Thursday, August 5, 2010

Islam and Women in Uzbekistan

About 90% of Uzbekistan's population are Muslim, 5% are Russian Orthodox and there is a small Jewish community present in the country. Both Shia and Sunni Islam are practised, however as Uzbekistan is a secular state, the religion is not as strictly followed as it is in other Islamic countries. This is also due to the Soviet influence and the locals are generally more open to modern ways of living. After gaining independence, the country is seeing gradual support growing towards Islam, and the president, Islam Karimov, introduced a policy banning all religious activities not approved by the state in order to prevent extremism. The most conservative and religious part of the country is Ferghana Valley and there have been some recent extremist attacks there. As Uzbekistan shares part of its border with Afghanistan, I was concerned that extremist groups like the Taliban would have a high chance of taking over Uzbekistan. Some locals tried to reassure me that the Russian military would be able to "take care of things". So far, the people have been enjoying their freedom, but who knows how long that will really last? Today, while Islam is the dominant religion, there are still some functioing Jewish synagogues and Russian Orthodox churches. Although Jewish and Christian holidays and festivals are not acknowledged, these people still believe in their faith and go to their place of worship whenever they can.

Being female, I was especially interested to learn about the woman's role in Uzbek society. Historically, women were considered the inferior race and often stayed at home. The male was always the head of the family and made important decisions. It was mandatory for women to cover themselves from head to toe when out in public, for their own safety. The cape worn by women is known as the paranja. This garment covered their entire body and the black cloth covering their face was slightly translucent so that they could see through it. When walking in public, women had to maintain at least three steps behind their husbands and never walked ahead or at the same level! During the war against Islam, the Russians forbade women from wearing the paranja in 1927 and women threw away this garment in masses. Ever since, it is rare to find women wearing the paranja although, many still wear the hijab (head scarf) or the full body veil in more conservative areas of the country.

I actually got the chance to wear the paranja! Here, I am actually at the same level as David and not three steps behind :)! Can you identify me???

Times have changed and I did not see even one woman wearing the paranja. In fact, in present day Uzbekistan, women mostly wear knee length dresses or skirts with leggings. Many of the local women we spoke to said that they can't wait to wear the dresses or skirts without leggings or shorter dresses without being stared at. Hopefully, for them, this will happen!

We both also got the chance to dress up as wealthy Uzbeks. Check out the cool hat and colorful designs!

I was very excited to dress up as an Uzbek bride! I love trying local clothes wherever I go and I especially found the Uzbek bridal costume very beautiful!

I am curious to know what happens in Uzbekistan's evolving society. With the Russian influence, religious extremism in some of its neighboring countries and a secular state, the country is definitely in a unique position and faces numerous challenges in terms of managing these very different aspects of life. Being a very hospitable and peace loving nation, I only hope for the best!


Ravipa said...

Interesting piece. It will be a fascinating world when women folks walk 3 steps behind the man-in-charge and cover themselves head-to-toe.

banoo said...

Both of you look like Prince & Princess of Uzbekistan in their rich costumes! I wish they could enjoy their freedom and let their faith in their religion protect them! As usual very good write up!

Charlie said...

I just visited Uzbekistan on a short trip the end of June. I just found your blog. Your stories are fascinating. Thanks for sharing. I am looking forward to your next episode.

Habiba said...

I am an uzbek woman living abroad for a while. I see you happened to travel and make some snaps of a bride of Samarkand. How fascinating it is to see the excitement you experienced!
Thumbs up for you!

Anonymous said...

WOA!!! That paranja thing looks like some character from Miyazaki's anime. Kinda cool 4rm character design point of view. Covering women like that is something that Persians r said 2 have brought 2 Islam. Arab women were quite free Pre and post Islam till other influences got the better of them. Quran simply says 2 cover the head (that's hair u can show face), chest and behind (i guess) in one loose cloth ( 2 hide the curves probably). Plus it is said the revelation were made after some muslim women raped by some ruffians who said we didn't know they were muslim in madina, so this order was distinguish them from other communities at that time (1400 something years ago). Wonder how this simple order turn into paranja, burqa etc.


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