Adapted from: Islamic Insights. By: Aliyyah Rizvi-Bokhari
The women present at the Battle of Ashura in Karbala, Iraq, in 61 AH were entrusted with a special mission: to keep Imam Hussain's (peace be upon him) message alive. Under the guidance of Imam Zainul Abideen and the leadership of Lady Zainab (peace be upon them), the women were to spread the message of Imam Hussain's sacrifice even while they went through huge ordeals and sorrows. Their grief at the murder of the Imam was a vehicle of change, and cannot be separated from their accomplishment of the mission.
Without the presence of the families of Imam Hussain and his companions, the Imam's sacrifices would have been laid to waste when it came to challenging corruption, as the Muslims would not have woken from their slumber of indifference. The Imam and his supporters had fought in self-defense in the desert, sacrificing their lives to save the spirit of Islam, rather than give in to the corrupt rule of the tyrant Yazid. Before he died, Imam Hussain gave his sister Lady Zainab the heavy mission of spreading the message of truth to the greater public. It was to a woman that this savior of Islam left the rest of his mission, under the guidance of his successor Imam Zainul Abideen.
Imam Zainul Abideen, Lady Zainab, Lady Umme Kulthoom, and the other women carried out the task of spreading news at the grimmest time of their lives, when their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons had just been killed as they protected Imam Hussain. In the end they saw the Imam himself ruthlessly killed. Then, the ladies' tents were set on fire, their veils were ripped away, and they were put in chains. Made to walk through the desert, the ladies and children were paraded through Kufa and Damascus by Yazid's army.
Such was the women's self-control that, despite having gone through such ordeals, they remained focused on their mission of propagating the truth. The women were in sorrow because of the events that had transpired, but let it not be assumed that their grieving was a hindrance to their mission.
The women of Karbala mourned with legitimate reason for Imam Hussain's murder, and that mourning led to purposeful action. These women were entrusted with a precious mission, and without them, the lives of the men would have been lost in vain if the Muslim community at large did not wake up. Not only did the women mourn, the Fourth Imam mourned also. They all had sadness and they all had anger, but they channeled those emotions into their words and actions for a purpose.
The community was in need of reform, and only Imam Hussain's sacrifice could awaken it to its negligence of the true principles of Islam. In a time without today's media resources, it turned out that the speeches of the women of Karbala were the only way correct news could be spread of that sacrifice. They showed the public reasons for opposing Yazid, who had murdered the grandson of the Prophet, and they showed that a return to the true Islam was required. Imam Hussain was victorious in his mission, but the victory was surrounded in sorrow. From before Ashura even took place, prophets, the Infallibles, and even the angel Gabriel mourned how this grandson of Prophet Muhammad would be killed. Truth always wins over falsehood, but that victory does not make what transpired at the hands of Yazid any less horrendous.
When the women and children were being paraded as prisoners through the cities, the government's purpose was to hold them up as an example to those who would dare oppose Yazid. They were meant to be a warning to others of the humiliation and punishment that would be meted out to resistors. But Yazid's purpose was thwarted. The Fourth Imam, Lady Zainab, and the group of women used their trials and tribulations to awaken the Muslim community from its indifference to evil and matters of leadership.
When Lady Zainab gave powerful speeches in the streets about Ashura, her words also shook people to the core. When she spoke, she had the eloquence and fire of words that her father had had.
In the way Lady Zainab had been called the "Beauty of her Father", Lady Fatima had been known as the "Mother of her Father". They were both truly daughters of their fathers in spirit as well as blood. They both knew when to stay quiet and when to speak out, according to the wishes of their Imams. They both gave fiery speeches while trying to preserve their modesty, and they both did so while having recently suffered personal family losses, because their Imams' rights and their rights had been trampled upon. They grieved, legitimately, while still standing up for the truth. Mourning and action went hand-in-hand.
City streets had been decorated to celebrate Yazid's so-called victory, but the public ended up crying with horror instead of rejoicing when Lady Zainab spoke, because they learned what really took place on Ashura.
When the public saw the Fourth Imam, ladies, and children as prisoners, learned of their identity, and heard their words, those who had been ignorant of the truth realized that Yazid had falsely portrayed Imam Hussain to them as an enemy of Islam. Seeing the grief and hearing the words of the families, the people came to know the truth.
Seeing the children, wives, and mothers were being mistreated like this, being made to go through the streets in horrible conditions, the public was left with no doubt that Yazid was making a deliberate personal attack on Imam Hussain. The harsh way the prisoners were being treated served to underscore the ladies' and children's claim of being on the side of Truth.
If the ladies had not been there, Yazid's men would have narrated their own version of events. Politicians would have twisted the story as they wished to make Yazid out as a hero, but with the women present and speaking the truth, there was living proof of Imam Hussain's message and his martyrdom. These women were the shield of Islam, who informed the listeners that the martyrs were from the Household of the Prophet and that the current regime was oppressive and full of lies.
The tragic events of Karbala were publicized so widely and effectively in such a short span of time that it caused a reversal of public feeling towards Yazid. With eloquent speeches and narrations of the sad events to the people, the women of Karbala revealed the truth. No other method would have worked as well.
Lady Zainab was mourning Imam Hussain both as her Imam and as her brother. What control and fortitude she displayed on Ashura and afterwards! The patience she demonstrated did not mean she was not grieved. In fact, she spent the rest of her life in continuous mourning, remembering Imam Hussain. Her grief did not fade away with time. And neither has her message.
Aside from the ladies of the Imam's household itself, there were many other women who played important roles at Karbala. These were the wives and daughters of Imam Hussain's companions.
When her husband Abdullah son of Umayr Kalbi told her that he was going to leave Kufa to defend the grandson of the Holy Prophet, Lady Umme Wahab told him, "It is an excellent idea. May Allah guide you in all circumstances. Please take me with you too."
Umme Wahab was watching Abdullah from the families' tents when he was fighting on the day of the battle at Karbala. She became so concerned for the Imam's safety and had such devotion to him that, even though she had no weapon and no way to fight, she grabbed a stick and came to the battlefield. She told Abdullah, "May my parents be your ransom, sacrifice your life for the sake of the children of the Holy Prophet."
Imam Hussain then said to her, "May Allah bless you with His best rewards, return towards the women and remain with them, may Allah bless you, women aren't supposed to fight in the war." She returned to the tents. With his wife's moral support, Abdullah was able to protect the Imam and became the second martyr of Karbala on the day of Ashura. When he died, Umme Wahab went to her husband's body on the battlefield, and wiping the dirt from his cheeks she said, "May paradise of Allah be pleasant for you! I ask Allah, who bestowed upon you Paradise, to make me your companion over there." Just then, Shimr commanded his slave to hit Umme Wahab with a stick. The blow killed her, and she died at her husband's side.
Another family that had come to Karbala with the Imam's caravan was that of Janada, son of Ka'b, who had come with his wife Lady Bahria and son Amr. When Janada died, Bahria sent Amr to help the Imam. Imam Hussain was hesitant to give the son permission to fight since his father had just been killed, and he thought that it would be too much of a trial for Bahria to lose her son too. The son told the Imam that it was Bahria herself who had dressed him for battle and sent him. So great was the strength of Bahria that she remained focused on the protection of the Imam when her husband had just been killed.
She had grief, yes, but she managed it for a higher purpose, which would not be an easy task for anyone in such circumstances, man or woman.
From her tent Bahria watched her son wage battle, and after Amr was martyred, Bahria herself went towards the enemy with an iron club. Such was her loyalty towards the Imam, she wanted to fight herself. In this instance also, Imam Hussain told her to go back, and she obeyed him and returned to the tents.
It must have been tempting for the women to fight when they saw their imam was in danger, but despite their feelings, they had enough strength inside to obey their Imam's command. They submitted to Imam Hussain's authority just as the men had submitted, because they knew he was the true leader, that he cared for them, and had a higher purpose in mind. That purpose would only become clear after the battle, when they would remain behind to continue the Imam's mission.
Not all the women had relatives who were Imam Hussain's companions from the start of the journey to Karbala. Some of the men switched to the Imam's side during the journey, often due to the influence of their wives.
Most famous among these ladies is Lady Dulham. She was married to Zuhayr son of Qayn, who was on the enemy's side during the journey to Karbala. At one of the stops, Imam Hussain sent a request for a meeting with Zuhayr, which surprised Zuhayr very much. That was when Dulham said, "Glory to Allah! The Holy Prophet's on has called you, has sent someone to see you, and how would you refuse to see him? Why don't you visit him and hear his words?!"
Respecting her advice, her husband went, came back elated, and declared that he was going to remain in the Imam's company and sacrifice his life upon him. When she bid her husband farewell, weeping, Dulham said, "May Allah be your helper and protector, bestow upon you good in this journey, and don't forget to mention about this, my self-sacrifice, to Imam's Grandfather [the Prophet] on the Day of Judgment." Her weeping as her husband left was not an impediment to her sacrifice - it was a part of it.
The women of Karbala contributed to the sacrifices for Islam in their own way at Karbala. These brave, pious, and modestly-attired women did not stand aside indifferently when they saw oppression taking place upon the household of the Prophet. If their male relatives were not on the side of the Imam, the women did not just keep quiet and do nothing. They used their influence in their families to encourage their husbands, sons, and brothers to support Imam Hussain, even if they would possibly have to mourn their own men. They wanted to save the Imam. Mourning the grandson of the Prophet would be worse. When the time was right, the women would speak out in their families and take a stand on the issue.
The women who were at Karbala are a supreme example of how ordinary people can become extraordinary beings who serve the Imam of their time in their own ways. By spreading the news of the events at Karbala, these women ensured that Imam Hussain's message of truth would continue to live on.
These were not the first women to play crucial roles in the history of Islam, nor were they the last. From the Prophet's first wife Lady Khadija, a prominent businesswoman who dedicated her wealth to the cause of Islam, to their daughter Lady Fatima, God's example for all women, to Lady Masooma, the sister of the eighth Imam, to Lady Hakima, the great-aunt of the Twelfth Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance), to the same Imam's mother Lady Nargis, women have always played an important role in serving Islam. And while these abovementioned women are very special in their own right, most of all Lady Fatima, all women today have these examples to inspire them. Finding her own way to serve the Twelfth Imam even while he is in occultation is what each and every believing woman needs to do today.