New York, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- French scholar Habiba Fathi has spent months at a time in remote villages of Central Asia, immersing herself in the culture and customs. The researcher -- at the French Institute for Central Asian Studies in Tashkent -- has now emerged with portraits of 76 women who serve as local religious leaders in their communities.
Fathi's study focuses not so much on semiofficial religious structures, but rather on unofficial female imams known locally, in Uzbek, as "otin-oyi" ("Bibi khalifa" in Tajik). These women often lead ceremonies or teach religious subjects in schools.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that the "otin-oyi" exist only in Central Asia. Is that so?
"A lot of Uzbek, Tajik women have been 'Sovietized.' Now they don't know anything about religion."
Fathi: "'Otin-Oyi' is an Uzbek term. Among Tajik people you say 'Bibi khalifa,' but it's the same function. In fact this is an old religious female function that existed before the 'Sovietization' of Central Asia among Tajik, Uzbek, Iranian people. I read that you also can find them in Azerbaijan and in Shi'a communities of Iraq or Iran. But the function today is more active in Central Asia."
RFE/RL: Does this mean that women in Central Asia play a more prominent religious function than in other parts of the Muslim world?
Fathi: "It's difficult to say because when we look at [the] Arabic Muslim world in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia -- you can also find women who have a function of authority. But there is a big difference because in Central Asia an 'otin-oyi,' [is] not only playing an intensive role near the holy shrines, but she is also teaching religion. She teaches religion to the members of family but also to all the children, either boys or girls in all the 'makhala' -- the neighborhood."
RFE/RL: Was the period of "Sovietization" in Central Asia in a sense beneficial to women by putting them on more equal footing with men?
Fathi: "Yes. We'll say it's true because I've been recently in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan shares the same cultural, historical, religious background as some ethnic groups in Central Asia, like Tajik or Uzbek. But there is a big difference when you're traveling in Afghanistan and in Central Asia because in Afghanistan you don't see women or if you see women they are all in [the] burqa, the veil. A lot of Uzbek, Tajik women have been 'Sovietized.' Now they don't know anything about religion. They come to this ['otin-oyi'] to learn Arabic transcription, to learn Quran and also literature."
RFE/RL: In which of the five Central Asian states women have the opportunity to play a more prominent role in religious matters?
Fathi: "I think it is especially [valid] in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan because the functions of 'otin-oyi' or 'bibi khalifa' in Tajik, a term that you can translate as 'female mullah,' essentially exist among sedentary peoples. We can't find any 'otin-oyi,' for example, among Kazakh or Kyrgyz that are nomadic people. This function of female religious mullah should be explained, should be linked to [Islam's] Shi'a tradition. That's one of my conclusions, but I am not sure if I am right or not."
RFE/RL: Besides religious matters where else in daily life do these "otin-oyi" or "bibi khalifa" exert influence?
Fathi: "Like big sisters, all of these women of authority provide help and support to other women so they can contend with the trials of life. It's easy to understand why Muslim women [in Central Asia], including nonpracticing ones, systematically rely on religion to make their home feel safe, making use of the services of the Muslim women of authority to make [their homes] sacred."