Who really oppresses Muslim women?

Disputes over the ban of Muslim veils in schools have broken out again in Russia

Who really oppresses Muslim women?
Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov

With the beginning of the school year, disputes about the wearing of Muslim veils in schools have broken out with a new force in Russia. The reason was a scandal in one of the Dagestan schools, where the deputy director did not allow girls to attend classes without veils. The official was subsequently dismissed. The Muslim Spiritual Board of the Asian part of Russia called for maintaining a balance in matters of religion and not engaging in coercion. Meanwhile, many speak, as about the other extreme, about the ban on hijabs in educational institutions for those who, by their own choice, decided to wear a veil. Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, discusses this topic in his next column for our publication.

History pages

“Gulchatai, take off your paranja, open your face” — this phrase from the cult Soviet action film 'White Sun of the Desert', probably heard every observant Muslim woman. The film is shot in the genre of “Soviet eastern” and fully expresses the Soviet idea of the East — bandit Abdullah, the embodiment of Basmachi movement, and the harem of women oppressed by him, who must be saved by the communist revelation.

These events are connected with the long-term Soviet company “Hujum”, which was carried out in the 1920-1930s. The Soviet Union created special women's departments engaged the education affairs of women. The most important goal of the women's departments was to promote the new Soviet culture, but, in addition, the women's departments were also engaged in many issues necessary for ordinary women: they conducted special parental and medical courses, organised maternity hospitals.

For example, loud public actions of paranja burning were carried out through women's departments during the Soviet Union. To achieve some advantages, husbands often themselves brought their wives to such events, but at home, they put paranja on their wives again.

Photo: wikipedia.org

Contrary to this, it should be said that in the clergy itself, which at that time was divided into Jadidism and Cadimism, there were forces that themselves advocated the organisation of women's departments and for a more free attitude to the paranja. At the same time, any opposition to the “emancipation of women” was assessed as direct actions of the clergy against the good programme of the Red government. The programme of “emancipation” was harsh: mosque buildings were chosen as a platform for these programmes, mullahs were forced to preach emancipation and emancipate their own wives.

The harsh forms that the struggle against religion took in Central Asia led to sad consequences. It's not just about the arrests of all dissenters from conservative mullahs and ordinary residents. Attacks on employees of women's departments were very frequent: according to some reports, about 2,500 female workers and employees were killed in the period 1920-1930.

It is important that the rhetoric used by Soviet ideologists then and liberal ideologists now, that a woman wears a paranja by the orders and oppression of mullahs, and not of her own volition, does not correspond to reality. Despite the strict control, women continued to cover their bodies for a very long time — and even political activists did this. Here is how historian Adib Khalid writes about it:

“Back in the early 1920s, some women refused the paranja and chachvan and appeared in public (including in the theatre) with an open face, but most working (even in the political sphere) women continued to wear the paranja and chachvan... On March 8, 1927, on International Women's Day, the women's department organised a number of mass rallies, at which thousands of women tore off paranjas and burned it. Similar rallies continued for several more years, but unlike other campaigns of the cultural revolution, this one was cancelled in 1929, because it caused a negative reaction and turned out to be counterproductive in all respects. The burqa completely disappeared only in the 1950s” (Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia).

At the same time, the women's department itself attracted mainly women with unsuccessful experiences in family and marriage. At the same time, many women were satisfied and supported the established order:

“The women's department was headed by European women who were delegated from Russia for 'revolutionary work', but the organisations themselves attracted many women from the local population. Many of them belonged to the marginal strata of society: girls who ran away from home, women who abandoned their bigot husbands, and so on. However, it was precisely the marginal segments of society that had to destabilise the existing order” (Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia).

Subsequently, the fate of the new female intelligentsia recruited from these layers was disappointing. They acted as a battering ram for the transformation of Muslim culture into the new Soviet one. Later they themselves fell victim: for example, in 1938, the first woman who took off the paranja in Soviet Uzbekistan, Tadzhikhan Shadyeva, was repressed and spent 19 years in the colonies of Magadan Oblast.

However, did the Soviet project want progress for Muslims, the development of their native culture? The historian's verdict is disappointing: “For Islam, the consequences were depressing. In the history of Central Asia, perhaps only the invasion of Genghis Khan can be compared with the Soviet aggression against Islam and its institutions in terms of cruelty. Islam then, as now, survived, but has undergone many changes. The Soviet campaign destroyed the tools with which Islamic knowledge was transmitted and reproduced. In this sense, the persecution of the ulamas played a decisive role. Many ulema emigrated to Afghanistan, tried to get lost in rural areas. The targeted persecution of the ulamas after 1927 practically destroyed the system of education and mentoring through which Islam spread in the region.”

Tadzhikhan Shadyev. Photo: wikipedia.org

Muslim women in the new Russia

Today, the Orientalist stereotype of the “oppressed woman of the East” has also become entrenched in the mass consciousness. In many ways, it is the image of a woman that becomes the justification and reason for intervention and the “peaceful export of democracy”. For example, WikiLeaks published the leak of the CIA report dated March 26, 2010, which noted the importance of using rhetoric about women's rights to support public approval in Western countries for the NATO campaign in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is obvious that the majority of Muslim women support Islamic norms (which is not surprising) and also actively advocate segregation from men, considering the male environment dangerous for themselves, and also positively assess the hijab.

On the contrary, the issue of religious rights in Muslim societies is increasingly more acute than the rights of women: in the post-Soviet space, almost all women enjoy the right to education, at the same time, schools and universities consider it possible for themselves to restrict attendance at an educational institution because of girls' compliance with the norms of religion recognised as traditional in Russia. Since these norms are thought of as mandatory, the non-admission of girls to educational institutions is nothing more than a restriction of the right to education because of religious affiliation.

At the same time, Russia has some of the most open and convenient laws for religious people regarding, for example, European countries. Due to the possibility of home schooling, there are precedents for Christian conservatives moving to Russia. A well-known example is farmer Justus Walker.

Justus Walker. Photo: vk.com

Paragraph 2 of Article 3 of the Federal Law No. 125-FZ as of 26 September 1997 states that the right of a person and a citizen to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion may be restricted by federal law only to the extent necessary in order to protect the foundations of the constitutional system, morality, health, rights and legitimate interests of a person and a citizen, to ensure the defense of the country and the security of the state.

In Russia, there are very open laws regarding the hijab. In fact, a Muslim woman can dress as she sees fit. But, despite the openness of the country's laws, Muslim women often face discrimination in local and private institutions. An example is the ban on the wearing of religious paraphernalia in schools in Mordovia.

Muslims are one of the indigenous, traditional communities of Russia. According to the basic law of our country, no one can force someone to observe their religion. However, restricting religious rights means going against the Constitution. When people remember about freedom for Muslim women, they often forget about their own religious freedoms.

Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.

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