Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Muslim Women Leaders in the Ferghana Valley: Whose Leadership Is It Anyway?

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Muslim Women Leaders in the Ferghana Valley: Whose Leadership Is It Anyway?

Article excerpt


There are many geographic and historical examples of Muslim women leaders, yet questions about women's ability to lead and the kinds of leadership women can assume are still a part of scholarly and public debates among Muslims. In this article, based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Ferghana Valley (Uzbekistan), I provide examples of Muslim women's leadership and argue that in order to fully understand women's leadership we need to question the assumption that men and women desire the same forms of leadership. A desire for leadership is not intrinsic to women (or humans in general) but is socio-historically specific. Approaching critically some existing assumptions about women's leadership, I identify and provide examples of different, equally important, forms of leadership that a specific socio-historical context has engendered.

Keywords: Women's leadership, Islam, Uzbekistan

People's Professor

Feruza-opa (2) was described by some of her students as "the one who brings Islamic knowledge and spiritual peace into the hearts of the believers." Her other students called her a "people's professor." She called herself an otincha, a religious teacher. As she said, she "taught Islam" to some local women and occasionally children; some local men came by periodically to get her advice. At a meeting in 2002 in the Ferghana Valley, I asked Feruza-opa about Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation), a transnational Islamist movement with the aim of establishing an Islamic State, which has became a prominent actor in regional political discourse in the first decade of the twenty first century. She replied, "they [the Hizb] think they have authority to go against the existing authority. I think that they will not do anything, just aggravate. Muhammad said 'do not go against the authority: good or bad, it is all from Allah. Do not go against the Time [history]: it is still God's creation.' All their parties ... it is a waste of time. Many of them, men and women are in prison." Feruza-opa did not support a vision such as Hizbut-Tahrir's of the Valley (or Uzbekistan) as an Islamic state. Her emphasis, in her words, was on "Muslim" and "Islamic" living, which according to Feruza-opa, heavily depended on one's religious education and ritual prayer: "When you pray--keep the line with what Allah wants. 'Five times a day remember Me' [referring to Allah] ... Namoz (ritual prayer) keeps you from [doing] different bad things. If you read namoz Allah will give you [grant your wishes]." Feruza-opa saw corporal and intellectual learning about "Islamic living" as the only viable way of changing individuals, the local community and Uzbek society at large; as the only way of "not wasting time" and not being imprisoned. Feruza-opa believed in and stressed the transformative value of education: Our people are ovam hulq [uneducated people]. One needs to change people slowly. Otinchalar should also do it slowly, not fast. I believe that people should read the Qur'an more. Those who read will change themselves ... We are yet to learn our religion. My mahallah [neighborhood], my students--they do not do and do not allow others to do gnoh [bad/evil deeds] because they know Islam. Mullahs [male religious leaders] also should not read for themselves; they should read for and with the people.... One needs to share what God gives you. If it is illim [knowledge, Ar. 'ilm] you should share it too. What we can and must do is to tell people about Islam, to share knowledge, to educate each other and ovam hulq slowly.

For Feruza-opa and women like her, individual and societal transformation through religious education was a slow moral process beginning with the sharing of (religious) knowledge. Through this sharing at religious ceremonies or during religious lessons, women like Feruza-opa, (3) who were educated at the Soviet secular schools and had different levels of religious education acquired through family members, homeschools and/or self-education, actively engaged in religious renewal in the Valley. …

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