International Women's Day is a holiday in Central Asia that is a hold-over from the Soviet era. In some areas where Islam has regained a prominent role in society, such as Kyrgyzstan's sector of the Ferghana Valley, the observance of Women's Day on March 8 stoked controversy. Conservative imams believe the occasion undermines the tenets of their faith, and they have started to urge believers not to mark the day.
It does not matter that International Women's Day predates the Bolshevik's seizure of power, and, in fact, is a day that will always be associated with Tsar Nicholas II's downfall. In the minds of many conservative Muslims in Central Asia, it is a day associated with godless Communism. "This is a holiday of the Soviet Union. It does not fit our Islamic faith," said an imam from Jalal-Abad, who spoke to a EurasiaNet correspondent on condition of anonymity. "It calls on women for openness, for exposing their bodies."
The Kyrgyz government is alarmed by the growing role of the local conservative version of Islam and fears the spread of extremist views among the population. To prevent this, officials in Bishkek have increased pressure on those who voice opinions that contradict state-sanctioned views on religious matters.
The government stance, some imams believe, effectively discouraged discussion in mosques about the holiday. "Many religious clerics condemn this holiday, but not all. They fear state persecution. They may be charged with anti-state propaganda since this holiday is still a state holiday," the Jalal-Abad imam said.
In the present environment, the local conservatives prefer to carry on the discussion surreptitiously. Through widely available DVD recordings, the strong stance of Imam Rafiq Kamalov -- killed in 2006 -- still echoes. "This is the holiday of non-believers, of prostitutes," Kamalov preached in his mosque in Kara-Suu before his controversial death, according to one recording. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "This holiday was brought [here] by atheists in the Soviet Union. They called women for openness. And on March 8th women dropped their veils."
In connection with the collectivization campaign of the late 1920s and 30s, Soviet authorities took steps to eradicate Islamic culture in Central Asia, forcing the region's population to abandon Arabic script in favor of Cyrillic, and banning many traditional customs, including the wearing of a veil by women. Soviet propaganda depicted the veil as an instrument for the subjugation of women.
Today, as Central Asian states struggle to reconnect with their cultural heritage, the imams' caustic view of Soviet traditions seems to resonate widely. At one female madrassa in Osh, women of different ages sat together to consider the holiday. Although they could not attend Friday prayers where imams criticized the holiday, they were nevertheless vocal in their condemnation of what International Women's Day represents.
"This is a holiday when we must mourn, not celebrate," Rokiyakhon, a Koranic lecturer told EurasiaNet. "The woman's body is tender and must be covered, the Koran says. So, how can we celebrate this holiday, if women were forced to drop their veils on this day?"
Some women who wear a hijab still planned to celebrate this holiday. They disagreed with the assertion that a celebration of women contradicts their religious views. "The Islamic path is quite wide and [some] people interpret it too narrowly, showing Islam in negative light," said an Osh woman who wished to remain anonymous.
"This is not the day when women dropped their veils; it is the day they learned they have equal rights with men," the Osh woman continued. "Whatever we believe, we still respect our husbands. We still cook for them, right? Why can't they do something for us on at least one day? All women like holidays."
The conflict between secularism and faith in Osh is pushing the holiday underground, some believe. Those who want to celebrate are worried they will offend neighbors who believe the day is un-Islamic. Although International Women's Day remains a state holiday in Kyrgyzstan, as conservative Islam grows stronger in the south of the country, authorities may be slowly losing their grip on a seemingly harmless tradition.
Abdujalil Abdurasulov is a freelance journalist based in Almaty.