This article has its origins in Deniz Kandiyoti's long-standing interest in understanding the interplay between Islam and post-colonial state-building projects in Muslim majority countries and their effects on women's lives (Kandiyoti 1991a; 1991b). The encounters between the Soviet state and the societies of Central Asia presented unique challenges, made even more intricate by the diverse paths of post-Soviet transformation (Kandiyoti 2002). An extended period of fieldwork in Uzbekistan with Nadira Azimova in the provinces of Andijan, Khorezm, and Kashkadarya between 1997 and 2001 addressed different facets of these transformations and their impact on gender relations. (1) This text is, therefore, not the product of a single ethnography but the partially unforeseen destination of a rather long and tortuous journey that led the authors to their topic.
The first milestones of this journey were encountered in writings on women and modernization in Soviet Central Asia (and the sense of puzzlement elicited by some of the contradictions they contained). At one level, Soviet history is a chronicle of high modernist achievement and the emancipation of women is one of the most publicized successes of Soviet modernization in Central Asia. The literature on the Soviet period, from the 1920s onwards, notes the dramatic rise in women's education through the spread of mass literacy, their incorporation into the paid labour force, and, more controversially, their unveiling through a massive campaign known as the hujum (onslaught), which has received varying interpretations (Alimova 1991; 1998; Kemp 1998; Massell 1964; Tokhtahodjaeva 1995).
However, the celebratory tone of ideologically inspired writings on the triumph of the Soviet system over local 'traditional' forms (2) was occasionally ruptured by the less sanguine accounts of Soviet ethnographers whose interest in local customs and so-called 'survivals' of tradition led them to describe a rather different reality: one in which local communities seemed to perpetuate ancient ways of life into which the Soviet system had made relatively modest inroads. The obstacles and hurdles on the way to full modernization were described with reference to the concept of 'traditionalism' or 'survivals' of tradition. (3)
This preoccupation with 'traditionalism' is strongly reflected in the work of Soviet ethnographers of Central Asia such as Poliakov (1992) and Snesarev (1974). Both were, in different ways, particularly sensitive to the critical role played by the organization of the domestic domain in the perpetuation of pre-Soviet social forms. In his work on the Khorezm Uzbeks, Snesarev argued that the decay of orthodox Islam had left untouched the diverse complex of religious ideas and practices that existed alongside Islam: animism, magic, the cult of ancestors, the cult of saints and of their graves (mazar). He presented women as the 'preservers of survivals' and the bearers of a special 'female religion'. He suggested that life-cycle ceremonies concerned with birth and the upbringing of children were replete with acts of propitiation, the use of amulets and of preventive conjuring which led him to argue for 'a certain cultural lag in the female half of the population and deficiencies in cultural-enlightenment work in this sector' (1974: 226). Snesarev further commented on the resilience of existing forms of social organization, the continuing importance of the role of elders (yoshully and aksakal) and of traditional ceremonial specialists. Bikzhanova, Zadykhina, and Sukhareva (1974) extended this analysis to the organization of local communities in urban settings where the malialla (quarter or commune) operates as a collective unit ensuring the repair and maintenance of public buildings, such as the mosque, and the provision of implements for ceremonials. It also enforces powerful communal norms and acts as an agency of socialization and mutual help. Poliakov (1992) also noted important continuities in what he saw as the 'traditional' Central Asian social order, as manifested particularly in sharp age and gender hierarchies in large rural households, the prevalence of arranged marriages, and the payment of kalym (brideprice), the central role of the mahalla and mosque as socializing agencies, in competition with Soviet schooling, to name but a few. These authors shared a common concern over the role of the domestic domain (and of women within it) in the transmission of indigenous culture--a culture portrayed, by and large, as inimical to the goals of socialist transformation.
Recognition of some of the contradictions noted above matured into a reappraisal of the roles played by women in Central Asian community life, with many new insights arising from the experiences and observations amassed during long periods of fieldwork. These roles appeared deeply enmeshed in forms of ritual participation that demanded careful attention both to different modes of incorporation of Islamic teaching and practice in daily life in Uzbekistan, and to patterns of consumption and sociality. We argue, in what follows, that the apparent resilience of women's ritual activities, despite fluctuations in official positions vis-a-vis Islam during both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, resides in their embeddedness in local notions of communal participation and sociality. The first section evaluates the effects of the 'politicization' of custom under the Soviet regime and illustrates the complex processes of cultural accommodation and resistance resulting from it. The second section focuses on two important female ritual specialists--the otin (lady) and the dastarhanji--who play key roles both in the transmission of ritual observance and practices and in the day-to-day reproduction of communal life. The third section discusses the involvement of women in three different but closely interrelated types of activities: life-cycle ceremonies, religious observances, and propitiatory rituals. The article concludes with reflections on the vagaries of post-independence policies since 1991, (4) where the initial drive to redefine national culture in a manner that included greater freedom of worship has been superseded by hardening official attitudes vis-a-vis Islam. The fact that life-cycle ceremonies and religious festivals have also become sites of display of growing disparities in wealth and status in Uzbek society has led to propaganda efforts to rein in conspicuous consumption and encourage greater frugality. Although the intent of these efforts is quite different from those of Soviet modernizers, they none the less place ritual life on centre stage and assign women key roles as custodians and interpreters of Uzbek custom.
Soviet ceremonial and the battle over customs
Soviet interventions in the domain of ritual in Central Asia, and in the Soviet Union more generally, were of a dual nature: the elimination of existing religiously based ritual, on the one hand, and the simultaneous creation of a Bolshevik ceremonial system, on the other (Binns 1979; Lane 1981). Successive 'scientific atheism' campaigns targeted the established religions against the background of an active search for alternative rituals and symbols of communal solidarity. These manifested themselves not only in public collective ceremonies such as May Day parades, but also in more private life-cycle celebrations, such as the visits paid to the Lenin mausoleum by newly wed couples. Sadomskaya (1990) notes that anthropologists played a central role in the development of new Soviet ritualism and in sifting through existing customs and rites to pronounce on their 'political correctness' from the vantage-point of socialist ideology. There were, however, significant differences in approach among them. While some 'bureaucratic' anthropologists favoured the creation of fully scripted scenarios for socialist holidays, the 'traditionalists' attempted to give what they construed as ancient folk customs a new socialist content. This created the need to distinguish between 'harmful' and 'harmless' or even 'useful' ritual practices. Essentially, what took place was the banning of anything which was defined as 'religious' or 'cultic' in nature, particularly celebrations and festivals enacted under the authority of formal religious institutions and hierarchies of whatever monotheistic faith. At the same time, there was a systematic rehabilitation (or invention) of rites and festivals that were thought to pre-date monotheism, especially those deemed to be of 'pagan' or 'folk' derivation. Thus arose what Sadomskaya calls 'the curious marriage of convenience between paganism and the governmental cult' (1990: 250).
The ban on the practice of Islam in Central Asia went through periods of strict tightening and relative laxity, depending on changing political priorities (Malashenko 1993). During the Second World War, a state-controlled Muslim hierarchy was re-established; some of the formal elements of religious observance were allowed to reappear including the performance of marriage by mullahs and madrassas (Islamic teaching establishments) were opened in Tashkent and Bukhara. Moreover, having been unified under a common administration, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, these co-opted structures were used as bridgeheads of Soviet diplomacy towards the wider Muslim world during the Cold War period. At the same time, however, any sign of autonomous religious activity was likely to be condemned as a mark of seditious links to foreign powers; such fears were kindled by memories of the anti-Russian stance of pre-First World War pan-Islamists, and the resistance of rebellious Islamic forces (referred to as the basmachi) to the Bolshevik Revolution. (5) There was greater overall consistency in policies affecting women during this period. From 1921, such local customs as polygamy and the payment of brideprice--kalym--were defined as backward and 'harmful', and banned; the legal age of marriage was raised from 9 to 16 for girls and to 18 for boys. Anderson (1993) suggests that one of the reasons why the position of women was a favourite subject of atheist propagandists is that it provided a 'softer' target than religious ideas themselves; religiosity in Central Asia must be combated, according to Soviet sources, because it encouraged the subjugation of women.
The vagaries of Navruz, the spring new year holiday, are indicative of Soviet vacillations on matters of custom and ritual. Banned as a 'Muslim' holiday by the 1930s, it was reinstated as a pre-Islamic festival of Zoroastrian origin. By the 1960s, a number of Soviet ethnographers had collected large quantities of material on the survival of pre-Muslim beliefs in Central Asia. All that remained was to demonstrate that the banned Navruz festival was related to agricultural festivals of the Zoroastrian period; this was a task undertaken by scholars from various academic institutions with specialist knowledge of early Uzbek and Tadjik texts. Having thus established the supposed folk-agricultural origins of Navruz, the festival was declared 'harmless' in nature. Even so, a mere twenty years later, in the 1980s, it was banned again on the orders of a high-ranking official on the grounds of having a dangerous 'Islamic' dimension. Navruz was not only reinstated after perestroika but was elevated to the status of a major national holiday following Uzbekistan's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Public buildings are festooned with festive banners, and large hoardings with the message 'Happy Navruz' are erected along the roadsides. There are also mahalla and workplace celebrations of the festival, as well as special television programmes.
Local customs were often incorporated into the Soviet calendar of important dates and significant sites and ceremonials. Let us consider a few examples. The arrangement of a marriage is a lengthy process in Uzbekistan, beginning with the sending of intermediaries to ask for a bride (sovchilik) and culminating in the wedding itself (nikoh). During the intervening period there …