Voices from the Region

Islam and the Norms of Kyrgyz Society

By Asel Doolotkel’dieva

On March 27, 2017

We have recently become witnesses to an intensifying adversarial relationship between “traditionalist” discourse and the growing role of religion in Kyrgyz society. As opposed to the alarmist “discourse of danger” (excellently analyzed in the research of David Montgomery and John Heathershaw) [1], in which Islamization is automatically reduced to the source of violent extremism and radicalism, and therefore to a threat to society, traditionalist discourse appeals to different motives. Here we will examine just a limited number of the preconceptions circulating in the mass media.

Images of Islam and Its Believers Through the Prism of Traditionalist Discourse

  • Islam does not correspond to Kyrgyz culture: “Islam is a newly arrived tradition.” In such a depiction, Islamization is seen as a process that flows in isolation from the rest of society and under the influence of external players and geopolitics, and does not have anything in common with local traditions and everyday life.
  • Islam as a threat to Kyrgyz culture: “We are losing our identity.” In this narrative, Islam gets the lion’s share of the blame for the “washing away” of Kyrgyz identity. The “local culture,” though it is not subjected to a specific definition, undergoes a process of cleansing and romantici
  • Islam is against modernity: “The hijab is a blow to feminism.” It is curious to note that traditionalist discourse also runs to the argument of modernity. According to this narrative, the hijab undermines the hard-fought battles of our mothers and grandmothers and returns society to its pre-Soviet retrograde condition.
  • Since Islamization [2]as a whole is seen by traditionalism as a negative phenomenon, it creates yet another image of Muslim society as a monolith,  “consisting of illiterate bearded men and wrapped up women.”[3]

That is to say, the main idea of these deep-seated myths in the traditionalist discourse is that Islam has no relation to local norms and values.

It is obvious that such a simplified understanding of the religious situation risks distorting the complex picture of transformations in Islam. To clarify a few of these transformations, I am adding here some results of ongoing research that counter the basic tenet of traditionalism with the personal stories of young women who have, to a greater or lesser degree, integrated Islam or its attributes into their lives. In this research, we used a complex methodology, including conducting interviews with respondents (30 people), attending and observing religious lectures, discourse analysis, and analysis of mass media and religious content.


In Some Parts of Our Society, Islam Determines the Daily Routine

Public and private religious lessons (taalim) are organized nearly every week by a large number of educational foundations, organizations, mosques, and private individuals both in the capital and in villages. On visiting several of such activities for women organized by Chubak azhy, Zhamal Frontbek kyzy, and other ulama of the central mosque and other mosques of Bishkek, it is possible to note their great popularity among female residents of Bishkek.[4] The halls for these activities are always full. The female participants wait with particular anticipation for the question-and-answer sessions, where one can ask questions of theologians and figures of authority. It was interesting for us not only to observe the content of the questions and the answers they received, but also to ask the women what they thought about this religious networking and their presence in this interim religious society.

One participant in our research who sometimes attends religious education lessons in the capital told us that the question-and-answer sessions at such events were mainly concerned with practical aspects of everyday life: how to get along with your husband’s parents, how to resolve conflict between spouses, how to relate to colleagues at work, how to prepare delicious food, the dowry of the bride (miraz), and so forth. For that reason, she prefers to draw on the new knowledge in books by well-known local and foreign theologians and religious authorities.

To the question of why, in her opinion, the religious community is dominated by practical and material questions over spiritual ones, she formulated two possible explanations. On the one hand, Islam is a “young tradition” in Kyrgyzstan, and many “newcomers” try to maximally adapt their behaviors (physical, financial, and moral) to the principles of Islam. That is, they are consumed with the search for “correct” religiosity. On the other hand, the questions asked by the religious audience reflect, in her opinion, the condition of the society. If young men and women cannot find this information in other places, then they turn to the mosque or taalim with their concerns. [5]

Here is another story of a young woman who lives and works in Bishkek but was born in a village. Having dedicated herself to the professional study of the Koran over the course of three years, in Kyrgyzstan and in Turkey, she regularly travels to her home village to share her knowledge with other religious followers there. In a small private circle of older and younger women, she answers various questions from the religious point of view. The village inhabitants themselves clamor for these informational lessons, driven by local demand and the lack of knowledge available locally.

The most often repeated themes of the lessons turned out to be individual and collective hygiene (garden saunas and toilets), childcare, the correct storage of food, maintaining cleanliness, harmonious relations in the family, etc. To my question as to why these themes become the subject of religious teaching, the young woman answered that today people lack knowledge of such elementary things as personal hygiene, and that Islam in that sense enlightens them, since many verses of the Koran give people directions on the most essential questions. [6] She particularly stressed the consequences of labor migration, as a result of which children are left without the attention of their parents and grow up without a basic knowledge of social norms. As one respondent put it very eloquently:

“Islamization has in fact exposed all the problems of society that the government has ignored since the fall of the USSR in the areas of upbringing, family, education, morals, order, etc. If everything was fine with us in these spheres, would religious lessons by video or WhatsApp really be so popular?”[7]

The questions asked by part of the population, whether on social media during religious instruction or on visits by regional authorities to the rural areas, serve as a kind of indicator that in some areas of our society the daily routine of personal practices and socialization has been lost, and the vacuum that has appeared demands the intervention of new institutions. It is possible to ask similar questions about the status of the family, schools, universities, and other institutions that traditionally served as primary sources of information and knowledge. This is also the main criticism addressed at traditionalism, which has the tendency to negate the interconnection of Islamization and local conditions.

Further, it is necessary to underscore not only the passive role of religion, as an indicator of particular processes, but also its active role, when the individual and the collective run to Islam as to a mechanism or means of survival or adaptation. Thus, one important observation that we made in the course of our research touched on how young women integrate Islam into their lives as an answer to the demands and expectations of a patriarchal society. In the course of our research, we were intrigued by the young women who began to wear the hijab not as the result of traveling a personal path to correct religious expression but with the instrumental goal of marrying or appeasing a husband and his family. We note right away that this situation affects only a part of the population, and even then stirs up a storm of criticism from other groups of religious followers.[8]

The theme of oppression of married women in Kyrgyz society is not a new one. However, the instrumentalization of religion as a possible way to avoid stigmatization is somewhat surprising, because in certain conditions it can also become its own form of oppression. A number of respondents who began wearing the headscarf in order to find or keep a partner did so consciously and even suffered through the changes in their lives connected with the wearing of the hijab. Many noted that, although those around them were surprised by their change in appearance, women such as their sisters, aunts, and close friends supported their decision. They heard these women justify, or even normalize, the new circumstance: “the main thing is that you got married, and the scarf, it’s not so important,” “the main thing is to be with your husband, and you’ll get used to everything else,” “el katary bolup kaldyn emi” (“now I look like everyone else”). The respondents themselves speak openly about societal pressure and the humiliation of being unmarried at 30:

“I have been working at a small sewing factory from dawn to dusk for 8 years now. When would I have time to meet a groom? But I really wanted to get married, to be like everyone else, not to feel ashamed of myself! My friend advised me to put on the headscarf, as if that was a way to find a husband. I couldn’t make up my mind to do it for a long time, but my unsettled situation pushed me into it. As soon as I started wearing it, I was introduced to a religious man, we got married, and had children. I continue to work at the factory, but now I have a family. I don’t regret my choice.”[9]

The covering of the head out of opportunistic or instrumental convictions nevertheless speaks to women’s attempts to become “fully valued” members of society, to be included in the body public. They understand that they become members of a particular community, but nevertheless for them it is integration. They speak of changes, of the difficulties of the new way of life, but not one of them was ready to trade her new female status for life before the headscarf. In this situation, far from the ideal equality of genders and generations, the risks of oppression from the patriarchal society and from religion are weighed by relatively different factors. The price that these young women pay for wearing the hijab is an incomparably lower price than they would have to pay for being unmarried. In this context, wearing the headscarf says more about the situation of women in the country than about the growing role of religion. And traditionalist criticism omits the essence of the cruel reality of social marginalization: that the hijab is not the worst alternative, and that for some it is really the only one at a certain point in their lives.

At the same time, in the course of our research we met with the opposing viewpoint on the connection between wearing the headscarf and the integration of young women into society as married women. For example, other groups of religious believers do not allow their daughters to wear the headscarf out of fear that it will scare off “normal” grooms:

“My whole family is religious and we read the namaz. But when I announced that I was ready for the headscarf, I met with serious opposition from my parents and relatives. My parents were afraid that only the beards would be interested in me and asked me to postpone wearing the scarf until after I was married.”[10]

By this logic, the hijab is seen as a factor for potential marginalization for their daughters, as a source of disapproval from those around her, at least at a certain stage in life. This also speaks to the fact that the religious community is not monolithic. In the process of collecting interviews, the connection between religion and local norms and values became all the more obvious, contradicting the contention that Islam has no relation to the local context.

In Some Parts of Our Society, Islam Is Seen as a Call to Feminism and Social Justice

From the above-stated, as well as from much previous research [11], it is clear that religion often serves as a mechanism of individual adaptation to the difficulties and changes in life. But it is necessary to emphasize its other side: it also presents a challenge, both to the individual believer and to the patriarchal society as a whole. And here it is important to see its call to feminism and social justice, which are both deficient in society today.

If some groups of women turn to religion as a method of integrating into the patriarchal society, other participants in our research use Islam as a defense against that same patriarchal society. Armed with solid knowledge of the Koran and those verses that support the rights of women, they come to criticize the existing principles and create a discourse of opposition. They criticize Kyrgyz families for turning young brides into slaves, taking away their voices, and neglecting their needs. They study the hadiths that lift up the role of women in society, and they even start informal clubs where they spread this message of emancipation to their sisters in the faith. In addition to this, they see marriage with a faithful man who will follow the teachings of the Koran and not infringe on their rights as the solution to a personal problem. Wanting to build a family on the basis of Muslim principles, they in this way seek, if not to reform the patriarchal society, then to avoid its consequences for themselves. For such groups of women, a future spouse should be an enlightened “moderate” Muslim.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

Muslim society is diverse, and so too are the interpretations of the Koran and applications of it to personal life situations, their relationship to society, and the role of religion in public life. The growing role of Islam is not the simple result of the influence of external factors; rather, it is closely connected with internal processes that the Kyrgyz society is undergoing at the moment. Understanding these processes can help one to see this diversity and not generalize or simplify it. As the interviews from our research show, one of the most important processes is the attempt of people to integrate into society in spite of growing fragmentation, isolation and the falling away of individuals and families from the “general flow.” And as strange as it might seem, Islam is becoming one of the forces of integration.

Giving in to fears of the unknown and taking cover under the good old traditionalism misses one important fact: Islam does not live apart from Kyrgyz norms, even though Islamic principles criticize many aspects of Kyrgyz society, like gluttony, wastefulness, corruption, etc. What’s more, Kyrgyz traditions act in some places as constraints (!) on religion, because it is important for people to maintain a connection to their social surroundings, no matter how corrupt and financially burdensome those connections might be. When faced with the choice between religious principles and traditions, often people choose the middle road, which allows them to simultaneously retain the circle of people around them and not commit any serious offense against the Koran. Social exclusion (as in the expression “Elden chygysh kaluu”) is the worst that can happen to a person from Kyrgyz society, regardless of their faith. And at the current stage, thanks to the presence of such strong normative values as integration into society by means of katysh and performing rituals, I would say that Kyrgyzstan lacks an extensive social base for radicalization.

Yes, there are economic factors such as poverty and a growing inequality between rich and poor.[12] They play a role, but not a decisive one. If we look at, for example, how the money sent by migrant workers from Russia is spent (improvement in material daily life and improvement of social status though rituals)[13], then we can draw the conclusion that integration into a society that is becoming more class-oriented for the time being stands above the possibility of bankruptcy which can be a consequence of these efforts at integration. If we discern this close connection between Islam and socio-economic processes and do not create false threats, it will help us as a society to begin a peaceful and constructive dialog on the role of religion in modern society.


[1] David W. Montgomery and John Heathershaw, “Islam, Secularism and Danger: A Reconsideration of the Link between Religiosity, Radicalism and Rebellion in Central Asia,” Religion, State and Society 44, no. 3 (2016): 192–218.

[2]  The term Islamization is ambiguous and does not exactly describe the processes of transformation in Islam in the country. In this article we use this term to mean the growing role of religion in both private and public life.

[3]  For a more detailed example of the formation of negative images of Islam in the mass media, see http://ca-mediators.net/ru/issledovaniya/275-islamofobiya-propaganda-i-neterpimost-v-smi-i-internete-kr-2016.html.

[4]  See also the series of excellent stories from IWPR: https://iwpr.net/global-voices/islams-psychological-comfort-kyrgyz-women.

[5] Interview with Barno, age 25, Bishkek. All names have been changed to protect the anonymity of research participants.

[6] Interview with Aijamal, age 29, Bishkek.

[7] Interview with Nuraiym, age 35, Bishkek.

[8]  Another part of our research showed that for many women the hijab represents a last and deliberate step in achieving correct religiosity. Going down this path is individual, can take several years, and is accompanied by various sorts of difficulties. The current research of Emil Nasritdinov and Nurgul Esenamanova, “The War of Billboards: Hijab, Secularism, and Public Space in Bishkek,” also supports this data.

[9] Interview with Datkaim, age 32, Bishkek.

[10] Interview with Eleonora, age 23, Bishkek.

[11] Manja Stephan, “Education, Youth and Islam: The Growing Popularity of Private Religious Lessons in Dushanbe, Tajikistan,” Central Asian Survey 29, no. 4 (2010): 469–83; Farideh Heyat, “Re-Islamisation in Kyrgyzstan: Gender, New Poverty and the Moral Dimension,” Central Asian Survey 23, no. 3-4 (2004): 275–87.

[12]  See the research of the International Crisis Group about the connection between the worsening economic situation, weakness of the government, and radicalization: “Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalisation,” Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing No. 83, Osh/Bishkek/Brussels, October 3, 2016.

[13] Igor Rubinov, “Migration, Development, and the ‘Toi Economy’: Cultural Integration of Remittances in Northern Kyrgyzstan,” 2010, file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/83d64aa0c5cb810896320180dcb2790b181cc84a.pdf.

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