Four fictitious heroines illustrate striking transformations in how Russians perceive Muslim women. These perceptions could have important policy implications in a nation that now has a population of 14.5 million Muslims.

A woman pictured in front of the Kul Sharif Mosque in Kazan, Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti

It may sound surprising, but until recently, Russian literature has never been deeply interested in the images of Muslim women. Romanticized notions of female Muslim characters have been commonplace in Russian prose and poetry ever since the early 19th century, but insights into their souls weren’t. In fact, the only two outbreaks of interest in Muslim women were in the 1920s and the early 2000s. 

In the 1920s, the Soviet Union launched an unveiling campaign aimed at helping the people of Central Asia – especially women – move quickly to a more advanced Communist lifestyle. The unveiling made women the focus of attention, which was, however, very formal and short-lived. 

In the beginning of the 21st century, it was terrorism, especially the cases of female suicide bombings, that raised another wave of public interest in female Muslim identities, this time much more genuine. 

A brief overview of Islam in Russia 

Throughout most of the Soviet period, Islam, like all other religions, was banned and could only survive underground. During perestroika, the pressure on Islam was lifted and official religious institutions were restored. In addition, missionaries from the Middle East became very active, particularly in the Northern Caucasus.

When the ethnic-religious secessionist movements broke out in the 1990s, resulting in the two Chechen wars and a series of terrorist attacks that shook the whole country, Russians realized how important and strong Islam had became in the country.

In 2012, at least 7 percent of Russias population officially acknowledged they professed Islam, and the number has been steadily growing ever since. Based on the latest official statistics, today there are around 14.5 million Muslims in Russia (10 percent of the entire population). However, this number only includes citizens of the country and does not take into account immigrants – whose number could boost the total count up to 20 million.

It is no surprise, then, that over the past decade or so one can think of quite a few novels that talk about characters professing Islam and tell different, yet equally touching and tragic stories. A number of them are focused on female stories. 

Remembering the Soviet era 

GuzelYakhinas novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (2015) takes a look at a period of Soviet history when more or less wealthy peasants and their families became subject to repression, including executions, arrests and deportations. The focus of the book is the so-called “de-kulakization” (“raskulachivaniein Russian) of 1929–1932 of the Tatars, Turkic-speaking peoples mostly living in Central Asia.

Zuleikha, the protagonist of Yakhinas novel, is shown as a woman for whom Islam is the source of inner strength and the ability to stay docile and humble in the face of lifes worst ordeals.

She bears humbly the abuses from her husband and his mother; she stands with resignation the dire deportation to Siberia and the horrors of living in the virgin lands. In a settlement on the Angara River, Zuleikha, along with many other people, is doomed to spend the rest of her life. In these wild lands, they don’t even have a doctor and she has to give birth to her son in almost medieval surroundings.

However, the hardest of all trials is her secret love to a Red Army officer, Ivan Ignatov, who brought the Tatars to Siberia and who was forced to stay with them. The book masterfully describes Zuleikha’s feelings, of which she never said a word to anyone. Hidden under a facade of submission and tranquility, they never found a way out.So typical of Muslim women of that time, she never questions her fate and just keeps carrying on.

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An inside look at the life of a guest worker in Russia

One book, which emerged as a revelation in 2003, was The Dancer from Khiva, or the Story of an Ingenuous Girl, which was written by the Uzbek writer Bibish Siddikova Khadzharbibi.

The author uses simple, nearly primitive language to describe her character’s life. Bibish, born in the middle of the 1960s in a small Central Asian village, is constantly the subject of offenses and violence. She moves from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan and finally finds her way to Moscow, as a “gastarbeiter” (means “guest worker” in Russian).

A life as a migrant in Russia of that time appears to be particularly hard and humiliating. Now Russians know more about the hardships ‘gastarbeiters’ go through in their country; however, in the early 2000s this book provided a shock. Never before has this part of the Russian society been described so openly and bluntly.

The most emotional scene of the book is probably the simplest one, like life itself. Bibish works at a large bazaar selling cheap clothes to Russians. One day a woman, another guest worker, gets annoyed at her for selling similar items. Insults and anger, however, provoke an unexpected reaction from Bibish. Instead of defending herself or getting into argument, she falls on the ground, kneels in front of the offender and begs for forgiveness. This shows how emotionally exhausted a person can become as a result of constant humiliation and the lack of simple human respect.  

Who are the Russian black widows?

Marina Akhmedovas novel Khadijah (Notes of a Death Girl) (2011) touches upon some of the most painful moments of recent Russian history: the rise of female suicide bombers, the so-called “black widows” in 21st century Russia.

At first glance, the book describes the life of a typical young Muslim woman named Khadizha, who is again expected to be submissive and humble not very different from previous characters. She lives with a stern grandmother, who is a stereotypical authoritative older woman who bosses younger women around yet is submissive in the face of men.

However, Muslim women of the Soviet era and of modern Russia do differ. 

Khadizha dares to be rebellious. She runs away to a bigger city hoping to find a better life there.

The sudden independence turns out to be not as bright as she expected. Khadizha feels lost and isolated from her peers as she is just a simple, quiet, almost boring girl from a Dagestani village for them and they cannot really relate to her.

However, it’s her love for a strong and mysterious Makhach that changes her life forever and doesn’t leave any chance for escape. Makhach is an extremist leader. At first, Khadizha is terrified, but then is spellbound by his inner power that comes from his religious beliefs.

One day, Makhach is ‘liquidated’ (the Russian word for destroying extremist militants) and Khadizha has nowhere to go: She cannot return home for she has disgraced the whole family, and she has no other way but to confide in people from Makhachs circle.

She tries to find peace in religion, which helps her to alleviate the pain of loss. This is taken advantage of: Khadizha is persuaded to avenge her lover’sdeath and become a suicide bomber. In the end of the book, as we see her getting ready for her deadly act, she looks completely mesmerized and accepting of the instructions dictated to her by others. 

The modern Dagestani

Another modern Muslim woman from Russia’s North Caucasus is the focus of a 2015 novel The Groom and the Bride (2015) by Alisa Ganiyeva.

The book unveils the gender relations which still persist in modern Dagestan but may astound the outside reader – of which arranged marriages are perhaps the least surprising. Ganiyevas female protagonist, Patimat, seems to go even further with her freethinking and resistance to tradition.

She may not dare to openly disobey her family but she is brave enough to date online, to go on actual dates and even to choose a husband for herself.

Patimat and Marat, her fiancé, think that they’ve succeeded in organizing their lives, escaping tradition and finding true love. However, their happiness is very short-lived: Marat never shows up to the wedding, and Patimat, feeling ashamed and disgraced, runs away from her parentshouse.

She does not know yet (or will she ever find out?) that her fiancé has fallen victim to an extremist plot, and will never escape it alive. The ending refers back to Ganiyeva’s previous novel, The Mountain and the Wall, an Islamic dystopia novel dedicated to the struggle of Sufis (one of the schools in Islam) and Salafis, the Islamic fundamentalists in Dagestan.

From Zuleikha and Bibish to Khadizha and Patimat

These four books gave perhaps more insight into the lives of Russian Muslim women than Russian literature ever did before. None of the stories is a happy one; none of the stories ends even remotely well, and perhaps only Zuleikha and Bibishs innate humility are a sparkle of light in the dark and hopeless lives of these women. 

It is curious, though, how much of a difference there is between Zuleikha and Bibish, on the one hand, and Khadizha and Patimat on the other. One formal distinction here is that the former are from Central Asia and the latter are both from the Northern Caucasus. It could well be that the difference between the more traditional forms of Sunny Islam, as opposed to the mystical Sufism, widespread in the Northern Caucasus, can account for this.

However, the more important divide here seems to be generational. Zuleikha and Bibishs stories mark the very beginning and the end of the Soviet era. As opposed to them, Khadizha and Patimat are the children of the post-Soviet era. It is obvious that there must be a big divergence in how these characters perceive their place in the world and how they build their relationship with the others — and eventually how they see the relationship between the “center” and the “periphery,” be it in Russia or in the Soviet Union.

Of course, none of the characters ever think about it. However, it does seem that for Zuleikha and Bibish there is a much larger, solid divide between themselves and some abstract, foreign power (embodied by Moscow or, as in part of Bibishs story, St. Petersburg), which is peremptory, hostile and, in the end, liable for much of their suffering.

For Khadizha, the world outside her native village is obscure and somewhat daunting – yet, it is not foreign or alien to her, and definitely not a dangerous or threatening place. This is the world which she could potentially adapt to and where she could find her place in. It is the chain of circumstances and, largely, religion, which pushes her to become an outsider and alienate herself.

For Patimat, who is traveling back and fourth between Moscow and her home in Dagestan, these shifts are easy and natural. In fact, she is much more at ease in the city, and it is her hometown that is at odds with her sense of identity. 

A striking thing about these four stories is that they show how much disparity there is between “official” government policies and individual experiences; between ideological discourses like Soviet “internationalism,” post-Soviet identity politics, or, more generally, modern attempts of organic nation-building, and the ways in which they are intricately twisted with peoples actual choices and gestures.

What these characters say about Islam in Russia

Even more surprising is that the images of Soviet Muslim women in these novels, despite the wide anti-religious, anti-Islamic and emancipation campaigns in the Soviet Union, are those of complete acceptance and naturalization of the religious dogma, with no sign of willing to rise against it.

Yet, at the time when Islam, and religion in general, was no longer restrained by state policies and gained strength to the degree it started wreaking death and became a weapon of state opposition – young girls dared to stand up and try to act disobediently.

These attempts may be fleeting and short-lived, as Khadizha, who falls under the influence of fundamentalist violence; or be suppressed as Patimats, whose lonely protest does not change a thing in centuries-long traditions.

The literary construction of gender in these novels shows something one could never expect: When Islam went underground, it went under peoples skin.

As it returned into the public space, it gained strength yet also became vulnerable, since it was now open to challenge and doubt. The publication of the novels actually showing Islam through female experiences is a sign of inculcated formulae giving way to individual choices, and universal “truths” falling apart into multiplicity of opinions.

Zuleikha and Bibishs assertiveness does show how much strength religion can give. Khadizha and Patimats stories do imply that rebellion may be a long path of failure. Certainly the choice, as it comes to religion, be it Islam, Orthodoxy, Judaism or something else, is never ultimately right or wrong; religious self-identification is always a matter of working out ones individual proportion of modern and traditional, faith and doubt, acceptance and dissent. But the shift of literary focus from belief as a sole refuge and belief as a matter of personal choice and self-determination is very symptomatic.

The transparency and open conversation that the four books provoke signal that the time has come when individual choices about Islam may become more vocal. In the end, all four writers stress the significance of these personal resolutions, and the responsibility that they bring with them.