more freedom of movement. Particularly during those times of day when men are at work, local shrines become women’s territory-popular places to gather and perform their religious activities ranging from prayer to Qur’an-reading classes.

Saturday evening is set aside as the time for visits to Qadamgah, a very popular shrine in Shiraz. At that time a great deal goes on within the shrine building and in its courtyard. Inside women circumambulate the glass case which marks the footprint of ‘Abbas, half-brother of the third Shi’i imam Husayn. Off to the side a group of women may be praying, while others are seated on the floor playing with children and exchanging news. A few women may prefer to sit alone and weep. Some listen to a sermon which they have paid a blind man to recite for them. Outside in the courtyard people are seated on the ground eating, drinking tea, and sharing a sweet, halva, which they have made in fulfillment of vows.

On one Saturday night when I was seated inside the shrine, two young men entered the building to pay their respects. As they went straight to the glass case, and encircled it, they were the object of intense and decidedly unfriendly scrutiny by the assembled women. The young men soon became uncomfortable, no doubt aware that they, apart from a blind man and the shrine employee, were the only men present. They left abruptly. I was later told by an old man who works at the shrine that men visit it on Fridays when they are not at work.

Even at those times when men are also present at a shrine, women are not cut off from participation in that which is taking place at the sanctuary. In larger shrines, separate rooms, alcoves, or large areas to one side of the entrance or tomb become women’s areas as a result of popular usage. There they can enjoy nearness to the tomb and the company of other women without compromising themselves by coming too close to the men who are also paying their respects to the saint.

There is usually no formal central activity, such as a sermon, from which women can be excluded. Activities at a shrine are more a matter of personal choice than group involvement. Women freely circumambulate the tomb [4] and register their requests with the saints; they may also pray, sit a while with friends, or nap if they choose.

There are many reasons for women to be fond of visiting shrines. The opportunity to get out of the house is not least among them. An older woman, not able to get about as easily as she used to, envied me the time I spent visiting shrines in the city. As she put it, “You see something. You say something.” In making local pilgrimages, women are able to escape their household tasks and domestic responsibilities for a time and come into contact with new people and situations. While men have varied experience of people in the course of their workday lives, women come into contact with such variety only on outings, such as shopping, visiting, and pilgrimage. Shopping is an end-oriented activity and one in which men often assume an important role. Too much visiting would compromise a woman’s reputation; suggesting that she was not seeing to her duties at home, but visiting shrines is a praiseworthy religious act and one which the men of the house or other women would find hard to oppose.

Still, shrine visiting is not viewed uncritically by all men and women. The relative freedom with which women may visit shrines has led to their being viewed as places of assignation. Shrines may be the sites of innocent flirtations or more questionable encounters. I was told, although I was unable to verify the report, that at major shrines such as the tomb of the eighth imam, Reza, in Masshad or that of his sister Ma’sumeh in Qum, a woman may indicate that she is available by wearing her veil (chador) inside out. Author Ibrahim Golestan has described illicit goings-on at a shrine in his short story, Sefar-e ‘Esmat (Esmat’s Trip). In this story a destitute woman visits a shrine and is approached by a low-level clergyman, who as it turns out is actually a thinly veiled pimp recruiting women. It is sometimes said that the possibility of temporary marriage (sigheh) in Shi’i Islam has been exploited to facilitate this kind of relationship. However, these doubts about pilgrimage tend to surface in jokes and offhand remarks. I never encountered a woman who had been prevented from frequenting a shrine because of suspicions regarding her motives.

Apart from the obvious opportunity to get out of the house, women go to shrines for a number of different types of activities—religious, social, and personal. Regularly scheduled events like Qur’an-reading classes, prayer sessions, and particular visits are frequently arranged exclusively for women. Women and girls are welcome to take part in others. At these times, women know that programs of religious interest will occur and that a particular shrine will be crowded. The women gathered there are likely to include friends, all contributing to a convivial and supportive atmosphere. The women who visit the shrine share their faith and their sympathy. For example, on one visit to a small underground shrine I met an elderly woman who recounted to each woman at the shrine in turn the story of her son’s automobile accident. Her son was at that moment in the hospital. In each instance, the women comforted her and assured her that her son would be fine, giving her the solace and encouragement she so much needed at the time.

Other pilgrimages occur as a woman chooses and not according to any specific schedule. A woman may prefer to avoid busy days and instead go to a shrine at a time when she knows it will be quiet, facilitating private prayer and communion with the saint. The immaterial benefits of pilgrimage were described to me in various ways. One woman told me that she enjoys ziarat because it is soothing, another described the experience as “heart-opening,” and a third assured me that my heart would be enlightened by taking part in pilgrimage.

Anyone having a problem—emotional, spiritual or material—may take it to a saint in the hope of achieving some solution. The saints are felt to sympathize with men and women whose situations in some way parallel their own in life. Accordingly, women in Shiraz are able to find a sympathetic ear when appealing to female saints. Two shrines in Shiraz specialize in bringing about marriages, and at both the saint in residence was in life an unmarried woman. At another shrine it is said that the pregnant wife of its saint is also entombed there. Not surprisingly, the saint himself is inclined to assist women hoping for an easy childbirth and the birth of a son.

If a woman finds a particular imamzadeh to be helpful, she may continue to seek help at his or her tomb. The relationship established between the woman and the saint may last a lifetime and prove very comforting to her in times of need. She knows that there will always be someone to whom she can appeal.

The relationship individuals have with the imamzadehs is intensely personal, and one of its strengths lies in this quality. On one occasion I was surprised to find a woman shaking the grating around the tomb of Imamzadeh-ye Ibrahim, demanding his help. She threatened that if he failed, she would inform his father, the seventh imam. I subsequently learned that the pattern of alternately imploring and haranguing is very common and that people often have personal conversations with the saints and address letters to them.

Clearly one attractive element in local pilgrimage is the fact that pilgrims can make requests of the imamzadehs. The way in which the process of asking for and potentially receiving favors proceeds is also important, which as Fatima Mernissi has pointed out, is particularly appealing to women. [5] In making vows at the shrines, women are able to take charge over some aspect of their lives and attempt to bring control into their own hands. A doctor must be paid for his services regardless of success, but a saint is recompensed only in the event that he or she proves to be of help. This is especially important to women who, for one reason or another, be it social, economic, or political, are unable to exert much control in their everyday lives. Even for those strong women who conduct their daily affairs as they wish, there are always discrete events which do not yield to conventional means of redress and on account of which women may seek divine aid. Difficult in-laws, barrenness, the desire for a son, or problems with a husband all may prompt visits to shrines.

The performance of local pilgrimage, then, has much to offer women. On a religious level, it allows them to play a central role in ritual; on a social level, it provides women with an opportunity to visit with one another in an approved setting; and on a personal level, it offers women a place in which to experience contact with divinity and attempt to control their lives in ways meaningful to them as individuals in their own right.

Discussions with men in Shiraz suggested a basic connection between beliefs about women and the character of local pilgrimage. In general, men tended to make disparaging remarks about women’s participation in pilgrimage activity. They attributed the amount of time women were able to spend visiting shrines as due to women’s leisure, unburdened by men’s important tasks. This opinion is related to the general understanding of the nature of women I encountered in Shiraz. On numerous occasions I was told that women are emotional creatures, easily swayed by sentiment and inclined to be irrational. Men were described as serious, likely to reason clearly, immune to emotional concerns. In support of this stereotypical view, I was referred to passages in the Qur’an concerning women (4:34) and reminded that a woman cannot act as a legal witness (2:282). Two women can serve as one witness, I was told, because two would correct the emotionally colored report provided by only one. I found that women generally accepted this view of their nature, some feeling that the weaknesses were inevitable, others regarding them as tendencies which could be surmounted.

These beliefs are related to views of women’s religious behavior. Most men I consulted felt that women place too much emphasis on the social aspects of religious gatherings and are less well-educated about Islam in general. Considering the pleasure women derive from the social atmosphere sometimes present at shrines and the fact that they find attendance at the mosque so problematic, these criticisms are not entirely without foundation. However, women’s religious activities may be viewed in other, more flattering lights. Women who live opposite the shrine of Seyyed Fakhr al-Din in the south of Shiraz agreed that women make local pilgrimages oftener than men (although men could do it too) but felt that, since women have more time for these activities, they develop more faith by doing them.

A more penetrating explanation of women’s involvement in pilgrimage was implied by a young man who worked at a local handicrafts shop. He had made a vow to a popular local saint but had not gone to the saint’s tomb at a local shrine to do so. When I questioned further, he first voiced the same scorn as other men had: “Women everywhere devote more time to practices such as ziarat than men; women are more idle than men.” Then he added a revealing example: If he has a request for a saint, he may send his wife to the shrine to make it for him. She has the time to go, but also “women are without pride.” Men have pride and do not like to publicly display weakness or need.

It is in keeping with the view of women as more emotional and less rational than men that women perform ziarat to local shrines in behalf of their family members. In doing so they discharge part of their responsibility for the health and well-being of their relatives. This is not to suggest that men are not interested in local pilgrimage or in making vows, just that they express their religiousness in different ways.

The young man’s remarks also suggest that much of the behavior that occurs at a shrine, such as expressing deep emotion and stating one’s needs and perhaps shortcomings publicly, is not in keeping with notions of manliness. In effect, much of what takes place at a shrine involves a female mode of behavior, regardless of whether the pilgrim is a man or a woman. It is these “female” aspects of the pilgrimage which are often called into question. In the course of a discussion I had with men at a religious bookstore in Shiraz, the man behind the counter recommended a book to me: Ziarat: Truth or Superstition? The title indicates the crux of the problem. Men and some women formally educated in religion are ill at ease with the practice, while many other women are devoted to it. There is no definite proscription of the practice, and some traditions (hadith) support and encourage it. Paying one’s respects at a grave site is laudable, but the way in which it is done during the performance of local pilgrimage is regarded by many as questionable.

In making pilgrimage to local shrines, men and women have the opportunity to argue with their “betters” and, within limits, to challenge the given order of things. They are also able to express their feelings in ways that are otherwise inappropriate. In so doing they are able to shape their ritual practice to their own requirements.

The pattern of challenge, harangue, expression of deep emotion and voluntarism in ritual is foreign to the mosque. The opposition between the shrine and mosque is described by Brian Spooner in connection with his descriptions of the religion of the shrine and the official religion, which “contains rules of ritual prayers, fasting, celebration, mourning and general conduct, which concern the will rather than the heart.” [6] He identifies the first of these two strains of religion in Iran as unconscious, while the official religion is the conscious religion. [7] I suggest that this opposition is at base a description of the difference between female and male modes elaborated in a religious context.

It is not surprising that funeral observances in which women are involved are more likely to take place within the home or in a shrine than in a mosque. It is not a time for dry observance of the passing of a fellow human being and loved one but a time to rage and lament, in so doing accentuating the sense of one’s own life, and this is inappropriate in the formal setting of a mosque.

The way in which shrine space is used at a funeral reflects differences in the styles of interaction between men and women, patterns reflected in overall religious behavior. Men’s style tends to be restrained and formal. They sit on folding chairs in the shrine courtyard, facing the officiating priest. They look down, their hands held over their eyes. At times they sob quietly or perhaps engage in muted conversation with the men seated in adjacent chairs. Tea is placed on small tables between the folding chairs. The atmosphere is highly formal and subdued; and spaces are clearly defined in keeping with the nature of official religion as Spooner describes it.

In contrast, women in a shrine funeral sit on the floor inside the wall and perhaps around the central tomb. At one end of the room, backs against the wall, sit the grieving women of the deceased one’s family. Women attending the funeral first approach them, pay their respects, and extend condolences, perhaps sitting with the bereaved women for a time and weeping with them. Then the women move back as others come to take their place in the “receiving line.” As the guests move outward through the rows of seated women, the tone of the gathering becomes less somber until, in the outer circles, women are busily gossiping, catching up on the news of those more distant relatives and friends whom they see only on such formal occasions. All the while the seated women enjoy the tea and ice cream or sherbet that is served to the guests. The intimacy which prevails at women’s gatherings is both physical, enforced by the pressure of bodies against one another as women plop down on the crowded floor, and social, as women exchange information and embraces and discuss their personal problems, aches, and pains. Just as the men’s behavior suits the character of the “official religion,” so do women behave in a way more consonant with the “religion of the shrine.”

The fact that women are associated with local pilgrimage in Iran is neither accidental nor incidental. Men are associated with the mosque, religious texts, reasoned theological discussions, formal ritual assemblies—in short, with intellectual aspects of religion. Women’s association with local pilgrimage points out that it is bound up with things of the heart, the troubling aspect of life which questions, unsettles, and answers obliquely. Women in Muslim Iran are regarded as frivolous, emotional, irrational, and at times dangerous; the things with which they are associated are consequently dismissed as either inconsequential or at times downright suspect. Even women’s dreams are described in Persian as chap (unreliable, off the mark), literally, “left.” [8]

Women are ritually polluted with the messy business of menstruation and childbirth, but these polluting elements are paradoxically life-giving. Similarly, local pilgrimage is disorderly and informal, but what goes on at the local shrines energizes religion. Ziarat gives scope to the personal and difficult aspects of life and allows both men and especially women to express their emotional sides—to grieve and wail in an approved setting and to celebrate joyously with others.


[1] The information on which this paper is based was gathered during four years in Shiraz, two years of full-time research and two subsequent years of residence in the city, from early 1975 into January of 1979.

[2] For further information on Shi’i Islam, see Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975).

[3] See Mary-Jo Del Vecchio Good, “A Comparative Perspective on Women in Provincial Iran and Turkey,” in 1. Beck and N. Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 482–500.

[4] I was advised that, to avoid pressing against men performing the same action, women should hold back and not circumambulate the tomb when a shrine is crowded. In this instance, as so many others, ideal prescriptions and actual behavior often differ markedly.

[5] Fatima Mernissi, “Women, Saints and Sanctuaries,” Signs 3 (autumn 1977): 104.

[6] Brian J. Spooner, “The Function of Religion in Persian Society,” Iran 1 (1963): 93. See also his later article, “Religion and Society Today: An Anthropological Perspective,” in E. Yar-Shater, ed., Iran Faces the Seventies (New York: Praeger, 1979), 166–88.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] For further information on the negative meaning attached to the left in Islam, see J. M. Chelhod, “Pre-eminence of the Right, Based upon Arabic Evidence,” in Rodney Needham, ed., Right & Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 239–62.