Women's Rights

Hijab-wearing women in Kyrgyzstan defy Muslim stereotypes

By Asker Sultanov


Kamila Orozbayeva, 12, takes lessons at Bishkek's archery club in October. In August, she won a bronze medal for her age group at national competitions in Kyrgyzstan. [Asker Sultanov]

BISHKEK -- For many Kyrgyz citizens who follow a secular lifestyle, Islam is associated with a restricted role for women in social, economic and other spheres of life.

But that perception is changing as more Kyrgyz women who choose to wear the hijab become business owners, store managers and sports champions.

"The majority of countries in the Islamic world have so-called sex segregation in socio-economic life, which manifests itself in the form of 'male' and 'female' professions, as well as in lower employment and education levels for women than for men," Jamal Frontbek kyzy, leader of the Kyrgyz women's rights NGO Muktallim, told Caravanserai.

However, successful Muslim women are destroying that stereotype in Kyrgyzstan.

The Orozbayeva sisters

The Orozbayeva sisters -- Rafiya, Amina and Kamila -- of Bishkek consider themselves to be religious; they pray five times a day, wear the hijab and live according to Islamic doctrine.

At the same time they study, work and are involved in a rare sport for Kyrgyzstan: archery.

The eldest sister, Rafiya, 26, said her faith helps her to prove her worth in life, and that Islam does not set any boundaries that hinder her self-development.

"You cross the 'I can't' boundary, and realise that your potential is inexhaustible," she told Caravanserai. "This doesn't apply to sports alone ... you wage battle with yourself. I've learned how to apply this principle to both work and self-improvement."

About a year ago, Amina, 21, found an archery club in Bishkek after a long search and started taking lessons with Rafiya. Later, their youngest sister Kamila, 12, joined the club.

"I have been very vigorous since I was a kid and like diverse activities," Amina told Caravanserai. "My family, religious believers, has always supported me in everything I do."

"Even though we wear headscarves, this doesn't hamper us during archery lessons," Rafiya said.

In August, the sisters participated in an international archery tournament in Kyrgyzstan.

"Being a religious believer doesn't prevent me from associating with my peers or going to birthdays or other celebrations," Kamila, who has been wearing a hijab since she was 10, told Caravanserai. "Among my peers, I won a bronze medal [in archery] at the nationwide competitions this summer."

Muslim women running businesses

Makhabat Alymkulova of Bishkek said she is deeply religious, wears a hijab and is raising her five children in accordance with Islamic doctrine.

At the same time, she runs a business selling clothing, books, cosmetics and other goods.

"I talk with different people, not only with believers," she told Caravanserai. "When I come across the stereotype that Islam places severe restrictions on women's rights, giving them only the role of keepers of the hearth, I'm surprised."

Islam imposes no restrictions on women with regard to education or civic life, she said.

"We [Kyrgyz] have many female Muslims who actively take part in various parts of life," she said. "It takes place under the radar, and not everyone knows about it."

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