Womenandreligion in post-soviet kazakhstan-aview from within


During the last twenty years, the issue of a revival of religion is routinely raised in discussions about the political and socio-cultural development of modem Central Asia, including Kazaklrstan. It is noteworthy that in the last national census of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2009, a question on religious affiliation was included. According to the census results, the vast majority of people in Kazaklistan (97 %) identify themselves with a particular religion, including Islam (70.1 %), Cliristianity (26.1 %), Judaism (0.03 %), Buddliism (0.09 %), and other religions (0.19 %). As non-believers identified themselves 2.8 % , and 0.5 % refused to give any affiliation (Itogi 2010). These figures, in my opinion, reflect not so much the degree of ‘religiosity’ of the population as much as ‘ethno-religious identity’. The interweaving of religious and ethno-cultural identity is a phenomenon common to many post-socialist societies: “Their public space and social context which affects the religious experience is, in many ways, etlmo-national” (Hann 2010, 15).

In the Kazakhstani society, the largest religious denominations, Islam and Orthodox Cliristianity, are mainly represented by the two largest ethnic groups, the Kazakhs and the Russians [2] [3] [4]. In tliis case, ethno-religious identity does not necessarily reflect the extent and depth of religiosity. For example, Kazakhs do not refrain from considering themselves Muslims, even if they do not Coimnonly follow basic Islamic rituals such as daily prayer and restrictions or abstinence of alcohol.

Stressing the importance of the gender dimension of religiosity, Janet Jacobs, the sociologist of religion points out that “the inclusion of gender as a category of analysis is a Cliallenge to the established, generic, masculine bias, recognizing women as legitimate objects of study, and the gender dimension as important, in the light of which the meaning and symbolic system of religious culture is then interpreted” (Jacobs, 1998: 206). Intliis regard, the study of the relationship between women and religion in Kazakhstan did not get much attention yet ’.

The purpose of tliis article is to show how the post- Soviet religious revival affects the status of women in Kazakh society, and what changes it brought into their lives. Because Islam is the religion of the majority of the population, and the Kazaklis constitute the largest ethnic group (64.5 %) in its multi-cultural composition, the focus of the article is on Kazakh Muslim women who statistically determine the main trends of women's religiosity in Kazaklistan.

The paper examines how religion changes the social and cultural roles of women. In particular, a phenomenon of religious piety has emerged which became one of the ways of expressing religious identity. Thus, new interpretations of what is meant to be a Muslim appear, which are based on the scriptural Islam, not on local religious / cultural traditions. Tliis new trend co-exists with mainstream secular traditions which have a strong impact on the perception of gender roles.

The research is based on statistical data, ethnographical materials on Central Asian religious traditions, and a range of sociological surveys, conducted by local and Western researchers. In addition, the author’s in-depth interviews with female members of one of the Islamic movements provide unique source material for tliis study. Their social and economic status, age, education, etc., will be informative in defining the female participants of religious Coimnunities in Kazakhstan. Besides, the article reflects upon the author’s personal life experience in Kazakhstan, as Kazakh by ethnicity and Muslim by religious affiliation.

The investigation of contemporary manifestations of the impact of religion on Kazakhstani women allows us to put forward the following theses:

  • A new meaning of religiosity which is more than just a customary, self-described identity based on ethnic tradition is emerging in Kazakhstan (as well as to various degree in other Central Asian societies). For example, tliis phenomenon is well illustrated for Kyrgyzstan (McBrien 2010). New Islamic piety assumes a gender Iiierarchy and a return to the ‘traditional’ division of labour in which a woman is ascribed a subordinate role. Tliis approach is seen as a reversal of the ‘traditional’ Soviet-inspired notion of gender equality.
  • At the same time, the rehabilitation of religion has carved out new niches for women to express themselves in the religious space and to feel empowered. Therefore, emerging Islamic education has created a special need for female teachers of religion and Arabic language for “women only” classes. Additionally, religious women create autonomous spaces for themselves to socialize with each other.
  • Nevertheless, the current impact of religion on the majority OfKazakhstani women has been limited as a whole. Social changes during the Soviet era contributed to the fact that in contemporary mainstream society, gender roles are based on secular rather than on religious values.

The Religiosity of Kazakhstani Society and the Status of Women

Certainly, the influence of religion on women in Kazakhstan should be considered in the context of their role in society at large. In comparing Kazakhstan to the neighboring former Soviet states of Central Asia it is useful to accentuate existing internal Cliaracteristics. A comparison with the countries of the Middle East and Southeast Asia where Islamic tradition, knowledge, and practice were not interrupted, will Iiiglflight further the position OfKazakhstan in the global ‘Islamic world’.

The main sources of information in this chapter are the sociological surveys of religiosity conducted in the Central Asian region, including both those conducted by local and by international experts during the past five years (Bell 2013; Religioznaya Situatsiya 2013; Ro’i / Wainer 2009). These studies indicate a relatively low level of religiosity in Kazakhstan and an overwhelmingly secular orientation. In the Iuerarchy of identities of society in general, the first place is taken by ‘citizenship’ at 48.2 %, followed by ‘ethnic identity’ at 34.6 %. ‘Religious affiliation’ by contrast, is only third place at 10.6 %. Overall, the majority of the population of Kazakhstan (71.3 %) wants to see the country as a secular state, and only 3.3 % want a state which is fully religious (Religioznaya situatsiya 2013). The assessment of Kazaklistani society as predominantly secular was confirmed by sociological research conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (Bell 2013).

More specifically, the imposition of Sharia, the Islamic body of law, as the official law of the state is supported by 10 % OfKazaklistani Muslims, several times less than in countries such as Malaysia (86 %) and Egypt (74 %)[5]. The Muslims of Kazakhstan are the most tolerant in the list of those surveyed: they hold the lowest percentage of those who support the death penalty for renouncing Islam at 4 %, while in Egypt such support is shared by 86 % of Muslims. The percentage of Kazakhstani Muslims who would agree with the possibility of their son or daughter marrying to a Cliristian is twice as Iflgh in comparison to UzbekistanMuslims (Bell 2013).

Kazaklistani Muslims also exhibit the greatest degree of respect for the rights of women. In comparison with other countries, Kazakhstan lias the lowest percentage of those who would support the subordination of the wife to her husband (51 %), while in other countries we see Iraq at 92 %, Tajikistan at 89 %, and Uzbekistan at 84 %. Also, the majority (84 %) OfKazaklistani Muslims would not approve of killing a woman for having sex before marriage, while in Uzbekistan the rate is at 50 % and in Kyrgyzstan at 65.5 %. Other indicators also demonstrate that Kazaklistan has the Iflgliest degree of women's freedoms. Most Kazakhstani population support the free choice of a woman on whether to veil her face (78 %). They also endorse the right of the wife to initiate divorce (80 %), while in other countries we see Uzbekistan at 59 % and Tajikistan at 30 % (Bell 2013).

It is concluded that Muslims supporting the establishment of sharia as the official law of the state are less likely to recognize the equality of women. They are more inclined to support traditional Muslim gender roles. In Kazakhstan, according to many indicators, Islam has the least impact on the society as compared to other countries with Muslim population (Bell 2013). And in this regard, Kazaklrstani society demonstrates the Ifighest level of secularization and emancipation of women in Central Asia and in the ‘Islamic world’ as a whole.

It is noteworthy that, according to yet another indicator of religiosity, the adherence to normative Islamic rituals, Kazaklistani Muslims are most likely the religious minimalists. Among the peoples of Central Asia, the five daily prayers are conducted by only 7.2 % of Kazakhs, 8.3 % of Kyrgyz, 32% OfUzbeks, and 41.3% of Tajiks (Ro’i / Wainer 2009, 307).

It can be argued that the weak impact of religion on the social status OfKazakhstani women is linked to the Iiigher degree of secularization of the Kazakhstani society in general. Of course, the fact that officially family relations are governed by civil law, in itself makes a big difference. Tlfis is yet another legacy of the Soviet policy of the emancipation of women. In addition, there is the influence of the cultural and Iiistorical heritage. Traditionally, in Kazakli society family matters were regulated by both Sharia, and a set of pre-Islamic rules - the adat. Marriage was sanctified by a mullah, and polygamy was permitted according to Islamic norms. On the other hand, according to customary law, marriage between close relatives was prohibited up until the seventh generation[6]. Adat also imposes limitations on women’s status by the custom of Ievirate when the widow must re-many in her husband’s family, for example, Iiis brother.

By way of comparison, in many contemporary Arab countries, discrimination against women is instilled into family law which in many ways is based on the traditional interpretation of Islamic nonns. So, a woman must “obtain pennission from her father, husband, or other relative male guardian not only to marry but also to seek employment, start a business, travel, or open a bank account” (Moghadam / Roudi-Faliimi 2005, 2). Adherence to the Islamic nonns, which were relevant in the past, in the modem period symbolizes the economic dependence of women on men and their economic and legal inequality. The influence of religion on the status of Arab women is so deep that attempts to overcome discrimination against women should take into account Islamic tradition, the sensitivity to which is very Iiigh in the Arab society, and in the Middle East in general.

Thus, a look at the level of religiosity in modem Kazakh society, including a comparison with other countries which have a Muslim majority, can lead us to conclude the following: The influence of religion on society and, in particular, on women is seen as limited and marginal. Tliis phenomenon is a consequence of several factors, and the pre-Soviet nomadic cultural and Iiistorical heritage is one of them /(although its religious effect is manifested mainly as a cultural trait). The Soviet legacy of radical secularization, as well as the current course of the government to keep religion out of family law, have been the most important factors in this regard. Modem society in Kazakhstan as a whole is set up to ensure that gender roles are based on secular rather than on religious traditions.

What Influence does Contemporary Religiosity Have?

Understanding the peculiarities of the influence of religion on women in modem Kazaklistan is possible only within the general context, namely the place and the role of religion in society. It is clear that religiosity in society has increased during the last two post-Soviet decades when freedom of religion and religious choice were first experienced During this period several factors affected its forms and content, including the legacy of Soviet modernization, the intertwining of ethnic and religious identity, the effects of socio-economic transition, government regulation of the religious sphere, and the formation of the religious marketplace of ideas.

The impact of the Soviet legacy is especially important for understanding the current stage of the development of religion in Kazakhstan. Needless to say, the neighboring countries of Central Asia have also been through an experience of radical secularism and Soviet modernization. But due to specific Iiistorical circumstances Soviet influence on Kazaklistani society was the most profound and long-lasting. By the late Soviet stage Kazakhstan had become the most urbanised country in Central Asia because in the course of forced Sedentarisation and collectivisation, the traditional Kazakli nomadic way of life was destroyed[7]. Tliis caused dramatic ethno-demographic changes in the middle of the last century: the number of Kazakhs, the titular group, sharply declined. At the same time, a massive labour influx of Russians from European parts of the Soviet Union to Kazakhstan occurred. As a result, their numbers and their share in Kazakhstan’s population significantly increased[8]. Thus, the demographic and cultural landscape of the territory dramatically changed from the pre-Soviet predominantly Turk-Muslim representation to a EuroAsian and Orthodox-Muslim duality. The impact of the Russian-speaking environment on Kazakhs, especially in the cities, has been the most profound when compared to neighboring Central Asian nations.

Soviet modernization with its social and cultural achievements (universal free education and health care, upward social mobility, rising life-expectancy comparable to West European levels, emancipation of women) drastically undermined the regulatory role of religion. Religious knowledge and the continuity of its transmission first of all within the family were destroyed together with the Muslim clergy who disappeared as a group[9]. Islam was expelled from the public sphere, especially education, and lost its regulatory social function, but survived in people's daily lives, especially in life-cycle rituals, such as circumcision, the veneration of ’holy places’, and Muslim funeral passage.

Secular and rationalist discourse about universal humanity took the place of maxims on religious moral and ethical values. Religion was relegated to the role of ‘a relic of the past’ and an attribute of a backward society. The very meaning of ‘Islamic’ radically changed, along with the understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. The Soviet concept of ‘nationality’, according to which the national republics were established, also standardized a national language, a ‘fabricated’ national culture, and also influenced religion. The latter became just another national tradition and a marker of ethno-cultural identity.

Now, ‘being ‘Muslim’ came to mean belonging to a certain ethnic and cultural community, not to umma (the global Muslim community). No ‘Islamic countries’ outside the Soviet borders had such an experience. In isolation from the rest of the world, the Soviet Union cultivated a special ‘Soviet way of life’. Soviet Muslims saw themselves as representatives of their nationality and as the citizens of their country. Religious affiliation was not a criterion for being in a community. Therefore, residents of neighboring Iran or Afghanistan, for example, although perceived as Muslim nations, were "non-Soviet" and therefore alien. However, socialist Secularizationwas not absolute, as evidenced by the post- Soviet phenomenon of the revival of religion. Still, it began in Kazakhstan as one of the elements of a national revival, but not the most prominent one.

The transfer of family laws from the religious sphere to the sphere of civil law in the first Soviet decade was an important step towards the emancipation of Kazakh women. Marriage was no longer concluded by a mullah in a nikah, but instead recorded by a civil authority. Also, there was freedom of choice of marriage partners, and Muslim rituals such as the kalym (the dowry for the bride) were officially banned. It is noteworthy, however, that for Kazakh women, who traditionally do not cover their faces according to Islam provisions, the Stmggle against the paranja and chachvan (a set of women's outerwear Iiiding the body and face) dubbed the Iiudzjum in the Soviet period (Kamp 2006) was not an important campaign. Traditionally, Kazakh nomadic culture was more liberal in treating women. It differed in tliis regard from the neighboring settled and urban parts of Central Asia (modem day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Kazakh women did not practice face veiling, or covering their entire body. The exception to tliis was in areas densely populated by Uzbeks, such as in southern Kazakhstan (the Syr-Darya province). Therefore, distinctive anti- religious propaganda targeted women in tliis region such as the anti-paranja campaign. In 1929, the newspaper "Soviet Steppe," published in Alma-Ata city, stated: "The straggle for the emancipation of women reached our city of Shymkent (South Kazakhstan). One by one the Uzbek women there shed the paranja, and thus washed away the stigma of slavery.” But, while considering all of the peculiarities that distinguish the Central Asian societies from each other, Islam, as part of their ‘cultural heritage’, became a symbol of ethno-cultural revival during the late Soviet period. Cultmal identification with Islam continued in the following decades of independent nation-building.

The post-Soviet phase of a rapid transition to a market economy is characterized, among other tilings, by a general demoralization and disorientation, social anomia, and an erosion of social ties. Not surprisingly, sociological data show that among the reasons why people in Kazakhstan accept religion, the three primary ones are: the desire to attain spirituality (50.9 %), the lack of prospects and confidence in the future (40.7 %), and the hope to atone for sins (35.9 %) (KISEIP 2012)[10].

The social cost of transition for post-Soviet societies, including those in Central Asia, has been very high. Deep social and economic inequalities, the destraction of upward social mobility and closed channels for public participation in the affairs of the state have led to the alienation of certain parts of society, especially that of young people from vulnerable sectors. It is hard not to agree with those scholars who say that the market boom in the CentralAsian societies has not created a new moral foundation capable of overcoming social anomie (Hann 2010, 10). As will be shown later in the text, we have to admit that the revival of religion also has not consolidated society on the basis of its values.

The state policy with regard to Islam, or rather its attempt to control religious life, largely determines the status of religion in Kazakhstani society. The state supports religion as a national, cultural, and spiritual heritage, but at the same time separates it from actual religious doctrine. In tliis regard, the President of Kazakhstan’s statement is quite illustrative: "during independence we again turned to the religion of our ancestors [which essentially means] love of neighbor and country, and tliis is a consolidating factor for our society" (Nazarbayev 2013). On the other hand, religion in a secular state actually becomes converted into a mobilization force for purposes of nation-building. In tliis case, the state takes on the role of religious authority. For example, it emphasizes that an adherence to Islam should not be considered "the latest fashion", and instructs an organized Muslim clergy on issuing fatwas (a legal opinion based on Islamic scripts proclaimed by theologians on various aspects of a Muslim community’s life under Sharia law regarding current issues in society [11] [12].

As evidence of freedom of religion, religious pluralism in society has increased during the last twenty years, and the number of denominations has grown from very few to forty three n, mainly due to the emergence of neo-Protestantantism as well as other new religious movements. Historically, on the territory OfKazakhstanby the beginning of the eighteenth century, Islam coexisted with the Orthodox Church, Baptism, Catholicism, and Judaism after the penetration of the Russian Empire into the Kazakh steppe, and further into Central Asia.

The modem situation in Kazakhstan is different in that not simply a religious diversity, but a ‘market’ of religious ideas has been formed. Despite the traditional close association between religion and ethnicity, it has become possible for an individual to adopt a new religion. It is a new situation when different religions ‘are tried for one's taste’ and then selected. The phenomenon of religious conversion appears as a consequence of the freedom of religious choice.

Tliis means that cases of conversion, for example of Kazakhs who are ethnic Muslims, to Cliristian Orthodoxy or Krislmaism; or of Russians, who are ethnic Orthodox Cliristians, to Islam or Protestantism, lias become part of the religious life in Kazaklistan, albeit not very common. In all fairness to tliis, it is necessary to note that during recent decades the percentage of people professing other religions except Islam, Orthodoxy, or Judaism in the total religious composition remains at a level below 1 %.

The non-religious legacy is manifested by the fact that Kazakhstani society's attitude to the phenomenon of religious conversion is quite neutral which contrasts sharply with the situation in much of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. There, proselytism is not only condemned by the public, but is also considered a state crime (for example, in Pakistan, where it is also a violation of an apostasy law which can lead to death penalty).

The ‘New Muslim’Woman: Shift from Equality to Hierarchy

In the course of the ‘Islamic revival’ in Kazakhstan, as in other post-Soviet Central Asian countries, the understanding of what it means "to be a Muslim” has become complicated. Now, it no longer fits into the framework of only the observance of the usual cultural ceremonies of life events, such as the rite of initiation through circumcision (sundet), burial according to Muslim rites (zhanaza), or giving alms to the mosque on Fridays (sadaqah). Although the majority of the population do not dispute the connection between Islam and ethnic identity (for example, to be a Kazakh means to be a Muslim), a new interpretation of ‘Muslimness’ has emerged. In its core it is the realization that religion is also a system of rules governing the behavior of a Muslim, for example, an understanding of what is allowed and what is forbidden, such as halal and Iiaram.

A new form of religion appears which is different from the usual "religious minimalism" (Privratskii 2001), conducted within the framework of family rites. It is Characterizedby a ‘serious’understanding Oflslamwliich goes beyond ethnic custom. A category of Kazaklistani women appears for whom ‘being Muslim’ is more than the observation of life-cycle events, and in tliis way consider themselves devoted adherents of Islamic tradition.

Thus the idea of ‘piety’ becomes central, an idea which corrects the established understanding of the role of women as socially active in family and society. Tliis carries with it the traditional division of gender roles to which the woman lias the place as ‘keeper of the home’, and the man takes on a public status. Accordingly, a gender Iiierarchy is recognized when the woman is submissive to the man.

Meetings and interviews with representatives of tliis new movement, the Kazakhstani pious Muslim women [13], held during 2011-2012 in Almaty, provide enough evidence to confirm the above-made assertions[14]. Almost all of these women, in their own words, ‘came to Islam’ and began to wear the Iiijab under the influence of their husbands or relatives. With the exception of only one woman interviewed, they all migrated to the metropolis of Almaty (Sultangaliyeva 2010) from smaller cities in Kazaklistan, rented housing, and now work in the informal sector of low-paid urban employment. For instance, one lias a small shop selling Muslim clothing at a bazaar, another, her daughter, is a mid-level college student in humanities, a third sells cosmetics of one of the direct sales companies, a fourth is a cleaning lady at a bank, and a fifth is unemployed. Conversations with these and other Muslim women occurred during their ta'lims, a weekly meeting at one of their homes.

In these meetings women read and discuss “Selected Haditlis” [15]. During every meeting each person reads. According to them, the “Haditlis” can speak to everyone, regardless of age and status. The exchange of views on issues of Islam is accompanied by the usual ‘girl talk’ on themes of children, family, etc. After the ta'lim they are picked-up by one of their male relatives, and later on as a larger group, the members of the movement gather in one of their homes. There they organize a dinner at which men and women are seated separately. All the women members of the movement wear the Iiijab, and some of them are covered by the niqab (in Middle Eastern fashion) which completely Iiides one's face.

Here is the story of one of them, which is pretty typical for women who have chosen the way of religious ‘piety’. The woman, M., is 25 years old, she does not work, and she has two children. In the recent past she was an emancipated and Westernised student at a university in Russia. She became a ‘real’ Muslim when she met her future husband, D., a member of Jamaati Tabligh [16]. He was quite a socialite and a businessman, but due to life circumstances Iiis business went bankrupt. Teclmically, he is also unemployed, and periodically makes missionary trips (da'waat) proselytizing in various regions in Kazaklistan. During these trips the wife and her two young cliildren are left in the care of their relatives who do not support their devotion, considering it ‘fanaticism’ and ‘medieval’. In her own behavior M. tries dutifully to follow the Islamic norms which, in today's urban environment OfKazakhstan, make her isolated within the walls of the house, and sharply limit her mobility. She has dropped her university studies, and the four of them rent a room in the house of her husband's mother.

The new ‘pious’ Islamic life imposes restrictions on her daily life. For instance, she is not allowed to move around the city without being accompanied by a relative (mahram). and while on the street she wears the niqab, which usually attracts condemning and suspicious looks from passers-by, including fellow Kazakhs. In addition to this, M. has already given her husband the permission and is prepared for Iiim to take a second wife. But there is a precondition, in accordance with Islam, to provide equally for all Iiis wives, which includes individual housing. From the interview with M. we can see that she puts her husband above herself as ‘according to the practice of Islam’, so she willingly submits to Iiim [17].

However, in a mainstream Kazakli society dominated by secular rales putting religious ‘piety’ into practice is very difficult and sometimes impossible. For example, it is hard to find an available male relative (mahram) ready to accompany her around the city. She and her husband want to bring up their cliildren ‘according to Islamic tradition’, which means not putting them into a regular municipal kindergarten, but into a Muslim one. But, they cannot afford it for economic reasons, as such kindergartens are rare and exclusively private, meaning they are expensive. It will also be umealistic for her husband to be able to meet the religious provisions in order to take a second ‘Islamic’ wife, since he cannot provide even Iiis current wife with basic resources [18]. It is noteworthy to mention the revival of the Islamic marriage ceremony (nikah) which is performed in a mosque. In local context it became a somewhat controversial issue since at the extreme end there are cases of its violation by some Muslim men. According to Kazakhstan’s secular law, only civil marriage has legal force, and the religious ceremony is performed by choice, serving as an additional statement of etho-cultural belonging. Some ‘pious’ Muslim women who deliberately chose only religious marriage found out after the ceremony that they became the second, or even the third wife of their husbands. The cases involved mostly young unexperienced women. The men involved used such a marriage as an excuse for a religiously sanctioned sex exploitation. The number of such incidents was enough to get negative publicity in the local media. As a consequence, the Muslim clergy has become aware of the abuse of religious marriage. The muftiyat (Kazaklrstani Muslim administration body) clarified that the parents of the young bride and of the groom should be present at the religious marriage ceremony. At the same time, in the local context religious marriage can serve quite a unique social function. As in many societies (not only with Muslim culture), in Kazakhstan there is a perceived social pressure on women to perform their traditional gender roles as wife and mother. Since demographically women Outnmnber men, a certain percentage of women, especially middle aged, remain unmarried. Therefore, there are cases when secular-minded unmarried women deliberately perform the Islamic marriage ceremony to give a moral justification to their relationship with a married man, and consequently to their motherhood. As real life demonstrates, there are various ways how women interpret relationships between religious and secular, and this is unique for post-Soviet societies. Tliis uniqueness is noted by the research on Muslim female religiosity in neighboring Kyrgyzstan where “Islamic, Soviet and Western notions meld and clash” (McBrien 2010, 40). The local ‘pious’ movement in this regard is different from the similar Islamic movement in other societies with Muslim majority which did not experience radical Soviet-type secularization.

Another woman interviewed. A., is 25 years old. Her husband also spends a certain amount of time in proselytizing Islamic missions around the country. She says that she has to work in order to survive with her family (two cliildren) in a big city. She lives in a rented apartment and is involved in “home business” which is the direct selling cosmetics of one of many multi-level marketing companies. Tliis is a popular type of work for self-employed women, however it is not stable or sufficiently profitable. Her husband's periodic missionary trips are an additional weight on her. During these trips she needs to ask for help from her mother who does not live in the city.

Another participant in the Jamaati Tabligh movement is D.. She is the oldest in the group of women interviewed, and compared to the rest she lias the best livelihood. She owns an apartment and a small business which sells Muslim clotliing. D. brought her daughter who is a 16 year-old college student into the movement.

Again we must emphasize that all these women surveyed became involved in the Tabligh movement due to their husbands, the movement's active members [19]. They are united by the awareness of belonging to a group of ‘pious Muslim believers’. They strive to draw others into their faith, namely the ‘not- yet believers’ or nominal Muslims. With those who are not interested in becoming ‘religious’ persons, the women don't make contact easily, and conversation with them is not an easy business. They are characterized by suspicion and wariness toward those Muslims who do not share their ‘piety’ which in itself is considered as a guarantee of the moral Iiigh ground. One of the females expressed reproach toward the author: "You've got to be like us, to come to Islam, then you will have the right to study Islam”. The Coimnunication with this group of ‘pious’ women left a strong impression of them as being neophytes, this is reflected by their emotional devotion, self-righteousness, and so on. The ‘pious’ Muslims in the Kazakhstani environment bear ultra-orthodox features which set them apart from the mainstream Muslims, and overall society as well. Tliis observation is confirmed by other researchers of the role of Islam in Kazaklistani society who point out that there is ’’dissonance between the lifestyles and Islamic ideology of members of the piety movement and most Kazakhs” (Shwab, 2011, 240).

Among ‘pious’ Kazaklistani Muslims there are those for whom religion is not associated with a particular group and who are more rationalist, and they might state, "If a man declares Iiimself a Muslim, that does not make Iiim infallible, for it too can be deceiving". For them, the main topic is spirituality, the desire to be morally better. Such is G., a 35 year-old widow with two children of school age. A few years ago she was in the Tabligh movement, into which her late husband brought her, but then she became disappointed with it. According to her, after her husband's death, Tabliglii movement male members regularly suggested that she become a second or third wife, but without a prospective husband Iiaving any obligation to provide for her or support her children. G. looks at work not only as a source of income, but also as a virtue, accusing some Muslims of "talking too much about God instead of being engaged in work." She wears the Muslim headscarf. G. does not count on anyone’s help and educates her children to be committed to their religion. She sends her daughter to a Muslim summer camp for girls, which is organized by a Muslim activist woman who conducts weekend courses on Islam for girls.

Without participating in any kind of Islamic group, G. tries to proselytize ‘correct’ Islamic behavior, such as promoting [20] [21] halal (permissible by Islam) activities (like Iialal parties among her circle of relatives). She is very sociable, friendly, not prone to being a mentor, and does not impose her own view of religion in conversation. Personal tragic experience (the loss of her husband) brought her not to seek comfort and solace in a group of co-religionists, but to find her own individual way of religiosity.

The personal life stories of these Muslim women support the assumption that a tendency to isolation and gender segregation dominates the circle of the ‘new pions’. In practice, tliis is manifested in the publicized demand for exclusively ‘Muslim’ spatial zones, for example, separate women's Swiimning pools, gyms, train cars, as well as segregated restaurant tables. Similar processes are also occurring among Kyrgyz ‘piety movement’ members (McBrien 2010).

The overall tendency of self-isolationby ‘new Muslim women’ adds to their detachment from forms of social activity that go beyond traditional female roles. They do not participate in civic non-governmental organizations, including those which are gender-oriented. Kazakhstani women who choose the path of religious ‘piety’ explain their choice in the following way: the desire for safety, the desire to become acquainted with faithful Muslims such as themselves, and the desire to adhere to obligations of husband and children (Dosanova 2010). Generally, this group of women does not belong to the middle or upper-middle urban economic class. They tend to have limited access to the financial and educational resources of today's competitive environment. Therefore, it is not surprising that women’s religious ‘piety’ often represents only a symbolic capital winch allows them to establish themselves in the community in the traditional status of wife and mother.

The post-socialist re-traditionalisation of gender roles has manifested itself in proclaimed opposition to Sovietemancipationgoals (Kandiyoti 1991,429). ‘Pious’ believers regard the emancipation of women as a violation of the ‘natural’ division of gender roles, in as much as emancipated women strive towards a professional career. In some of the countries of Central Asia the state took it upon itself to promote the idea of the glorification of the woman as mother. In tliis way women are celebrated as mothers in a patriotic light, for example, in Uzbekistan, a country with a more pronounced gender Iiierarchy than Kazakhstan. There, the Women's Committee of Uzbekistan organized a national contest for the title of ‘the best daughter-in-law’, Iiigliligliting the qualities of docility, maternal caring, and competent housekeeping. Tliis represents both an affirmation of traditional Uzbek values and a distancing from Soviet images of emancipated womanhood (Kandiyoti / Azimova 2004, 346).

Such a trend is less visible in Kazakhstan. At least in the official rhetoric there is a secular approach to gender roles, such as "We should actively involve women in government and public administration, especially at the local level in the regions, as well as create favorable conditions for starting and running women's businesses”20.

The ambiguity of opinion and interpretation on the role of Islam in Kazakhstan appeared namely because of the Irijab. Young women began to dress in the Iiijab - the Middle Eastern fashion of Islamic dress with head scarves concealing hair, and Clotliing that covers the entire body except for the hands, ankles, and feet became the most visible symbol of the ‘new piety’. Tliis phenomenon lias caused controversy in wider society, not so much regarding religious rituals, but regarding the role of religion and the boundaries between the religious and the secular[22].

Tliis was particularly true for the Kazakhs, asking such questions as “what should religion be?” and “what is the place of Islam in society and the state?” Opinion polls Iiave indicated tliis ambiguity. For example, over twice as many Kazakhstani citizens (43.7 %) would not approve, compared with those who would approve (14.9 %) of a decision by their close female relations (such as a wife, daughter, or sister) to wear the Iiijab. The state is also wary of the public manifestations of individual religiosity. Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev has repeatedly and publicly condemned the wearing of the Iiijab by Kazakh women, emphasizing that it is Arab and Pakistani clotliing, unusual for "nomads, and sends Kazakh women back into the Middle Ages". In Iiis opinion, "Kazakh girls and women should dress appropriately according to the traditions of our nation.”

The wearing of the Iiijab in educational institutions, especially in primary schools, is also markedly disapproved by the government officials. Officially, it is not prohibited, but the state has left the final decision to a given school administration which in turn are guided by internal dress-code regulations. School principals set the standards for school uniforms which include the prohibition of wearing any religious attributes.

State policy toward Iiijab does not look as strict as in neighboring Uzbekistan where wearing religious clotliing by its citizens in public places is officially banned [23]. It should be noted that patriarchal tradition dominates in tliis Central Asian nation with a long Iiistory of sedentary and urban culture. It is characterized by the seclusion of women and their submission to men, in exchange for Iiis material care. Tliis culture has survived even under the pressure of the Soviet policy of women’s emancipation. In the pre-Soviet era the veil was a symbol of female Subordinationto men (Kamp 2006). However, the success of the Iiudjmn campaign did not entirely free the lives of women, especially in the rural areas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, of domestic patriarchy. One of the forms of protest against it became a practice of self-immolation by women which regularly occurred during Soviet period.

In Kazakhstani society patriarchal traditions were less strong which correlates with the Iiistorically predominant features of the nomadic way of life. Nomads were not predisposed to the strict adherence to religious practices, including those regulating the behavior of women. Among them there was no strict segregation of sexes in public, and Kazakh women enjoyed relative freedom (Michaels 1998) and did not veil their faces. Shared activities among youth of both sexes were common practice in traditional Kazakh society. Among them, for example, the still popular tradition of horse races named ‘catch the girl’ (kyz kun), in which the young man must catch the girl. If the man failed in tliis attempt he was ‘awarded’ with blows of a horse-whip (kamcha); if he succeeded he had to kiss the girl in public. Another example is the practice of unmarried young men and women riding together on a swing in public. Among traditional poets and improvisational singers (akyns) who played a key role in nomadic Kazakh culture there have always been women who openly competed in oral singing competitions (aityses) with men.

In pre-Soviet Kazakh society, a mandatory part of the wedding ritual was not only the payment of the dowry by the groom (kalym), which is in accordance to Islam, but also the preparation of the dowry by the bride's family (zhasau). Moreover, the latter was not only equal to kalym, but could exceed it in size. The bride's family had to provide her with both goods and real estate which were considered her own property by right (Kazaklii, 1995, 307). Tliis practice established a certain degree of independence for the married woman in her husband’s family. Moreover, if the groom could not afford to pay the kalym as a price for the bride, he would live in her family and compensate for the dowry by working around the house [24].

Umnarried Kazakh girls did not wear the Muslim headscarf to Iiide their hair and neck. To the contrary, hair was considered an ornament, tied in braids, and decorated. And in modem Kazakhstani society the image of femininity is traditionally associated not with a religious piety and its manifestation, but with particular behavior such as modesty, hospitality, good manners. In particular, the tradition of showing respect for elders and relatives is valued.

Therefore the appearance of religious ‘pious’ Muslim women is viewed with suspicion and disapproval even on the part of their immediate family. At the extreme end are accusations of fanaticism and of not following local Cultmal traditions. Tliis is how Kazakh young woman Qasim Amin describes her own experience: “I am currently working among Muslims with whom I can safely wear my Iujab and read prayers. I could not find a job. And many employers denied me because of the Iiijab, because they said that now everywhere they need their employees to have a presentable appearance” [25].

However, we must emphasize that the fact that in the past Kazaklis did not wear clothing in a Middle Eastern fashion does not serve as an argument for the ‘new Muslim’. These pious Muslims follow Islam as a religious doctrine, not only, and less importantly, as a cultural tradition. One of them stated: "...we do not profess the national religion. We profess Islam and cover our bodies and faces as we need. And if we would not learn from the Arabs, then from whom?" (Dosanova, 2010). These words are in tune with the opinion of some local Iiistorians, emphasizing the civilizing mission of Islam for the Kazaklis, which transformed “...naive sons of nature ‘nomad’ into ‘spiritually mature, nomad- Muslim” (Nurtazina 2007).

It can be argued therefore that for those adhering to religious ‘piety’, the concept of the new ‘Muslim woman’ means Sometliing more than the observance of ritual purity, and other mandatory prescriptions of Islam (fard). For them favorable conditions must be created. In the predominantly secular local environment, these conditions become practically exclusive as they are based on the gender segregation when public place is separated between men and women, examples of which are listed above.

The Iiijab has become the most visible symbol of this exclusivity, and such an ‘otherness’ stands out against the backdrop of Soviet / Westernized urban culture. At the same time, the Islamic Clotliing in its Middle Eastern style is completely modem, and is one of the consequences and manifestations of globalization. Any attempts to persuade Kazakhstani Muslim women that tIiis type of clotliing is at odds with modernity, and alien “Arab” dress, are doomed to fail. The Iiijab has become as much as a symbol of urban cosmopolitanism as backpackers.

  1. Female Religiosity - New Niches

The revival of religion has brought new opportunities for women in whose lives religion occupies an important place. First of all, new forms of socialization became possible, particularly, in groups of ‘pious’ Kazakh believers (jamaat) who call themselves the ‘sisters’. In an environment of market individualism and desolidarization, such a socialization within the community of believers gives a sense of security and comfort, as well as moral and material support. Historically, in Kazakhstani society a social networking to reproduce Islamic identity did not develop. Tlus differs from Uzbek and Tajik Coimnunities where the traditional institution of the mahalla, or community of people living in the same quarter or street, has proved its viability and sustainability in both the Soviet era and today. Members of the mahalla regularly gather for informal meetings. There are men’s gatherings (gap / gashtak), and women gather for their own informal meetings (Bibi Seshanbe - ‘Holy Tuesday’), and conducting Islamic rituals is an important part of these events (Kandiyoti / Azimova 2004).

The revival of Islam in post-Soviet Kazakhstan has led to the emergence of religion-based social networks (known as Jamaat) for Kazakh ‘pious’ Muslim women. In fact, the first Muslim associations were organized by women. As early as 1990, Muslim women's groups were formed, such as "The League of Muslim Women," the "Association Fatima," and "Rifah," which promoted the revival of family values and the religious education of women. These groups were supported by outside, Islamic charities. For example, "The League of Muslim Women" sent young, Kazakh women to Turkish Islamic schools where they studied Islam, as well as the Turkish and Arabic languages [26].

Moreover, they exist not only in the boundaries of mosques and Muslim community education associations (such as the “Khalifa Fund Altai”), but in virtual spaces as well, in forums on the Kazakhstan’s Islamic websites (for example, Minaretkz). Tlfis type of networking provides opportunities which are not limited by religious subject per se. The women are able to search for a suitable partner, to help each other by giving advise on how to live a daily life in accordance with Islam (family matters, raising kids), etc.

The process of creating an autonomous space for the self-expression of Kazakhstani women who have chosen the way of religious ‘piety’ also exist in the realm of labor division. Increased interest in religion by the general population, including women, has created the need for religious enlightenment and education. As it is known, women Iiave never held a ‘professional’ position in the organized Islamic Ifierarchy. Now, there are opportunities for female-dominated occupations within formal Islamic institutions. In the 20 years of the post-Soviet period a new sector of working women has been formed. For instance, women are employed as teachers of the basics of Islam and Arabic language in women's educational courses at mosques and at ethno-cultural community associations.

For another category of Muslim women the new areas of self-realization in informal or daily / folk Islam bring a partial or even full-time income. Tlfis so-called self-employed sector of Kazakhstan’s Islamic life is not affiliated with organized mosque life. The majority of these women are engaged in the art of traditional healing. It should be noted that at the heart of Islamic healing in Kazakhstan is the visitation of ‘holy places’ (ziyarat), especially those that are in Turkistan, the Iustorical center of the religious life of the Kazakhs [27]. The pilgrimage boom of recent years is directly linked to the growing popularity of traditional healing. The tradition of female Islamic healers using both Islamic symbols magic rituals, and Coimnunicating with the spirits goes back to ancient nomadic Iiistory. They are called baksy, shamans, emslii, kozha, molda kempir. Female reciters of the Koran in the last 20 years have become a distinctive group of Muslim ‘professional’ women. Historically, there are no differences between women-shamans and men-shamans, both have always been respected in society (Mustafina 1992, 139-141). Tliis layer OfKazakli religious life has existed in parallel with the formal Muslim clergy (imams, mullah, kadi and others).

The modem revival of religion lias led to the emergence of Islamic charity, particularly in the form of privately owned children’s orphanages, or of summer camps for girls. They support compliance with the ‘Muslim way of life’, that is, religious belief and rituals. Typically, these institutions are supported by Muslim volunteer women with donations from individuals or organizations, including foreign Muslim charities. Another phenomenon, new to Kazaklistan, has also appeared: Women who are members of charismatic occult and mystical movements of a Muslim orientation (Ayat Allah, Ata Joly). The activities of Ata Joly women (called akku) are centered around bringing pilgrims (mostly women) to Islamic ‘holy places’ in the city of Tmkistan. Akkusliki represent themselves as mediums between the souls of saints / ancestors and pilgrims. Activities of this kind are also based on healing as well as on recruiting new members into the organization. The pilgrimage in itself became a profitable business in which tourist companies are engaged, too.

In the post-Soviet era, these rituals are increasingly criticized by ‘pious’ Muslims and organized Islam (by imams), as Uotbeinginaccordance with Islam. Traditional healers are adapting to the new situation so that they and their patients appear as ‘legitimate’ Muslims in the eyes of the followers of normative Islam and society as a whole (Rasanayagam 2006). For instance, one of the famous contemporary Kazakh healers, Bifatima, who lives and practices near Almaty, considers herself the guardian of the nearby ‘holy mountain’ Ungnrtas. Wlrile she worships the Snn and the Earth, at the same time she believes in God (Allah), and considers her faith that of Islam and regards herself as a faithful Muslim. In her healing practice she utilizes practices common for Kazakh shamans, such as blows with a stick, blessings with water, and wrapping a patient in sheep skin while reading Muslim prayers in Kazakli and Arabic.


The Soviet legacy remains the most long-lived factor which determines the characteristics of the impact of Islam on the status of modem Kazaklistani women. It is manifested by the fact that society as a whole is still secularly oriented, and religion is only one of the many variants of female identity. The interruption of the continuity in the transmission of religious knowledge and experience during the Soviet period led to the fact that religion is primarily viewed as a personal choice. But, quite naturally there is an influence of family tradition (‘religion of the ancestors’). By comparison, the impact of Kazakh pre-Soviet tradition is rather limited. The main reason is that the social and cultural foundations of religious tradition were destroyed during first two decades of Sovietization. Therefore, the transmission of religious knowledge from one generation to another was forcefully stopped (ban on religious books, even on nonreligious Iiteratme written in Arabic script, prosecution of clergy, destraction of mosques, and so on) Thus, religious women borrow available models of Islamic religiosity imported from ‘global Islam’ and its movements. They are based on the idea of religious ‘piety’, which in itself limits the range of followers. It is difficult to voluntarily give up the established secular standards of behavior and lifestyle, particularly in urban environments. The ‘new piety’ assumes a re-traditionalisation of gender roles, accompanied by, for example, the subordination of women to men. However, transcendental values of religious ‘salvation’ and a strict obedience to the authoritative religious won’t effectively compete with more attractive self-realization choices offered by modem, information- rich environments (for example, education, career). In this context, the influence of Islam as a set of rules and regulations for modem Kazakhstani women cannot be anything but limiting.

At the same time, a category of Kazaklrstani women has already formed, the ‘new Muslim women’, for whom religious ‘piety’ gives a sense of security and comfort in a complicated and uncertain reality, even at the expense of limiting their opportunities and choices voluntarily. In this regard, new niches for the self-fulfillment of women are formed as part of the religious path. Over the past twenty years, the relationship between religion and women in Kazakh society has changed considerably. It can be argued that the female manifestation of religiosity, including its conservative form of ‘religions piety’, will continue to evolve, but its marginality will persist and continue as such for the foreseeable future.



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Year: 2018
City: Almaty