The author has spent many years in the French Institute of Central Asian Studies (IFEAC, Tashkent) since the early 2000s. The result of her work in this institution is the present monograph, full of rich and original field material, and of reflections on the essence of Islam in Central Asia. The latter’s main object is woman, more precisely “woman of authority,” the leader of the religious life of the women’s community. In her introduction “The Oblivion of the Religion of Muslim Women,” the author explains that the female half of the population is usually forgotten in the studies on Central Asian Islam. At the same time, dealing with this very part of the population brings scholarship to deepen the ongoing research on the relation between tradition and modernisation, official and popular Islam, male and female religiosity.
The book consists of six chapters. The first one, “The Legacy of Authoritarian Modernisation,” is devoted to the history of modernisation in Central Asia and to the specificities of the return to Islam in this region of the world since the early 1990s. The second one, “Memory, Religion, and Identity,” is based on a collection by the author of seventy-six interviews/life stories of Central Asian otins and leaders of religious associations. It recalls the history of re-Islamicisation, individual experiences of the return to Islam in varied social contexts. The third chapter, “A Recomposed Religion,” analyses the role of female instructors in Central Asian Islam in the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods, with a particular interests in the transformations that have been occurring since independence in 1991. The fourth chapter, “Women’s Visions, Prophecies and Vocations,” depicts the relations between an Islamic-background society and with symbols and cults of a non-Islamic origin present in the world of women’s representations (initiation rituals, images of devils, etc.). The following chapter, “The Rituals on Family Celebration,” is a description and analysis of varied types of ritual practice with women’s participation, with detailed evocations of the practices, representations and biographies of female shamans, soothsayers, and bakhshis. In the last chapter, “Women’s Religious Identity,” the author surveys the differences between the respective religious identities of men and women. In her conclusion, “Practical Islam in the Feminine: Specificities or Adaptation?,” H. Fathi underlines that women of authority play a significant role in the life of Central Asian societies, most particularly in the latter’s female population. They play the role of intermediaries between women and the divine, accomplish a variety of role and confirm the legitimacy of social institutes and hierarchy. Being linked with the sacred, they fulfil to the ayes of people important symbolic functions, maintaining the mystical and magical forms of the expression of religiosity.
The structure of the book often looks quite chaotic, the author getting back and forth between current time to the past, repeating numerous appreciations and judgements. This chaotic character, however, can be explained by the fact that both present time and the past are mutually intermingled and strongly influence on each other, which makes uneasy, and to some extent meaningless their mutual separation with the scalpel of analysis. This inner complexity of the text reflects this significant thought that the author wanted to transmit to the reader, and that I repeat: “Central Asian Islam is not only far from being homogenous, it is also deeply penetrated by problems of conflict and divergence between male and female Muslims.” The book is illustrated by photographs taken by the author, and enriched by a bibliography, a glossary and appendixes comprising the transcription of women’s prayers and litanies, with a short characterisation of informants.
Sergei Abashin, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow