Kyrgyzstan: Understanding Islamization and veiling in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

Asel Myrzabekova, MA in Peace and Conflict Transformation from The Arctic University of Norway. 

In recent decades, there has been a considerable rise of the number of veiled Muslim women in Kyrgyzstan and other post-Soviet countries. Veiling is the public manifestation and evidence that the Islamization process in a post-Soviet space is flourishing. Scholars, official leaders and media of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are concerned about the religious extremism, fundamentalism and non-traditional Islamic trends, which are perceived as a real threat to their countries and to the Central Asian region as a whole.[1][2][3][4][5]

What are the motivations and rationale of the educated Kyrgyz women who started wearing hijabs upon reaching maturity, the age of 18 and above? It is also interesting why these new Islamic practices are becoming popular, especially among young people who start practicing non-traditional Islam. Some scholars suggest that one of the reasons why the Islamic identity is embraced so readily in the territories of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states is the link between national or ethnic identity with Islam.[6][7][8][9] However, hijab wearing being a manifestation of belonging to Islam is considered to be contradictory to the cultural practices and historical background of the Kyrgyz people. It is can be clearly seen through the analysis and illustration of three historically important periods in life of the Kyrgyz people.

 Background of Kyrgyzstan

The role of religion in the history of Kyrgyz people can be divided into three historical periods : pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet eras. The pre-Soviet period refers to the Silk Road times’ religious practices from the seventh until the twentieth century. Today’s Kyrgyzstan, a secular and democratic Central Asian state, is situated on the routes of the Silk Road that “served as a bridge of interchanges not only of the goods, but also of knowledge and spiritual values between East and West”.[10] These connections made it possible for the local tribes that inhabited Central Asia to share different ideas and values and peacefully coexist in various religious systems whether they were polytheistic or monotheistic systems.[11]

The Soviet Era covers 70 years’ experience under the atheistic regime from 1917 until 1991. During this period religious practices were restricted and access to religious knowledge was denied. In addition, Kyrgyz people were isolated in the Soviet Union’s antagonism towards the values and ideas of the non-socialist block (behind Iron Curtains).

The post-Soviet period covers the recent two decades of independence of Kyrgyzstan describing the transformations and changes that facilitated the Islamization processes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence in 1991, the Kyrgyz Republic pursued an “open door” policy that has led not only to the liberalization of economic market, but also opened doors to people and ideas from different counties. The Soviet times’ restrictions of religion were over and the new policy and the lack of state control have led to the unimpeded inflow of different religious schools including Christianity and Islam movements (radical, fundamental and traditional), and sectarianism. In the last two decades, the new ideology, the non-traditional version of Islam has been imported to moderate Muslim Kyrgyz. It should be emphasized here that the Kyrgyz are one of the less religious Muslim groups in Central Asia. In the Kyrgyz culture, for example, only married and elderly women wear shawls on their heads and opened to the eye long hair was considered to be one of the most beautiful features of women. Today’s hijab trend is not only about covering the head with a shawl or a headscarf, but it is also about covering the whole body from men’s eyes.  According to Heyat , it is unclear how these new practices of Islam and their local adaptation are influencing the position of women in the Central Asia, and what the consequences of the re-Islamization are[12].

Interviewees

Nine women in hijabs were interviewed. It should be recognized that the narratives obtained from a small number of the interviewees cannot be generalized to a larger population. However, the purpose of this study was to study in-depth  social and cultural aspects of people who participated in the research .[13]  Due to the limited time of research and sensitive character of the current topic I decided that the most optimal way to make the first contacts with women in hijabs would be via common friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Based on this consideration, the simple selection criteria of the interviewees were used: women who were in hijabs, adults (older than 18), and citizens of Kyrgyzstan. The interviewees had different backgrounds, they were aged between 19 and 46, there were married with children, as well as single or divorced/widowed women. Eight women in hijabs had higher university degrees and two of the interviewees were international Master Degree holders. The majority of the interviewees had covered their bodies with loose dresses or loose long sleeve tops and long skirts. Three of the interviewees were in black dresses and black headscarves. The other interviewees preferred to adapt western clothes to Islamic rules: long sleeves and skirts, whereas one of the interviewees was in long loose shirt and loose jeans and in colored headscarf. Some of the interviewees wore make-up. According to the Interviewee N, she has a responsibility to disseminate information about Islam. Even though she felt comfortable in the black hijab, she sacrificed her comfort so that her appearance would not prevent other people who surround her from approaching her with questions, and decided not to veil in black. She felt that it is her responsibility to integrate into society in the country and win favor of her social environment.

Only two out of nine interviewees emphasize that their choices to wear hijabs were supported by their family members, whereas other seven interviewees indicated that their families had negative reactions towards their choices to become veiled. At the same time, it is noteworthy that families were not against religious practices such as praying or fasting. All nine interviewees indicated that the choice to wear hijabs was their own. Although, the majority of the interviewees reported that they did not get approval and support from their families in their decision to wear hijabs; however, they noted that this decision did not damage relationships within families, but turned to be a source of conflict with friends, at school, work and public places. For example, the Interviewee A reported that her surrounding[14] at the university did not normalize her new practice and she had to change the university after she started veiling.

Motives for women to wear hijabs

The interviews revealed that religion and hijabs were used as a coping strategy, protection, normative fitness, and search for meaning of life, self-identification, interest or a marriage strategy.

Historically, people needed religion in order to find the meaning of life and use it in difficult and unfortunate times as a coping strategy. According to Heyat, “in Central Asia the post-Soviet changes and consequent new poverty, insecurities and chaos have been in tandem with greater demand for religion and its guiding role in daily life.”[15]  By distinguishing oneself from others, in this case from non-believers, women in hijab are making personal choices that provide them with guidelines related to their perceptions of themselves and how they are supposed to act and live in order to reduce uncertainty. The interviewees described similar motives to become religious when they indicated that their primary motives were a search for a meaning of life and reduction of uncertainty. Two interviewees, P and R indicated their self-identification with Islam was a coping strategy in difficult periods of their life and at a time of crisis. The interviewee P became a widow with small children in her mid-thirties. She lost purpose in her life as it had been her husband. She remembers how she would not sleep at night and worry about how she would bring up her sons. The interviewee R named economic problems, the loss of her mother and caring for her little brother, who was perceived as a burden in those circumstances, was a trigger for her to turn to Islam: her Muslim colleagues came to her in the time of need, when she was experiencing difficulties in her life and wanted to reduce uncertainty and find answers. For these women religion in these difficult periods became means to gaining relief and peace of mind.

As it was indicated earlier, all interviewees stated that they made their own choices to start wearing hijabs. However, it is noteworthy that some of the interviewees described how their surrounding people – friends, acquaintances, family members, and other people whom they met in their lives – influenced them to become interested in Islam and become covered. For example, in the Interviewee N’s case her experience studying at the international program outside of Kyrgyzstan in a non-Muslim state played a great role in her becoming interested in Islam and starting veiling. There she met Muslims from different countries and became interested, whereas in Kyrgyzstan she was not interested in Islam at all, on the contrary, before this experience she was interested in non-Muslim religions. Another example of the external factor was illustrated by the Interviewee K: her family’s religious background (her grandfather was a mullah during the Soviet times) in addition to her experience of living and working in the Islamic state, made her more influenced by Islamic ideas. Thus, her family background and the place of residence were significant preconditions for her decision to become veiled.

When justifying their choices to wear hijabs the majority of the interviewees suggest that hijab has a protective function, giving a sense of security and protection to women in hijabs against physical violence, sexual harassment and insulting remarks from men. Here, the interviewees use instrumental reasoning where hijab is considered to be an instrument to achieve a particular goal – to be protected.[16]

Another interesting field reflection concerning the reasons to wear hijab is related to hypocrisy discourse. While explaining why the interviewees started wearing hijab they justify their choice describing those female Muslim believers who do not wear hijab as hypocrites. Two concepts, the normative fitness that was described in Turner’s works  and the normative rationality that was conceptualized by Spickard are particularly useful in analyzing the hypocrisy discourse[17][18]. According to Turner et al. (1994), in order to fit in a certain group, such as Muslim community, one should have similar and consistent normative characteristic, such as hijab in case of religious Muslim females. In the case of the normative rationality, normative values should be consistent with actions. So, these interviewees justify their choice to wear hijabs as a normative action or a duty in order to be consistent with their religious values.[19]  For example, the Interviewee M’s view is that Muslim believers should fully accept their identity:  “If you aspire then you should correspond […] you should not be hypocrite, saying yes I am Muslim and at the same time saying no to hijab is not for me”.

Interesting narratives were heard concerning hijab becoming a marriage strategy, this allowed women to rationalize their choices as actions that maximize benefits[20] . According to Kandiyoti, by analyzing women’s strategies/coping mechanisms within the patriarchal systems in their cultural context we can capture and “reveal how men and women resist, accommodate, adapt and conflict with each other over resources, rights and responsibilities”[21] . In discussing the field narratives of the interviewees related to marriage strategies the author uses “patriarchal bargain” a concept that was used by Kandiyoti  to describe women’s coping strategy in the patriarchal society[22]. According to the reflections of the interviewees, some women start veiling in order to get married and enhance stability and security in their lives by increasing responsibility and control by men. For example, the Interviewee R notes that hijab helps a woman become more attractive for a marriage: “There are people who think that they [women in hijabs] are the purest and nicest people. It is true, it is easier to get married in hijabs, such women are in demand”.

Self-identification is the last motivation that was defined by one of the interviewees who was questioning her personal identification within two religious groups as she comes from a mixed family with Christian and Muslim backgrounds. Tajfel’s and Turner’s theory of self-categorization and Brewer’s person-based and relational social identities suggest that it is important for an individual to know where she or he belongs to, or what specific social category she or he can refer to in order to define the terms of relationships with other people[23][24]. Before choosing a specific social category the Interviewee L needed to refer to a question about her personal identity – “Who is she?” in terms of her individual closeness regarding the specific social group – Christian or Muslim. Only when she made a choice and identified herself as a member of a specific social category, when she chose to identify herself with a Muslim group, she could define herself in relation to others.

 Conclusion

This article presented and analyzed the range of narratives and reflections of the women in hijabs. The results indicated a variety of motives, rationalities and factors both internal and external, and investigated why the Kyrgyz women who participated in this study started veiling. The reflections and stories of the interviewees revealed that veiling was used as a coping strategy, protection, search for meaning of life, self-identification, and as a marriage strategy. However, it is questionable, how Islamization process will develop and that is why it is important to work on integrating religious and secular groups so that these and other social groups would peacefully coexist in the context of diversity in the Kyrgyz society.

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[1] Abashin, Sergei. “Islamic Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Why it Appeared and What to

Expect”. Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal of Social and Political Studies 2, no. 14. (2002).  http://www.cac.org/journal/2002/journal_eng/cac-02/08.abaen.shtml

[2] Abbasova, Asal. “Religion in Present-Day Uzbekistan”. Central Asia and the Caucasus

Journal of Social and Political Studies 1, no. 7. (2001).

http://www.ca-c.org/journal/2001/journal_eng/cac-01/13.abbe.shtml

[3] Kurganskaia Valentina. “New Spiritual Trends in Kazakhstan”. Central Asia and the Caucasus

Journal of Social and Political Studies,. 3 no. 15. (2002).

http://www.ca-c.org/journal/2002/journal_eng/cac-03/12.kuren.shtml

[4] Kurmanov, Erkin. “Hizb Ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan”. Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal

of Social and Political Studies 3, no. 15. (2002).

http://www.ca-c.org/journal/2002/journal_eng/cac-03/14.kuren.shtml

[5] Sjukijainen, Leonid. “Islam vs. Islam: On Islamic Alternative to Extremism and Terrorism.”

Central Asia and the Caucasus Journal of Social and Political Studies 3, no. 15.

(2002). http://www.ca-c.org/journal/2002/journal_eng/cac-

03/09.siuken.shtml

[6] Heyat, Farideh. “Re-Islamization in Kyrgyzstan: gender, new poverty and the moral

Dimension”, Central Asian Survey 23, no. 3-4. (2004): 275-287

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0263493042000321371?journalCode=ccas20#.VMNwvUesVu0

[7] Heyat, Farideh. “New Veiling in Azerbaijan Gender and Globalized Islam”. European Journal

of Women’s Studies 15 no.4. (2008): 361-376.  http://ejw.sagepub.com/content/15/4/361.short

[8] Kurganskaia. “New Spiritual Trends in Kazakhstan”

[9] Abbasova,  “Religion in Present-Day Uzbekistan”

[10] Mokeev, A. “Rol sufiskih sheihov v rasprostranenii islamskoi religii v Kyrgyzstane.”

Manas  Journal. (2006): 125

http://journals.manas.edu.kg/mjtc/oldarchives/2006/10_822-2105-1-PB.pdf

[11] Abu Hasan, M. “Nachalo rasprostraneniya Islama na territorii Kyrgyzstana

(seredina VIII-X).” Vestnik KRSU. Vol 4. (2002). http://www.krsu.edu.kg/vestnik/2002/v4/a03.html

[12] Heyat, “Re-Islamization in Kyrgyzstan,”

[13] Myers, Michael. Qualitative research in business and management.  London: Sage, 2013.

[14] Surrounding is understood here as a milieu, a person’s social environment such as family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, class-mates and people in general with whom women in hijabs encounter in public places.

[15] Heyat, “Re-Islamization in Kyrgyzstan,” 286

[16] Jerolmack, Colin and  Porpora, Douglas. “Religion, rationality, and experience: a response to the

new rational choice theory of religion”. Sociological Theory  22 no.1, (2004): 140-160.

from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-

9558.2004.00208.x/pdf

[17] Turner, John C., Oakes, Penelope J., Haslam, S. Alexander and McGarty, Craig. “Self and collective: Cognition and social context”. Personality and social psychology bulletin 20. (1994):   454. http://www.uni-jena.de/

[18] Spickard, James V.  (1998). “Rethinking religious social action: What is ―rational‖ about rational choice theory?” Sociology of Religion 59 no.2. (1998): 99-115.

http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/content/59/2/99.full.pdf+html

[19] Spickard, “Rethinking religious,” 99-115.

[20] Iannaccone,  Laurence. “Rational choice: Framework for the scientific study of religion,” in

Rational choice theory and religion: Summary and assessment, 25-45. Edited by Lawrence Young. New York:  Routledge, 1997.

[21] Kandiyoti, Deniz. “Bargaining with patriarchy.” Gender & society 2 no. 3, (1988): 274-290. http://gas.sagepub.com/content/2/3/274.short, 285

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tajfel, Henri and Turner, John. “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict.” The social psychology of intergroup relations 33, no. 47, (1979): 74.

[24] Brewer, Marilynn.  “The Many Faces of Social Identity: Implications for Political

Psychology.”  Political psychology, 22 no. 1, (2001): 115-125.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0162-895X.00229/pdf

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