Foreign Policy Blogs

Stalin and the hijab

Eighty years ago, Stalinists attempted to eradicate Stalin in Asian Dressspecific Central Asian religious and cultural practices: one such undesired practice, again relevant, concerned the customary headcoverings for Islamic women (hijab).  According to articles by Douglas Northrop in 2000 and 2001 (see Worth Reading: Uzbekistan), Bolsheviks in Uzbekistan began korenizatsaiia (nativization) in the early 1920's.  By 1926, they had identified traditional Islamic women's dress as a barrier to nativization (a curious doublespeak, since they meant, really, homogenization), and had decided to bring women into public life, unveiled and completely revolutionized in nature.  They hoped to complete this project by October of 1927‚ one year to complete this task‚ in time for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

In Uzbekistan, the party apparatus, without much in the way of funding for a more widespread campaign, decided to begin with those with whom they had the most access.  Therefore, they attempted to change the mores and folkways of those already within the Uzbekistani Communist Party.  In a combination of exhortation and shaming, they presented unveiling as a duty of leadership by example to the ignorant.  This approach put those Uzbekis most accepting of Communism in an untenable position: between Party affiliation and local/religious custom.  Local response, according to Northrop's research, was:

Praise be to Allah that we are not Communists!

Under this formulation, gender relations became class relations, with women identified as the proletariat that needed to be liberated.  Northrop (2000) writes that "by treating a woman's status, veiled or unveiled, as transparently revelatory of [their male relatives' or spouse's] political views", this approach to unveiling within the party effaced women's ability to choose how to live their own lives."

Needless to say, the Bolsheviks were unable to create a bare-headed tenth anniversary of the Revolution.  They therefore redoubled their efforts.  By 1928, this failure of the unveiling led to a more sinister Proverka (audit) of Uzbekistan's Communists.  Party members could expect inspections and evaluations of family conduct and mores, with private life invaded in order to measure revolutionary sincerity.  This practice politicized private life and made it publicly accountable.  "Gender misconduct", which encompassed not just hijab, but also underage marriage, limited public life for women, and bride-price commerce, not-so-gradually coalesced into one issue: the presence or absence of hijab on female family members.  Thus the use of the hijab became the One indicator of an entire political outlook. 

The identification of gender politics as primary to the Stalinist agenda was specific to Central Asia, but formed a precedent for other mergers of public and private in Stalinist purges elsewhere.  Bolshevik paranoia had concentrated a host of issues into one visually-identifiable practice, and then treated this practice as the entirety of progress toward national assimilation. 

And if Stalin can't manage it . . .