Zaynab and the Women of Zanjan

From their earliest years, generations of Baha’is have prayed: “Make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star.” Shining lamps and brilliant stars are only necessary, and only visible, in times of darkness. The women of Zanjan, a city in north-west Persia, who recognised the truth of the claim of the Bab, shone as brilliant stars through the darkness of the “most violent and devastating” of “the great conflagrations” which consumed the followers of the Bab in the East, South, West, and capital of Persia in the middle of the 19th century. 1 Through the long months that came to be recognized as one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of the Babi Revelation, they struggled side by side with the Babi men, serving, sacrificing, suffering. The sole purpose of the men, as repeatedly stated by their leader Hujjat, was to preserve inviolate the security of the women and children from the attacks heaped upon them for their beliefs. At the same time the sole purpose of the women was to provide the means by which the men could continue to defend the community. They were part of one heroic interdependent whole.

Zanjan, at the behest of its governor and loudly proclaimed by its crier, was a city divided. In one camp were the Babis, well-wishers of all, who refrained from aggression and acts of violence, and in the other where those inflamed with “enthusiastic moral support of the entire ecclesiastical body in Zanjan” who sought to eradicate the Babis and everything they believed in. 2

Zaynab is singled out as exceptional. She was a young single peasant woman from a hamlet near Zanjan, renowned for her lofty faith and intrepid courage, which was manifested with unrivalled heroism. And we will direct our gaze to Zaynab in a moment. But first I’d like us to consider the women who surrounded Zaynab and the multitude of ways in which their love for the Bab was expressed.

Firstly, as mothers, they directed their children to follow scrupulously the admonitions of the Bab and taught them to say, “Our beloved Master Himself is the first to practise them. Why should we who are His privileged disciples hesitate to make them the ruling principles of our lives?” 3 They raised children who fearlessly served their Lord in the most difficult of circumstances and to uphold His teachings such as the equality of women and men, the importance of universal education, and the upliftment of the poor and needy.

When the near 3,000 Babis sought protection in the fort of Ali-Mardan Khan, the women and children, as much as the men, hastened to defend their Faith. Despite the violence, despite “the disorder, the cursing, the ribald laughter, the debauchery and shame” of their attackers’ camp, the Fort was characterized by an “atmosphere of reverent devotion.” 2 While there, within a four-month period of onslaught and persecution, 200 Babi women and men married and all of these couples, whether within minutes, days or at most weeks of their nuptials, perished as martyrs in the defense of their community. One woman who was newly married and pregnant at the time the battle began, witnessed the martyrdom of her husband and then gave birth in the fort. Far from lamenting her plight, she raised and reared her son, Ashraf, to also hold the Bab’s teachings to heart and with unshakable resolve, as an adult, he too was killed for his beliefs.

Other mothers, sisters and wives witnessed their loved ones “butchered in circumstances of unbridled cruelty” or “gazed…upon the heads of their brothers raised on spears and brutally disfigured by the weapons of their foes.” 3 The voices of women animated the zeal of their fellow disciples, and contributed to miraculous victories through their shouts of exultation raised in the face of an almighty foe. Not content with enthusiastically encouraging their men to fight, many of them rushed into the field of battle, either to revive the strength of the wounded with skinfuls of water, or to take the places of their fallen brethren in battle. Women, alongside the men, laboured “with unabating fervour to strengthen the defences of the fort and reconstruct whatever the enemy had demolished.” 3 With all their energy, regardless of rank and age, they also sewed, baked, tended the sick and wounded, cleared the courts of cannon balls and missiles, cheered the faint in heart and animated the faith of the wavering. Every thought and desire was subordinated to the goal of defending the fort from the enemy. And should a spare moment present itself, it was consecrated to prayer.

In the words of the historian Nabil:

Such was the spirit of solidarity that characterized their labors, and such the heroism of their acts, that the enemy was led to believe their number was no less than ten thousand. 4

After months of battle against vast enemy forces, when the fort was conquered, the surviving women were taken captive, assaulted, sexually assaulted, held captive like sheep in a crowded structure without a roof and without furniture in the midst of winter, deprived of food, clothing and all belongings. And yet, through all this, they were characterized by an unsurpassed steadfastness.

These were the attitudes, actions, service and sacrifices of the heroines by which Zaynab was surrounded. And even amongst such women, Zaynab shone. For five months Zaynab disguised herself as a man and took her place at the front of the battle. Raising her sword and the cry of “Ya Sahibu’z-Zaman” (“O Lord of the Age”), she flung herself into battle time and again. The enemy regarded her as a curse and fled before her. Hujjat himself acknowledged that her vitality and resourcefulness were matched by few men. She gave no thought to food or to sleep and battled incessantly until she was killed beneath a shower of bullets. Even her death could not put an end to her power: after her death no less than twenty women came to recognize the source of that power, and became Babis.

We no longer live at a time when putting into action the teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah will cost us our lives. When we pray to be like shining lamps and brilliant stars what does that mean today? What does it mean in the societies in which we live? In our work? In our family life? And in the quiet moments of prayer when we call Zaynab, and the women of Zanjan, to mind?