Discussing Women’s Religiosity and Religious Observance with Dr. Rano Turaeva

In Central Asia, women’s religiosity is judged mostly on their appearance. But it’s not that simple, argues Dr. Rano Turaeva


Rano Turaeva

Dr. Rano Turaeva is an associated researcher at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale), Germany. Dr. Turaeva is currently working on the project “The Role of Mosques in the Integration of Migrants in Russia” and has written on migration, entrepreneurship, informal economies, gender, border studies, identity, and inter-ethnic relations, among many other topics. Her work has been published in such journals as Central Asian Survey, Inner Asia, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, and Anthropology of the Middle East.

Turaeva’s book, Migration and Identity: The Uzbek Experience, which is based on her PhD thesis, was published by Routledge in 2016.

Many researchers, journalists, and sociologists talk about the rising role of Islam among post-Soviet Central Asians. Is that true for women too?

There is a lack of systematic qualitative research on this important topic. Even if I see a woman wearing a hijab in the mosque, I cannot draw conclusions about her religiosity and her beliefs unless I socialize with her and come to understand her everyday concerns, social networks, family status, and other key identity markers. I also cannot say much when I see a woman wearing tight clothes and a miniskirt who attends the mosque every Friday unless I get to know her better. Thus, when analysts make rushed conclusions about “the rising role of Islam,” I can neither confirm nor deny it. I can only say what I have experienced and seen in the everyday lives of Central Asian nationals both at home and in Russia.

Women are often less independent in their decisions to practice Islam (or not) than men; their latitude to practice depends on their family status. If their husband or partner attends a mosque regularly, then the woman tries to stay within the rules of Islam. A woman’s level of observance may also depend on her employment and living conditions: I saw many women attending mosques who were (like men) seeking opportunities and safety, which can be found in the mosque, where the majority of migrants meet. There is no better place to meet with so many people for free as in a mosque, considering how overcrowded homes often are and the expense of cafes.

Besides practical reasons for becoming observant, I must admit that there appeared to be more room to practice one’s religion in Russia than at home. This includes the freedom to wear religious clothing (unless one works full-time).

There appeared to be more room to practice one’s religion in Russia than at home. This includes the freedom to wear religious clothes (unless one works full-time).

How can the role of religion in women’s lives be defined? How does it influence their appearance, communication, and observation of rules (praying, fasting, going to mosques, eating habits, etc.)?

If I declare myself to be a Muslim to a statistician, this will be reflected in the results of the study, but it does not say anything about my beliefs and practices. I saw women who prayed and attended the mosque regularly but at the same time invited me to their college parties in nightclubs. So I guess there is no need to rush to conclusions about the rise of Islam; instead, we should talk about the content of the practices. If I go to a hijama (a form of religious healing that uses cuts to suck out bad blood) performer for healing, it may not be because I believe only in Islamic healing, but because I cannot afford medical help in official clinics. The same goes for those who seek medical help and religious healing from alternative healers at home, where medical services are available on paper only.

Illustrations by Marat Kuhm
Does religiosity confer on women any additional advantages in the family, the community, society, business, state affairs, etc.?

Religiosity is interpreted differently by different people. I am still puzzled by one of my respondents—she smokes and lives a liberal Western modern life (wearing sexy Western clothes, going to nightclubs, drinking, having different lovers, and sometimes even exchanging sex for money or favors) but stated that her dream is to find a good man who believes in God and that she would wear hijab for him and pray five times a day if necessary. It was difficult for me to comprehend how this dream and wishes could fit into the lifestyle she has. I asked her why this was so important, when she is very good-looking and can have any man she wants, is educated enough, and can even finance her life? She could not answer this question, convinced that she would only marry someone who would agree to have a religious marriage with her and that she would be ready to wear hijab after marriage. I do not have much space here to go into more detail on this individual case, though I plan to do so in my future publications.

What I can say, at least, is that I believe showing one’s religiosity provides women with more social capital than it does men: it is automatically connected with trust, loyalty, holiness, God’s blessing, and being/feeling protected by God. One is even afraid of someone who is religious, believing that if one hurts someone who is loyal to God, then God will punish the perpetrator in return. Businesswomen (that is, women dressed in a business style) whom I met in a mosque in Moscow believed that with God’s blessing, they could be more successful. If an individual attends a mosque, gives alms, and lets the imam read suras from the Qur’an for their success, they will have more success than do others. These women’s interpretation of religion is very businesslike and business-oriented.

Let’s talk about hijab, which has become an important societal issue. Why has everyone in the region become so obsessed with how a woman ties her scarf? Young men seem to be more willing to marry hijabi girls, while the state is pressuring these same hijabi women and does not want them to wear hijab even at home.

Hijab-wearing came to Central Asia with the collapse of the Soviet Union as a popular way of presenting one’s religion. Why did governments become sensitive to this new development in the field of Islamic practices and representation? The “Islamic threat” is now in the air everywhere, especially in Central Asia, a region that has been recognized as “home” to many terrorists (although I am not sure if those terrorists consider their native countries a “home”). Central Asian governments use the discourse of security and terrorist threat both to suppress their citizens’ activities and maintain their authoritarian regimes. They justify all manner of illegal actions against their own people on the pretext of an Islamic threat without realizing that these measures only have the opposite of the desired effect: they contribute to the radicalization of youth outside their homes. The governments of receiving countries fail to integrate migrants, treating migration as a short-term phenomenon and pushing migrants into the shadow of informality and illegality. The absence of prospects for the future wherever migrants live and work increases their sense of insecurity, hopelessness, isolation, and despair.

Marrying hijabi women is something entirely distinct from the above discourse on security. In an era of migration and mobility, the role of women has changed in terms of work and residence patterns. Women’s mobility has more or less liberated them from family, kinship networks, and community (before, living with one’s parents until marriage was a guarantee of purity). Economic devastation and family crises in post-Soviet space pushed an increasing number of women and young girls into prostitution, and human trafficking also flourished. Liberal non-traditional lifestyles (drinking, smoking, going out late, and having sex outside of marriage) became the norm not only away from home (in Russia and Central Asian urban centers) but also at home (though to a lesser extent than away from home). This development fostered new insecurities about women’s honor and marriageability. Hijab-wearing women became more trusted than those who live modern liberal lifestyles, especially in metropolises or in Central Asian urban centers (unless a woman has not traveled outside her parents’ home before marriage). A man is convinced that if a woman follows Islamic rules to the letter, she will be pure, in the sense that she will not smoke, drink alcohol, have sex before marriage, or go out late at night. The majority of men believe that these women are more obedient and will be good mothers to their many children. Another—and by no means the least—attraction is that a proper Muslim woman will understand polygyny and accept three more wives, which has become a trend among Central Asian men, particularly Tajiks.

Hijab-wearing women became more trusted than those who live modern liberal lifestyles, especially in metropolises or in Central Asian urban centers.

What is the academic/popular definition of “hijab”? Under Islamic law, the way my grandmother and my mother, for example, tie their scarfs (simply hiding their hair and neck, like almost all the women of their generation in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) also falls under the definition of “hijab.” It is true that the way they wear the scarf is different from what is called “Turkish style,” but is it really about the style of wearing the hijab?

Hijab is an Arabic word which means “veil.” In the Qur’an, it does not refer to women’s clothing, but to a curtain or partition within a space. The interpretation of “hijab” varies. In Central Asia, it means a certain kind of veiling that is prevalent in Arabic countries, namely the kind that covers not only the hair but also the neck, ears, and part of the upper body. The scarves worn by Central Asian women are definitely part of the realm of veiling, and can theoretically also be called hijab. However, we have to be clear about the local understanding of hijab, and the local connotations of covering the head or hair, namely that it is a symbol of marriage. Rumol (the scarf worn by women in Central Asia) has more to do with social status than with religion!

In July 2016, the billboards on the streets of Bishkek bore banners depicting three groups of Kyrgyz women: one wearing traditional Kyrgyz dress, a second in white Islamic dress, and the third garbed in black Islamic dress. The sign asked, “Kairan elim, kaida baratabyz?” (“My poor people, where are we going?”) The images were supposed to show that Kyrgyz women had no tradition of covering their faces. Read more in Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova, “The War of Billboards: Hijab, Secularism, and Public Space in Bishkek“, Central Asian Affairs 4 (2017), 217-242
Regarding religious radicalization, is it so far only a “men’s illness” or are there any signs of it among our women too?

I would not define radicalization in medical terms—it is rather a social phenomenon, and the process does not differentiate between men and women. Among Central Asian nationals, we have often seen the wives of radicalized Islamic State followers traveling to Syria and Iraq. Fighting and holding a gun can still be defined in masculine terms, but Islamists also have found the right language to attract women as well.


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