An Untold Story of 7th Century Feminism: Zainab Bint Ali

You may not know the story of Zainab, the 7th Century heroine who spoke out against the tyrant of her time. This International Women’s Day, guest writer Anna Gephart shares why Zainab deserves to be revered by feminists today.

Who is Zainab? Why is she important? What can she teach me?

In a world where women are put down for their gender, Zainab gives us a story of hope. Zainab bint Ali is a Muslim heroine who is famous for her stand at Karbala. (The source of Zainab’s story came to me through The Lioness of Karbala: ‘Alima’ Zainab’s Stand, Dr. Amineh Hoti’s inspiring article. Published in the Daily Times, Pakistan. 31 Aug. 2020) She was granddaughter to the Prophet Muhammad, daughter to Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and sister to Hassan and Hussain, the sons of Ali.

In the 7th century, Umayyad Caliph Yazid was hell-bent on killing the family of the Prophet. He sent his grand army to fight the small party headed by Zainab’s brothers. Yazid surrounded the small defence, first cutting off their water supply, then looting, burning, and ruthlessly murdering the men of the camp, among them the descendants of the Prophet. As a result, Zainab’s two sons and Hussain were killed and she was shackled, taken as a prisoner, and sealed to her fate-almost.

The story follows Zainab to the throne of Yazid, who played with her dear brother Hussain’s head as he touted his success and the might of his power. All the while, Zainab watched, unveiled and exhausted, as her family’s murderer mocked her pain. Here, at this moment, Zainab showed her resilience and power. She spoke strongly and without hesitation. Zainab ridiculed Yazid for his arrogance and callous evil, warning him that there is a higher power who is waiting to bestow judgement upon Yazid.

She warned that when the wait is over, Yazid will have to answer to the God who spread the word of love and peace through the Prophet, the same Prophet who she had seen kissing the head of the man Yazid so carelessly disrespected with his torments, her brother Hussain.

The people watching were in awe, and urged Yazid to let Zainab go, fearing that she may start a revolt that cannot be beaten. Yazid was begrudgingly forced to let her and the other prisoners go.

The world would never be the same. Here’s why:

Zainab’s story teaches women, and the world, something new every step of the way. First, she teaches us to love, and that it’s okay to have love and emotion for those dear to us. She used her passion and love for her family as fuel for her heroic stand. She shows the world that love is strong, not weak and not a fault of women, but to be used to fight for what’s right. Her love for her family and her conviction in her beliefs gave her the strength to rise up against those who wished to tear her down. In a sense, her love was potent and transformative, flipping power dynamics and dismantling hierarchy, changing the world as a result.

Second, she shows the importance of education. Her leadership led her to establish an education system to better educate the people who followed her and lived in Medina. Her time spent after her stand at Karbala was short; she died a year later, but her impact lasted for years to come. Zainab’s love of education shows the world how vital education is for all.

Third, she teaches us that it’s not always easy to stand up against our oppressor. Our oppressor can come in many forms and in many hierarchies, but it’s important, even vital, to have courage and face down those who seek to tear us down. We must trust in our values and in ourselves to be strong and steady. Zainab defied the odds and stood up to the heinous and powerful oppressor of her time, becoming a pillar of strength and hope.

Zainab’s stand at Karbala and journey to establish education shows the traces of feminist ideals long before feminism became a mass movement. The lessons of Zainab are not unique to Islam, but lessons that can be used everywhere in the contemporary world. When one would think that her story was over, she proved her strength through education.

Article by Anna Gephart, a political science major studying at the School of Public Affairs, American University in Washington DC. Anna is from Pennsylvania. She is focused on the dialogue of civilizations and the importance of teaching a diverse history.



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