Codes of Conduct and Negotiation of Community in the Iranian Domestic Rowze

By Afsane Rezaei
Submitted to Session P4642 (The Anthropology of Sociability, 2016 Annual Meeting
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The scholarship on Muslim women vernacular rituals has delineated some of the connections between women’s collective religious performances and larger socio-cultural or gender related issues, as well as the relationship between women’s practices with the more male-dominated orthodox teachings of Islam. Women’s gatherings such as Sofreh (votive meals), Mowludi (religious celebrations), Rowze (mourning rituals), and Quran reading groups, among others, have been studied as a space for women to assume religious agency (Mahmoud 2005, Torab 1996), to form a community away from household tasks and responsibilities and to come in contact with new people and situations (Betteridge 2002, Shirazi 2005, 2015), to engage in symbolic commentary on social issues (Kalinock 2003, Mills & Jamzade 1986), or to express political affiliation in a politically diverse context (Kalinock 2003, 2004, Torab 2002).
In the majority of such studies, especially those focusing on Iranian women, the sense of agency or community is considered to be ensuing from a unifying religious experience that brings women together in a form of Turnerian communitas. With a few exceptions (Kalinock 2003, Torab 2002, Mills & Jamzade 1986), these studies often depict women’s collective religious performances as circles of like-minded individuals who, while strengthening their communal ties, can practice their religious devotions in a private, less orthodox atmosphere. What such works tend to ignore is that first, not all participants take part in these gathering for religious purposes, and second, there can be differences among participants in terms of their socio-economic status, age, education, political orientation, and beliefs that cannot simply get flattened by the virtue of being in the same space.
In this paper, I use the case of domestic urban Rowze in Iran as a counter-example to such depictions. What I argue is that rituals like Rowze do not necessarily consist of a harmonious community of devout Muslim women who share similar sets of beliefs and viewpoints. On the contrary, the sense of community often needs to be consciously constructed by members’ performances and behavior based on certain codes of deference and demeanor (Goffman 1967) that apply to such intra-communal relationships. In other words, what makes Rowze a more-or-less congenial setting is not a romantic communitas of individuals whose differences get diminished in the context of a shared religious experience, but the harmonious setting is rather collectively created by observing certain unspoken principles that allow the community to stay together without tension or strife.