This paper addresses the shawl and its social connotations as one of the communicational symbols in the Ashura ritual. It examines the manner in which the shawl, a traditional symbol, has evolved into a signifier of a new social message in the framework of the Ashura ritual. This presentation is part of an ethnographic study based on field observations and interviews in the city of Dizfoul in the south-west of Iran.
It explains first the traditional association of the shawl with the alaam, the symbolic flag of various quarters (mahalla) in Dizfoul, and the significance behind the exchange of shawls by the influential figures of these quarters. The exchange of shawls symbolically represents the social respect, friendship and conciliation between quarters. In other words, the exchanging of shawls appears to be a rite associated with the Ashura ritual. In particular, it signifies the social conciliation between quarters traditionally divided into Heidari and Nemati.
Secondly, the paper demonstrates how the rite of shawl exchange has evolved into a new, symbolically charged fashion among young working class participants in the Ashura rituals, hundreds of whom wear shawls during the Ashura commemorations. This new fashion draws on the traditional meaning of the shawl, which represents social status and influence. The participants exhibit their heightened social status during the Ashura ritual by a new way of wearing shawls. Significantly, this social group enjoys such influence only during the period of the ritual, and not in their everyday life.
The social evolution of the shawl will be compared with the new symbols, rooted into the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which are used by hard-liners during the Ashura rituals. Since the new way of wearing shawls is derived from a well-established local urban tradition, it was developed and adopted in a very short time in the city. The first signs of the new fashion appeared in the early days of the month of Moharram in 2007, when I conducted my fieldwork. However, it was already fully developed and recognised by people on the day of the Ashura, the 10th of Moharram, of the same year.