The Communal and the Sacred: Women's Worlds of Ritual in Uzbekistan

By Kandiyoti, Deniz; Azimova, Nadira | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Communal and the Sacred: Women's Worlds of Ritual in Uzbekistan


Kandiyoti, Deniz, Azimova, Nadira, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


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. …

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