Women at center of violin playing controversy in Iraq holy city

Several days after the woman played the violin and others danced, the controversy has roiled Twitter in Iraq and abroad, with hashtags in Arabic relating to the stadium.

By
August 4, 2019 19:39
4 minute read.
Albert Einstein's violin is displayed at Bonhams auction house in New York, US, March 6, 2018

Albert Einstein's violin is displayed at Bonhams auction house in New York, US, March 6, 2018. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)

A woman playing a violin and other women and men dancing at the opening events of the West Asia Football Federation in Karbala, Iraq has caused controversy as religious far-right conservatives condemned the “unethical behavior” and others rallied to the women’s defense.

The controversy began on July 30 when several women and dancers took to the field of a stadium in Karbala in Iraq before Iraq played Lebanon. One woman played a violin. But Shi’ite religious leaders, who care deeply for the city’s sacred shrines and holy history said they received the “sad news” of the violations of the sanctity of the city. The battle of Karbala in the seventh century between supporters of Imam Husayn and the Ummayad Caliph led to the death or martyrdom of Husayn in battle and a shrine in Karbala today is a major center of pilgrimage. The shrine also contains sites of 72 other men Shi’ites revere for being martyred alongside Husayn. As such the city is important for religious figures, and some saw the opening ceremony for the games as offending the religious nature of the city.

Several days after the woman played the violin and others danced, the controversy has roiled Twitter in Iraq and abroad, with hashtags in Arabic relating to the stadium. One hashtag refers to the “sanctity of Karbala” and the other to the stadium. The outpouring of anger and support shows the divisions in Iraq and also raises other issues. One man wondered why urban planners had allowed a stadium to be built near shrines in the city in the first place. One cleric has called for the stadium to be closed. Another twitter user going by the name Mahmoud Darwish posted a photo of the Iraqi woman with the violin and noted “with four strings she shook the sanctity and the turban-wearing men with their obscurantist beliefs.” Another man posted photos of women dancers at the opening of games in Malaysia to show that other Muslim countries have women doing similar activities.


Nouri al-Maliki, former Prime Minister of Iraq and a Dawa party leader, has reportedly called for an investigation. Local authorities in Karbala said they had nothing to do with the opening ceremony and condemned it. According to Rudaw, the public relations department of the Ministry of Youth and Sport said the comments reflected hypocrisy. “There are politicians who first need to go close all the bars and nightclubs in Baghdad before attacking the ministry of youth and sport.”

The women, especially the violinist who was identified as Lebanon’s Joelle Saade, seem to have received more support on social media, as Iraqis pushback against the conservatives, some have contrasted the women with the rituals that take place at Karbala, such as men cutting and whipping themselves during the mourning for Husayn on Ashura every year. One man posted photos of the three dancers at the ceremony, and a child’s face covered in blood during a religious procession. “Welcome to Karbala, the holy art and beauty of the sanctity of the rituals of ignorance and violence,” wrote Rasaha Alazawe, a writer, on Twitter. Other commenters simply put a heart symbol with photos of the women playing violin and dancing.


Kabala’s name is big in the news again because certain politicians and clergy are upset a woman was playing the violin,” noted another commenter on Iraqi issues. “My God, who cares? If you loved Karbala so much then what did you do for it in your office? No projects, no airport."

The controversy over the violin in Karbala therefore goes deeper than just an incident of women and religious conservatives, it is symbolic of problems across Iraq where many are angry that religious issues or parochial politics of families and clans seem to trump the need for better infrastructure. There is a feeling that these controversies are grabbed by politicians to increase anger, not really over the violin, but to score minor political points at the expense of average people who suffer electrical outages and lack of decent roads or sewers or education. This comes at a time as Iraq is seeking to move on and rebuild after the war against ISIS and also faces challenges of security threats as well as the dominance of many religious or ethnic-based parties in politics.


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