Thursday, March 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Modernity, Not Tradition behind Rise in Activism among Muslim Women in Russia, Studies Show

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 19 – The increasing activism of young Muslim women in the Russian Federation represents their effort to come up with an alternative paradigm within the context of modernity rather than a striving to restore an older tradition, according to a remarkable set of new studies conducted by scholars there and in neighboring countries as well.
And that focus, the authors of these studies say, not only sets these women apart from the communities in which they find themselves and from the motivations of many Muslim men but also means that they constitute a far more serious challenge to the social and political arrangements that exist in present-day Russia.
Those are just some of the intriguing, even provocative conclusions Danis Garayev offers in an extensive and heavily footnoted article entitled “Female Muslim Religiosity as an Object of Contemporary Social Research” that has just been published on the analytic page of the portal (
Garayev begins by surveying the work of Western scholars like Saba Mahmood and Nilufer Gole on activism by Muslim women in predominantly secular states in the West and supports their common conclusion that such movements “are not a traditionalist reaction” to modernity but rather “a new modernist project.”
By that, they mean that young Muslim women, unlike many of their male counterparts, are turning to Islam for values as a result of the emancipating and transformative experiences of modernity to build a new identity for themselves rather than to restore an identity from a pre-modern past.
That in turn leads such women to be far more self-conscious and political about their understanding of Islam and its social and political roles and to consider the structuring of their lives around it not as a rejection of the modern world but rather as “a new alternative modernist project,” as a form of what might be called modernization without Westernization.
Such Muslim women activists, Garayev argues, thus define their task “as the actualization of the rights of women by means of a multi-cultural discourse” and thus seek to achieve their goals “without denying many of the achievements of democracy and civil society” but rather by informing these modern institutions with Islamic content.
Inside the former Soviet Union, as researchers like Gyuzel Sabirov in Ulyanovsk, Yuliya Gureyeva in Baku, and Irina Kuznetsova-Morenko and Leysan Salhutdeinova in Kazan have shown in their work over the last decade, Garayev says in the course of his detailed review of their works and those of others as well.
In her study, “Women in Hijabs in Azerbaijan,” Gureyeva argues that the behavior of young Muslim women there demonstrates that what they see as the Western style of life and what they define as “contemporary” are not equivalent and that these women believe that they can be both Islamic and contemporary without being Western.
Sabirova, who has analyzed the lives of young Tatar Muslim women in Moscow, argues that many of them devote particular attention to learning about Islam via written sources and coursework and then to defining how what they have learned can be combined with their “modern” experience rather than simply copying what their mothers or grandmothers did.
Kuznetsova-Morenko and Salakhutdinova in their work on Muslim women activists in Tatarstan, Garayev continues, “have demonstrated the multiplicity of life strategies of [this social group,] many of which are not connected with the establishment of the family and are not limited to the private sphere.
Instead, as he underscores, they point out that “many of them, alongside their achievement of religious training, conduct activities for girls in the mosques, give private lessons in Arabic … [and even] plan to continue their religious education abroad” in order to better understand how they can define themselves.
And Benhabib has concluded on the basis of her research that most of these young Muslim women support the idea of “the pluralization of cultural identities, call for the decentralization and the creation of a multitude of legal and authority hierarchies,” all of which leads them to “demand the transfer of democratic power to regions and groups.”
Such ideas, as Garayev notes, challenge many of the Muslim males in their age cohort as well as presenting “a certain challenge to contemporary Western culture” more from the inside than the outside because these young women accept much of what more open societies have to give them without accepting that these societies have the last word when it comes to values.

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