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Monday, May 10, 2010

What Happened to the Women's Hajj Theatre at Makka?

Long line of pilgrims entering the sanctuary, extending for miles into the surrounding area (19th Century drawing)

Makka and the Hajj were not always as they appear today - multitudes of crowds in a modern city with technologically monitored Hajj, removed of all the creativity that the people expressed and buildings pushing each other out of the limited space. Till the 1950s, visitors were much less in number. In early 20th century, artisans from other countries like Egypt participated in crafting the Kiswa and the sanctuary held a much smaller area than it holds today. In the 19th century, the town of Makka surrounding the sanctuary in its centre was a much smaller place, having only twelve residential areas, narrow lanes and no dazzling electric lights. Click here for the history of the Kaaba.

This was the time when the rulers were more tolerant of the people's activities, rather than enforcing on them their own version of militant religion in a police-state like environment. This was before the Al-Saud captured Makka in 1925 and attempted to first become its "servant" and then its "custodian" (click on this link). 

This was the time when the people had the freedom to decide how they wanted to interpret Islam for themselves, without any fear from the ruling powers.

One very interesting custom during Hajj, with a long history, was the women's theatre called Al-Ges, performed by the women of Makka in the streets of the town when the menfolk went to the Kaaba to help the pilgrims to perform Hajj. Begun in the 11th century, it continued right till 1925, when the Al-Saud captured Makka and banned this custom.

The women were left to themselves when the menfolk went to the Kaaba. Hence, dressed up as men, women went from street to street, drawing out the women from their homes and went around the town, impersonating the character of various prominent men of the town in a satirical manner. Thus, a woman was dressed up as the chief guardian of the town of Makka, another would dress up as the chief cleric of the Kaaba, yet another as the Mayor of Makka etc. and others would dress up in colourful clothes as the common menfolk of the town and would satirise their roles through performance of actions and songs composed in Arabic! 

Going from street to street, they would enact these satirical performances, singing songs, as more and more women joined them. This performance would continue till the morning hours, when the men would be returning from the Kaaba. At this time, the women would go back home, to return again the next day for their satirical theatre in the streets. 

If any man was seen loitering in the street at this time, women would pull him and beat him up, calling him Al-Ges or the one who abstained from going to the Kaaba to help the pilgrims. He was looked down upon and was called names in the songs sung by the women.

In this sense, women acted as sort of custodians of the Hajj management, as they ensured through their theatre that all men went to the sanctuary and helped the pilgrims.

Dressed as important men who were satirised by the women in songs and actions, it also showed a temporary inversion of the power equations in the society by the women - they were not following the orders of these important men, but they rather liked to point out the flaws in their actions, though in an all-women's gathering.

This custom also shows that religion was not necessarily a serious, tight-upper lipped, high-browed kind of affair in those times. People related to it in a natural manner and were not necessarily offended when satirised - something like the way the people of other religions accept a satire on their religion in the democratic world. While they were devoted in their religious duty, they were not necessarily pretentious about it.

In this sense, Saudi Wahhabism has taken a retrograde step in pushing the attitude towards religion back to more than a thousand years. The ease that had developed with the maturing of Islam has been destroyed by the regimes like the ones ruled by Wahhabism, Iranian revolution, Taliban etc. 

This is not revolution, it is retrogressive thought process in a world which is increasing becoming relaxed about religion, even foresaking it.

It is highly unfortunate that this interesting theatre of the women during Hajj came to an end in 1925 under the orders of the Al-Saud.

Till about 1950s, it continued to be performed inside the houses behind closed doors, but was completely discontinued thereafter as the Al-Saud dynasty grew in power.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that no traces of this custom have been allowed to survive in the archives and the writings in Saudi Arabia. Militant Islam is notorious for wiping out history, because it is afraid of history.

For more on this theatre of the Makka women, read Ahmad A. Nasr and Abu Bakr A. Bagader, "Al-Ges: Women's festival and Drama in Makka," in Journal of Folklore Research, September-December 2001, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 243-262.

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