CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Ashura and the Ritual Emancipation of Women in Morocco

by Mohammed Maarouf
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino. © Mohammed Maarouf 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author.

The ethnography I am presenting here today deals with one aspect of the politics of transgression of the popular culture of Islam. It is based on an article published in Arabica (see works cited). Transgression is made visible through a female practice of an Islamic ritual named Ashura. Although the majority of female practices represented here are performed in Doukkala, a middle region in Morocco, very similar beliefs and practices are present in other Moroccan regions where Ashura is also practiced. This paper comprises four parts. First, I will briefly discuss the colonial context of existing literature on Ashura. Second I will move to talk about the research question that revolves on Ashura as a licensed form of cultural resistance wherein female subalterns are engaged. Third, I will deal with a theoretical discussion of the concept of cultural resistance. Fourth, I will sum up  the key findings of this ethnography: there are first the songs of emancipation chanted by females during the night of Ashura announcing their momental delivery from male chains; second there are purification rituals performed by females on the day of Ashura to secure their magical control of destiny; third, there is the female practice of magic that may last for the whole period of Ashura from the first of the new hegira year to the night of the tenth also to act against the domination of males. Ashura, to remind the audience like Yum Kippur and Rosh Hashana celebrated by the Jews and like Christmas celebrated by the Christians at the end of the solar year, commemorates the beginning of the new Islamic year.

Context of Existing Literature

It seems that colonial anthropological research at the turn of the twentieth century constructed an image of Moroccan popular culture of Islam as antagonistic to higher state-mandated orthodox Muslim beliefs and values (Doutté 1908/1984; Laoust 1921; Westermarck, 1905, 1926, 1935). It defined and analyzed local practices as leftovers of earlier, more primitive indigenous practices to be fitted into a preconceived evolutionary scheme. Ashura as an example of Islamic rituals was explained in terms of pagan survivals. The thesis was that such Islamic ceremony was incorporated by the newly Islamized Berbers as early natives to substitute the ancient practice of burial and resurrection of the vegetation deity. Westermarck (1935) refuted the thesis of a primeval God burial on the basis that there were no left traces of sacrifice for the deity of vegetation before the coming of Islam though Westermarck elsewhere (1905) remained faithful to the pagan survival theory and considered Ashura as the sequel substitute for l-‘ansera that the Berbers used to celebrate at the end of their agricultural harvest.
Furthermore, Ashura was explored within the scope of both solar and purificatory theories presented by Frazer (1913) and Westermarck (1905) respectively. Westermarck refuses to subscribe to Frazer’s opinion that the purgatory aspect of fire is supplementary or a misinterpretation of the ritual. He rather insists on the fact that despite the exhaustive examples Frazer has given to enhance the solar theory, he has failed in presenting a solid argument. Frazer says: “The custom of rolling a burning wheel down a hill side . . . seems a very natural imitation of the sun’s course in the sky” (as cited in Westermarck, 1905, p. 45). To the opposite, Westermarck presents many ethnographic sites where it is believed that the wheels endowed with purificatory energy spread fertility and safety in the fields. In fact, he argues powerfully against such a simple reduction of the purificatory principle in rituals and is convinced that people kindled bonfires and used fiery discs and wheels to cleanse their impurities rather than imitate the sun’s rotation. He does not see any evidence in European and North African fire customs that indicate that sun-charm interpretations were older than purification interpretations considered by Frazer as later misinterpretations. He also adds that in Morocco, it is superfluous to say that no one looks upon Ashura as a sun-charming custom. In fact, it is impractical for a North African to observe ceremonies aiming at increasing the heat of the sun while s/he lives under its warmth every day (Westermarck, 1926, p. 199). Nevertheless, the whole anthropological debate nowadays seems to be moribund and does not trespass the theoretical models (evolutionism, diffusionism and functionism) produced in its epoch.  
At present, social change and advance of cultural theory (with the postmodern turn) mandate opening new paradigms of research, that is, new horizons of fieldwork research and new orders of questions to be asked. The situation today in Morocco indicates that economic and cultural forces of globalization intertwined with demographics may strongly affect the cultural reconstruction of gender relations. It seems that political change towards gender equality is taking place quite rapidly but cultural attitudes towards women’s inferiority still linger in popular imagination—here we are not speaking about Ogburn’s (1922/1936) notion of ‘cultural lag’, the lapse of time the adaptive culture needs to adjust to new material conditions, we are rather speaking about cultural reproduction that often results in social reproduction. The question is how does the local culture help in sustaining the traditional cultural beliefs regarding gender hierarchy and male domination? How do such biased values and beliefs persist as socially acceptable? Do cultural rituals like Ashura perpetuate the status-quo by continually reconstructing the power of masculinity within a patriarchal social order?

Research Question
The current study has come to highlight the neglected areas of research on Ashura by attempting to answer the question regarding the massive participation of female subalterns in its practices. What kind of role do subaltern (1) women play in the ceremony? Why do women obtain a socially acceptable space of freedom on the day of Ashura? What is the cultural significance of its carnivals?

Methodology: General Concepts
Methodologically speaking, my research on the politics of Ashura enrolls within a prompted engagement with notions of cultural resistance structured by antagonisms including those of capitalism and those autonomous of it. Before dealing with Ashura as a form of cultural resistance, let us first explore the significance of cultural resistance itself. It may be theoretically approached from two divergent perspectives. There is an optimistic view that considers cultural resistance as a stepping stone in political activity. It manures the ground for political self-consciousness. On this pole, culture is thought to serve resistance even if it is not produced for this intent but culture may also be created for this particular anti-hegemonic intent. Cultural resistance from this optimistic perspective creates a “free space”, ideologically a new set of meanings and worldviews of the future, materially a community, networks and organizational models lubricating the way towards political resistance. From a more pessimistic view, cultural resistance may be thought as an escape from politics, a discharge of discontent that may otherwise be expressed through political activity, a safe sanctuary in an unsympathetic world. On this pole, a private utopia, an ideal society is conjured up and magical solutions emerge, nevertheless in the outside world nothing changes at all (for further details see Duncombe, 2000, pp. 1-15).
To be more pessimistic in this respect, we may argue that cultural resistance cannot exist at all. The dominant system with its complete ideological and material hegemony can incorporate any cultural expression of resistance by repackaging and transforming it into a constituent of the status-quo. From this perspective, cultural resistance as a political practice is at best a waste of time and at worst a delusional detour from real political resistance. So, if a society is engaged in cultural resistance, it means one of two things: either the dominant culture or the power it buttresses are bound to fall at any moment, or that cultural resistance has been so thoroughly incorporated back into the system that its practice is one of licensed relief.
According to Duncombe (2002), the cultural maneuver here ranges from survival to revolution. “Survival is the point at which cultural resistance serves as merely a way to cope up with the daily grind and injustice of life while holding on to semblance of dignity. Rebellion is where cultural resistance contributes to political activity against the powers-that-be.” (pp. 7-8). Consequences of this resistance may range from undergoing oppression to forcing meaningful reform. Revolution is the overthrow of the dominant ruling system and a time when the culture of resistance becomes just culture. So, today’s cultural resistance may be tomorrow’s commodity culture. The commoditization of culture remains the most critical chapter in the contemporary story of cultural resistance. Adorno (2002) and Hoggart (1958/1970) maintain that commoditization may reduce our cultural passions and rebellions to “pseudo activities” easily incorporated back into the system.
Where can we locate Ashura in this theoretical debate? Is it an act of survival or an act of revolution? From a bottom-up ethnographic perspective, Ashura appears to be an act of survival; it offers ‘a ritual free space’ for subaltern women to discharge their discontent and exert their power, a resource which they tap into to carve out a moment of becoming reversing male domination. The ritual of Ashura allows us to see how female agency emerges from, and is continually reconstructed through their engagement by their practice of magic and ceremonial alfresco gatherings, chanting songs of challenge to the male authority. The ethnographic image of Ashura delineates how a cultural and religious ritual may play the role of establishing and sustaining cultural hegemony. It forwards into a position of prominence the carnivalesque aspect of the ritual. The cultural authority of the male is transgressed, mocked and crushed down by the joyful moment of female becoming in a ritual outlet that permits the male cultural authority to rejuvenate its yoke of domination over women in the normal existing social conditions. It is a carnival, a form of social control of the low by the high and thus serves the interests of the official culture that it apparently opposes. As Shakespeare’s Olivia remarks “there is no slander in an allowed fool.” Thus, hegemony permits the ritual inversions of hierarchy and status degradations, a safety valve for, re-affirming the status quo, for renewing the system but they cannot change it.
           In fact, Ashura seems to be double-edged. From bottom–up resources it emerges as a form of cultural resistance but from a top-down perspective it seems to be licensed in that it reflects the force of the establishment that contains it. In other words, it is a cultural resistance that spins in a vortex of authoritarian relations fixed up by the cultural establishment. The resistant subject’s revolt bumps against the shields of the dominant cultural and political institutions and shrinks back to their initial subordinate position.


Now, I bring to the audience’s focus three main findings this fieldwork research has come up with. First, there is a female emancipatory discourse articulated in the form of songs women chant outdoors on the night of Ashura. These songs may be termed ‘the female songs of emancipation’. Females chant collectively open air songs challenging patriarchal authority and deriding male power. As an example, female emancipation is epitomized in the prototypical verse recited by women everywhere in Moroccan plains, ‘Abda, Doukkala and Shawiya: “Papa Aishur we are not under any rule! The Prophet’s birthday festival is under men’s rule!” (2) It is saying that religious festivals like the Prophet’s birthday can be performed under male control but Ashura is the occasion for women to celebrate their femininity. In their outdoor collective songs, women also exult at their bravura in jihad (holy war) against the colonizer and sing of bearing arms, and embarking on long journeys to rescue victims even if the call for help as their metaphor goes reaches them from a donkey agonizing in a remote land (see Maarouf, 2009).
Their songs recall to mind the songs of Hate in Gluckman’s ethnographic example of ritually insulting the King in Swaziland (1985, pp. 51-2). This ritual is intended to strengthen feelings of loyalty towards the king, especially among potential traitors. It is like a carnival where license is permitted and strong resentments against authority are exteriorized. Potential traitors may evince strong feelings of guilt and unworthiness while face-to-face with the loyal subjects of the king. In the same way, females in Ashura go outdoors in parades to subvert the gender-marked established roles, menace male prerogatives, and blow up in obscenities thus draining their tensions and hostilities and consequently consolidating the hierarchical status quo. Their songs of emancipation aim at transferring feelings of aggression onto scapegoats, constructing an outsider enemy alien to the clan to strengthen the social sentiments of belonging to the same group. Once a year then, Women see themselves as authorized to violate the patriarchal norms. By reversing the roles of domination and acting out the sexual conflict, the ritual of Ashura paradoxically adds force to the hierarchical social cohesion. Men and women obeying the established traditions submit to a ritual from which the community hopes to derive its prosperity and harmony.
The second finding is about purification rituals. There are many examples of purificatory rituals collected from the field but I will cite one example because of time constraints. On Ashura holy day, girls hollow dates and fill them with hairs, and then march in a collective procession chanting and playing on oblong drums with the intent to bury Papa Aishur. They go to an abandoned deep well (3) which they circumambulate while throwing the dates, hence disencumbering themselves from their old hair. In other villages, girls bury the dates underground in remote forsaken areas so that people do not step over them and in their eyes may get harmed. Sometimes, girls take with them rags, pieces of underclothing, residue of molted hair or fingernails belonging to their mothers or other members of the family and throw them in a pit (these are belongings of tab‘a, a female jinni pursuer keen on burdening the targeted person’s way with impediments); it is an act of contagious magic, a congruence which is supposed to exist for instance between someone and the severed portion of their hair, so that what happens to the part happens to the whole. The burial of the hairs in dates is a symbolic gesture of growth and fertility. But the gesture also re-enacts the burial process of the old year with its residues; the girls bury the old hair with the old year and wish for a new hair with a new year.
This act of contagious magic may also be interpreted within the cultural frame of power relations of gender. The girls and their mothers are enacting a ceremonial ritual to preserve their feminine gender capital which they think may insure their importance to the male. The ritual shows that the male gaze is present in female popular imagination. Though the ceremony is feminine and offers females a space of freedom and challenge to male authority, women seem to experience themselves in terms of their relationships with males. In a nutshell, the ritual seems to be andocentric with the male at the centre of female attraction. By interring Papa Aishur, girls inter their mishaps and wish for more hair beauty, male attraction to them and more self importance in a patriarchal world.
The third finding is about the practice of magic. Ashura is the ritual occasion for the feminine practice of witchcraft. To secure their position in the patriarchal household, women may consult diviners and sorcerers, looking for magical recipes to insure continual domestic power and male emotional attachment to them. There are women who consult sorcerers or work personally in brewing spells in order to burn them during Ashura bonfires. Other women who are worried of being harmed by malevolent doings buy incense (bkhur) to avert evil influence caused by malevolent spirits. Spells may be used to harm enemies or charm people dear to the heart. This renewed interest in magical practices during Ashura implies that the social actors are aware of the annual transition (end-beginning of the year) and its sacredness. They yearn to do or undo spells during the occasion because as most interviewees maintain “charms used or renewed during Ashura may last for the whole year from Aishur until the coming Aishur.”
Ashura bonfire (sha“ala) seems to be the most convenient time when the women who believe in magical emancipation decide to burn their spells. Bonfires are lighted by male youths in streets in the presence of girls, grownups of both sexes and little children. When it blazes, the boys commence to circumambulate and leap over the flames; girls standing by sing what Moroccans term “the Songs of Papa Aishur.” At this point, one may notice female spell doers neighing the fire, and casting their spells and charms in it under children’s hurrahs. Those who do not like to expose themselves to public shame may offer fire ingredients—for instance, an old stuff mattress—to children to burn in fire. The latter run happily dragging the bits and pieces along into the bonfire unaware that the gift might have been filled with spells.
There are women who prefer to burn their spells indoors using small censors rather than cast them in outdoor fires. Their alibi is that they do not want boys and girls playing outside to step over the spell because in their belief it may harm them. In the countryside, some women may spin wool in front of the outdoor fire to produce a magic charm. It is believed that if women spin yarn from the wool fibers stored from the Great-Feast victim’s fleece in front of Ashura fire, fortune will guide the hand that grasps the spun thread. The woman equipped with her distaff and spindle forms a thread taller than her body height. The thread may be cut into small pieces and then given to nubile girls as well as to people who desire to sell their cattle in weekly markets. All are believed to find fortune on their side. Ashura night in fact turns neighborhoods into different sorts of perfume from gam-amoniac, alum to benzoin. Some believe that fumigation may fortify them against evil influence and others think that their spells if burnt ceremonially in Ashura may incontestably bewitch the targeted individual.


As a conclusion, Ashura therefore is the ideal occasion for women to exert their magical power. Living in a male-oriented social world where they believe that men’s authority and prerogatives are natural and inherent in their masculinity, married women, especially from the uneducated lower social strata, generally derive their power from their sexual capital—as long as they are sexually desirable and active. In fact, their sexuality, domestic skills and child-rearing skills form the capital of their importance in the household (see also Mernissi, 1983; Rassam, 1980). Their access to other sources of power is almost denied.  Therefore, they scheme and practice magic, in fact using whatever means available to them, in order to act effectively on their husbands. This measure of domestic influence or ‘unassigned power’ is ritually accentuated in socially accepted avenues such as marriage ceremonies, carnivals of Ashura, carnivals of the Great feast, jinn evictions (see Maarouf, 2007) and other ritual practices. It seems that male authority allows itself to be ritually transgressed in order to tighten its grip over women in the course of normal social life.
The carnivals of Ashura are mainly performed by rural female subalterns and those who belong to uneducated poor urban social classes. The educated women of modern-middle-class urban families—not to mention the rich and high bourgeoisie—who are rising to power in the public sector (NGO’s, political and economic institutions) and gaining more freedom challenge the cultural forms of traditional society. They will by no means descend in streets to be enrolled in ritual parades of Ashura playing on oblong drums to express their feminine liberty. Islamist women (who now make part of my ongoing research on subaltern Islamism) condemn Ashura outdoor practices as heterodox; nevertheless they do not seem to question the legitimacy of male authority over them because in their eyes it is decreed by the Islamic Tradition.
Here I do not want to end up my contribution on a pessimistic tone. As it is revealed, Ashura practices do not threaten the social reproduction and maintenance of female docile subjects; these practices do not menace the social inequality of gender relations; they appear or historically shift identity with the vagaries of domination. However, if Ashura’s emancipatory discourse may be practiced outside its ritual process authorized by the Popular Tradition and supported by the state, if the containment policy grows weak, if the empowered female agency grows aware of her empowerment, such is the case now in growing feminist activism, all this may pave the way for political activity. Now, counter-hegemonic aspects of rituals such as Ashura, trance dance and jinn possession prevail and subaltern women who cannot escape their social position can escape the conventions that go with it--they may feel free somehow at a symbolic level; they may transgress, be outrageous and throw out the norms at least for a while. Of course this can be seen as a `ruse of power` to licence a blowing off of steam—culture must have its own orifices—, but these anti-hegemonic alternative meanings remain latent for the future and can be raised again with a more likelihood to subvert the social structure especially under new social attachments or favourable political conditions.

Works Cited

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Doutté, E. (1908/1984). Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord. Paris: J.Maisonneuve.

Duncombe S. (Ed.). (2002). Cultural ressitance reader. New York: Verso.  

Frazer, J. G. (1913). The golden bough-part Vii: Balder the beautiful: The fire-festivals of Europe and the doctrine of the external soul (vol. 1) [Electronic version]. London: Macmillan. 

Gluckman, M. (1985). Ritual. In A. C. Lehmann & J. E. Myers (Eds.), Magic, witchcraft,   and religion (pp. 50-54).  CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Gramsci, A. (1990). Selections from the prison notebooks (G.N. Smith & Q. Hoare, Trans.). New York: International Publishers.

Hoggart, R. (1958/1970). The uses of literacy. New York: Oxford U. Press. Reprinted in  1970.

Laoust, E. (1921). Noms et cérémonies des feux de joie chez les Berbères du Haut et    de l'Anti-Atlas. Hespéris, 3-66. 

Ogburn , W.F. (1922/1936). Social change with respect to culture and original nature. New York: Viking.   

Maarouf, M. (2007). Jinn eviction as a discourse of power: A multidisciplinary approach to Moroccan magical beliefs and practices. Leiden: Brill.

-----------------(2009). Ashura as a Female Ritual Challenge to Masculinity. Arabica, 56 (4-5), 400-39.

Mernissi, F. (1983). Sexe, idéologie, Islam. Paris : Tierce.   

Rassam, A. (1980). Women and domestic power in Morocco. Middle East Studies, 12,      171–9.

Wa‘rab, M. (2003). Al mu‘taqadat a-Sihriyah Bi al-Maghreb [Magical beliefs in Morocco]. Casablanca: Al-Ahdath al- Maghribiya.

Westermarck, E. (1905). Midsummer customs in Morocco [Electronic version]. Folklore, 16 (1), 27-47. 

----------------------(1926). Ritual and belief in Morocco. london: Macmillan.     

----------------------(1935). Survivances païennes dans la civilisation mahométane (R.   Godet, Trans.). Paris: Payot.


(1) The term ‘subaltern(s)’ here holds  ethnographic attributes by its reference to those who live at the bottom of social space and identify themselves as maqhurin (oppressed) or mahgurin (subordinated). Such population has been generally described by Gramsci (1990) as a socially subordinate group. Although poverty is the most important determinant of subaltern status, our use of the term draws upon our understanding of multiple sources of social hierarchy and subordination in Moroccan society, such as holy lineage, ?asabiyya (belonging to a powerful or subordinate social group and being dissolved in its collective social identity), region, gender, age, economic capital, and occupation. Appreciating all of these barriers is necessary to transcend an economic class-based perspective.

(2) The Moroccan Arabic version reads as follows: BabaAyshur ma lina bi-hkam a lalla/ ‘id l-milad bi-hkam rrijal a lalla

(3) The well is a symbol of sacred water. People believe that on the day of Ashura all wells and springs are flowing from the Meccan well zemzem. Before dawn, women head towards wells to get water to splash over each other, a purifying ritual named after the sacred pit Zemzem (Wa‘rab, 2003, p. 135)—needless to mention in this respect ceremonial bathing in rivers and at sea in Ashura (Westermarck, 1905).