Women, Islam and Identity: Public Life in Private Spaces in Uzbekistan

Svetlana Peshkova

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014, 352 pp.

Reviewed by Emma Varley


In her ethnography of Muslim women otinchalar—Islamic teachers, ritual specialists and spiritual intermediaries—in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Svetlana Peshkova provides a rich account of otinchalar as sources and sites of engagement between women and nationally-determined ideals of “truly Islamic” behavior, practices and formulations of faith. Using data collected during two fieldwork visits (2002-2003, 2011), her ethnography focuses on three women otinchalar living in Hovliguzar, an urban center in the Ferghana Province, a region that is widely associated with Islamic militancy and extremism. Peshkova explores and analyzes otinchalar’s subjective, intra-subjective and inter-subjective modes of Muslim self-formulation, which they say are informed by the “universal ethical paradigm” of Hanafi Sunni Islam, the state-sanctioned sect to which the majority of Uzbeks belong. Peshkova’s ethnography is equally attentive to the moralities, beliefs and socialities arising from historical and contemporary Uzbek traditions, notions of identity and political life that influence otinchalar’s sense of self and Islam. Beyond her careful consideration of the cultures and communities of learning, worship and practice that otinchalar have sought to create, Peshkova also reflects on the effects of state discourse, regulations and surveillance on their embodiment and enactment of “truly Muslim” identity.


In the first half of the book, Peshkova details how, in the post-Soviet period, Islam, along with a range of Uzbek cultural traditions, was harnessed by the government in order to accord shape, meaning and freight to emerging ideologies of state and society. It was imagined and, to an important degree enforced, that “apolitical” formulations of “national Islam” and cultural identity could pave the way for the emergence of a stable, moral and prosperous “democratic” state. In evaluating otinchalar’s role in this process, the book poses an inter-related sequence of guiding propositions, each of which illustrates a different aspect of Peshkova’s efforts to explore and understand the creative inter-relationship between self and society, as well as the dynamic and determinative role played by individuals in shaping the nature of the state itself.


As female counterparts to male imams (clerics), and with their home study groups paralleling male-dominated mosque activities, Peshkova evaluates how otinchalar make critical contributions to state formation, albeit in a more informal, private and localized way than that which is afforded by male religious leadership and instruction. Through the medium of the Qur’an, hadislar (hadiths, or ‘Sayings of the Prophet’), hymns (hikmatlar), didactic story-telling (masalas) and the spiritually-informed narratives born of their own histories and experiences, we learn how otinchalar’s “personal” Islam was extended to become a “public” manifestation and example of faith (imon) in action. Through her analysis of the techniques and tools employed by otinchalar, Peshkova illuminates the diverse ways that their home-centered Islamic lessons, propitiatory rituals (meropriyatiya), inclusive of saint worship, and ceremonial gatherings in order to express thanks and devotion to Allah (ehson), simultaneously reflected on and generated the ideologies and practices demanded and desired by state and citizen alike. Otinchalar’s teachings and collective ritual observances also generated the spiritual intimacies that enabled women and their students to personalize and personify the key entailments, whether pragmatic or divine, associated with Islam as faith and in practice. As importantly, Peshkova’s analysis incorporates recognition, even if only in a limited way, of the ways otinchalar exert influence beyond the gendered confines of women-only lessons, to also impact the broader communities in which students lived, and men as well as women.


The Introduction and Chapter One set the ethnographic stage and summarize Peshkova’s theoretical influences, including the work of Gabriele Marranci, Nigel Rapport and Saba Mahmood. Chapters Two to Four analyze the complexities of society-self relations, the role played by gendered “liberatory” and “non-liberatory” Islamic discourses in upholding or restricting women’s identities and agentive capabilities, and the pedagogical, strategic and emotional value of didactic story-telling. Peshkova also takes care to introduce the effects of transnational Islam, particularly Saudi interpretive traditions and edicts (fatwa), on local forms of gendered piety and ritual. The final three chapters assess the delimiting impacts of the state’s rigid ideological structuring of Islam on otinchalar and, to a lesser degree, their students, and consider otinchalar’s positioning amid wider webs of culture, power and politics. While Peshkova attends to the power of state-authorized “national Islam” to shape individual lives, greater emphasis is paid to otinchalar’s ability to not merely reify but also creatively contribute to state formulations of Islam, and support its enactment at individual and community levels. Otinchalar are described as self-aware agents of their moral self-formulation, who serve as mediums for the transmission of the Islamic knowledge necessary to distinguish the informed and pious (illim khalq) from those uneducated in faith (avom khalq).


Peshkova argues that otinchalar are both emplaced in and enact larger cultural, political and Islamic interpretive histories. By considering the influence of pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet forces on women’s gendered and spiritual self-formation, as well as their individuality and being in the world, Peshkova contextualizes the diverse impetuses that drove her interlocutors to take up, “inbody,” embody, articulate and co-create “national Islam” at individual and collective societal levels. Although otinchalar were capable of critical reflection concerning themselves and the politics inherent in their circumstances, by assuming public stances that were co-operative rather than challenging to state discourse on Islam, otinchalar served as willing co-contributors to the state, and reflected rather than contradicted the government’s investments in particular ideologies of society and citizenship. Otinchalar’s careful abidance by the defined contours of state-sanctioned and dictated Islam pragmatically ensured their safety and security.


Yet otinchalar’s work was not without its hazards. As Peshkova demonstrates, otinchalar, like other Uzbeks who strayed perilously close to state-prescribed boundaries, were often caught in fraught relationships between the government, “national Islam” and local communities of belief. Amid the uncertainties and insecurities of life in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Peshkova’s ethnographic emphasis on the spoken and unspoken political dynamics of individual and community life is particularly compelling, inasmuch as it affords insights into the imposition of statecraft and governance on private life and faith in particular. The state’s reach is demonstrated time and again through Peshkova’s careful use of ethnographic vignettes concerning her and some of her interlocutors’ entanglements with the state, which sometimes led to false accusations and torture, jail or, as she herself experienced, deportation and exile. According to Peshkova, many such cases stemmed from a perceived sense by the state, embodied as it was by government officials and security agents, that individuals had become “too” religious or practiced “incorrect” forms of Islam (such as Wahhabism), and were thereby predisposed to take up “anti-state” activities. (Peshkova notes that such efforts became especially vigorous following President Karimov’s near-assassination by “Islamic terrorists” in the 1990s.)


Further, Uzbek legislation prohibited otinchalar or any other religious teacher from teaching children about Islam. There were also strict regulations precluding formal Islamic instruction outside of state-designated education centers, while the use of Islamic garb was restricted to officials only, and all religious teachers were to be certified and monitored by the government (221), often on an ongoing and frequently tacit basis. As home-based teachers, otinchalar carefully ensured their “private” lessons were informal rather than formal, and therefore exempt from the most severely constraining legislation. Peshkova argues that state surveillance and interference pulled the private into the public, ensuring that even the most private of otinchalar’s domestic ritual events were imbued with risk. Through the covert and overt surveillance of otinchalar by state security agencies and local community members, and otinchalar’s own efforts to extend their influence beyond the household, the private dimension of Islamic practice was transformed into eminently public and also politically visible terrain. Despite otinchalar’s cautiously apolitical embodiment of Islam, the possibility that their teachings could be misinterpreted as constituting “anti-state” positions sometimes inflected their experiences of teaching and ritual observance with fear. Peshkova attends to the political and emotional nature of otinchalar’s self-censure and silencing towards the end of the book.


Peshkova’s deep, ethnographic curiosity for the forces driving and inspiring otinchalar also resulted in her fieldwork becoming fraught with peril, ultimately leading to her deportation in 2011 by Uzbekistan’s state security agencies. As a Russian-American anthropologist who was prevented from completing earlier research on Islamic militancy movements in Chechnya and who later endured the harsh effects of state scrutiny in Uzbekistan, Peshkova draws on her personal observations to make emotionally resonant arguments. The book’s Introduction commences with Peshkova’s memories of the trauma and terror she experienced as a result of her premature departure from Uzbekistan during her second fieldwork visit in 2011. The first portion of each subsequent chapter follows the story backwards and then forwards again in time, permitting readers to gain potent insights into the dangers that accompanied her fieldwork. Though Peshkova’s analysis addresses the anthropological precedent concerning life in unstable contexts, she refers less than she might have to those works that consider the detrimental impacts of state surveillance and governmental persecution on anthropologists who work amid such instability.


Peshkova’s diligently researched and detailed ethnography of the agentive dimension of otinchalar’s ritual practice, observance and instruction of Islam in post-Soviet Uzbekistan will be of interest to scholars not only of Islam and Central Asia, but also women’s and gender studies, political anthropology and the anthropologies of states and violence and warfare. Because she focuses closely on the lives, beliefs and experiences of otinchalar, and the women and men with whom they regularly interact, the book also represents a novel contribution to Central Asian ethnographies, many of which prioritize the collective and often male-dominated dimensions of Central Asian life rather than pursue analysis of the intimately local and individualistic, particularly as it relates to women’s lives and point of view. Peshkova’s clear prose and coherent use of theory also ensure the book’s accessibility and usefulness for undergraduate and graduate courses and students from across the social sciences.


Emma Varley is a medical anthropologist whose research explores the inter-relationship between sectarian and ethnic identity and women’s health, health governance, transnational development, and citizenship and state processes in a conflict-wracked area of northern Pakistan. A related focus of her work involves ethnographic evaluation of the ways that women’s gendered and religious subjectivities are expressed through the medium of maternal health behaviors and narratives, and their use of spiritual therapies and divination. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Brandon University in Canada.

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