Gender and Sources of Religious Information in Uzbekistan

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ABSTRACT

Following independence in 1991, scholars have noted resurgence in religious expression and mechanisms for religious learning in Uzbekistan. However, not all available sources of religious knowledge have been sanctioned by the state, and acceptable sources for men and women tend to vary. In this context, and framing the study within conceptions of the overall position of women in society and the family, I explore ideas about the availability and perceived quality of forms of Islamic education available to women and men. I use data collected in 2005 and 2006 through observation, focus group discussions, individual indepth interviews, and conversations with religious leaders. Findings indicate that, while there is some commonality in channels of religious knowledge, the most important sources of religious knowledge and often the content of religious information vary by gender, perhaps contributing to questions of authority and authenticity in women's religious learning such as those raised by respondents.

KEYWORDS: religious knowledge, gender, observation, focus group, interview, Uzbekistan.

INTRODUCTION

As is the case among many religious groups worldwide, social expectations about what constitutes appropriate behavior for Muslim women and men in Uzbekistan tend to diverge. Although women are often regarded as preservers of religious tradition, their participation in some aspects of religious observance and learning, including mosque attendance, is strongly discouraged (Kandiyoti & Azimova, 2004; Peshkova, 2006). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, information about Islam from multiple types of sources became more readily available in Uzbekistan, but these sources were not always equally accessible to men and women. This paper explores differences in acceptable sources of religious information for men and women, focusing on how women and men understand the implications of these differences in the context of their family and religious roles at different life stages. I outline the channels for attaining religious knowledge available to women and discuss how men and women view both the mosque and women's alternatives for religious learning in the context of social expectations and family roles.

Social science research has not focused often enough on the role of religious culture, beliefs, and practices in the lives of individuals. Perhaps worse, researchers have sometimes taken religion as a rigid and unchanging categorization, without examining its contemporary meaning in people's everyday lives. Islam is rarely included in sociological studies of Central Asia, and religious meaning systems are explored even less often. Some scholars have described Islam as a unified, unyielding force, but this approach is simplistic and limited, especially considering that close to a billion people in a variety of contexts worldwide identify as Muslim. Perhaps in part because of the absence of a strict hierarchical structure of authority on religious interpretation, Islamic beliefs and practices vary widely across locations (Khalid, 2007; Northrop, 2004). Further, Islamic doctrine can be used to legitimate divergent conceptions of women's status, as its texts simultaneously support respect among believers and distinguish between the rights and roles of men and women (Moaddel, 1998; Obermeyer, 1992, 1994).

The Uzbek Context

Uzbekistan, the most populous state of formerly Soviet Central Asia, provides a theoretically and substantively useful context for exploring religious learning. Uzbeks were one of the first Central Asian groups to convert to Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries (Gunn, 2003) and Uzbekistan is sometimes cited as having the strongest religious traditions in the region (Tazmini, 2001). The population of Uzbekistan largely identifies as Muslim (over 95%), predominantly Sunni, with varying levels of belief and practice. The second largest group is Christian, and small numbers of people affiliate with other religions or no religion (Mutalova & Newby, 2004). …

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