By Gaukhar Nurgalieva
August 20, 2019
Today, feminism is one of the dominant global trends.
According to a recent study by Ipsos and The Global Institute for Women’s
Leadership, 65 percent of the world’s population believes in equal rights for
men and women. For example, Saadia Zahidi, the author of the book “Fifty
Million Rising,” says the number of employed women from the Muslim world
increased by 50 percent over the last 15 years. Today, almost one third of all
jobs in Islamic countries are filled by women.
However, the relationship between feminism and the Islamic
world is complicated. To date, only six countries with predominantly Muslim
populations have adopted anti gender discrimination laws in regards to
employment. It is noteworthy that three of them (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and
Tajikistan) are located in a historically and culturally unique Eurasian
region, embracing Central Asia and the South Caucasus. And it’s worth
mentioning that although the majority of the regional population practices
Islam, these countries are secular constitutionally.
Countries in this part of the world are generally inclined
to respect women’s rights. For example, according to the World Economic Forum’s
Global Gender Gap Report 2018, the gender gap index, which measures the
equality of men and women in terms of health and survival, educational
attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment,
is 60 percent in Kazakhstan and 58 percent in Mongolia. Higher than Italy,
Greece, Brazil, China and Japan, for example. Eurasia also ranks highest
globally in level of women’s literacy – female students make up more than 50
percent of the total number of higher education applicants in every country in
the region with the exception of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The explanation of this juxtaposition can be found in the
region’s history. The majority of Eurasian peoples have Turkic roots, and the
Turkic people were nomads. In nomadic cultures, women were more involved in the
social life of the community and had a successful track record of fighting for
their rights. Women helped manage inter-tribal diplomacy and conflict alongside
men, and some were extensively engaged in politics or followed their warriors
into battle, as described by the biographers of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.
These societal characteristics have remained over the
centuries. Despite the patriarchal structure of society, women in Russia,
Central Asia and the Caucasus played active roles in political life, the
economy, and scientific development. Since 1905 and later on, being part of the
Soviet Union, the region has actively promoted women’s freedom and
emancipation. The revival and strengthening of Islam at the national level
brought with it the assurance of educational opportunities for women, and their
more active involvement in social and political life.
For example, in the Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollontai became
the first female government minister in 1917, and Mukhlisa Bubi was appointed
as the first female Sharia judge, one of the six qadi of the Spiritual
Administration of Muslims in Russia. Also at this time, the Provisional
Government of Russia granted women the right to vote, while in Switzerland it
took more than 50 years (until 1971) for that, by comparison.
During the World War II approximately one million women
fought in the war, learning the “male” roles. Women participated in the
development of science from rocket building to microbiology to space
exploration. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova (USSR) became the first female
How can this unique history be of help to Islamic women
today? After all, they are seemingly stuck in a vicious circle of strict cultural
A professional, educated and independent Muslim woman
without a husband and children will never be looked at as a role model. And
yet, an exemplary housewife and an excellent mother garners sympathy for not
having access to career opportunities and being forced to depend on men. While
Muslim women can be employed and engaged in social life – such as small and
medium businesses, education, etc. – this doesn’t grant them consistent
financial independence, since their work efforts are residual, after household
and family duties. In Western terms, a Muslim woman’s work-family balance
always tips in favor of family. As a result, her work rarely turns into a
As Michelle Obama writes in her book “Becoming,” it’s not
always possible for women to have it all. This is especially true for Muslim
women. However, Eurasian women demonstrate by their own unique example that one
does not need choose between feminism and Islam. A modern woman can be a Muslim
and build a career just as women in Eurasia have been doing for centuries.
We, contemporary Muslim women, are so many that we have the
power to establish balance between Sharia Law and a secular lifestyle. Let the
winds of global change enrich us, not weaken us.
Original Headline: A Woman’s Dilemma: How To Harmonize
Feminism And Islam Within Yourself?
Nurgalieva, Head of the Eurasian Studies Lab at the SKOLKOVO IEMS, Expert
mentor for the HKUST-SKOLKOVO EMBA for Eurasia