Muslim women navigate cultural, religious divides with beliefs in tact

Olha Fryndak (center) converted to Islam when she was a teenager. She works in Alraid cultural center in Kyiv where Muslims come to socialize and pray as seen on this photo.
20/08/2010
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Muslim women are a rare sight in Ukraine. Maxi skirts, long sleeves and shawls covering up everything but the face get diluted in a culture of suggestive looks and skimpy outfits. And yet, they form a distinctive minority of thousands of women sprinkled all over the country.

Islamic beliefs place many restrictions on women. From clothing styles to relationships, many Muslim women live by a strict set of rules interpreted from the Koran. Fitting into a Christian society is not always easy, but many say they feel safe in their hijabs as they worship inside Ukraine’s rare mosques.

But they, generally, don’t form a highly visible community.

“Most Muslim women here are married to Arabs, so they would naturally want to fit into their husband’s habitat," said Valery Rybalkin, dean of Kyiv-based Eastern World Institute. “It means they would practice either conservative Eastern rules or more secular European, for example.”

Most Ukrainian Muslims live in Crimea, a former satellite state of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries.

In Kyiv, their numbers are small but their presence is felt through one mosque and the Alraid culture center. Interviewed in this little oasis, many of them refused to give their names, preferring to keep their identities as closed as their dress.

But the Kyiv Post managed to unveil a few stories.

Clothes

Many followers believe a Muslim woman cannot reveal more than her face, wrists and ankles in public and that only her husband gets to see everything else. “When I get on a train in the subway, everyone dashes away from me. I am glad of it because it means that no one will harass me,” said Kamilla Khasanova, a young woman wearing a blue hijab.

Khasanova thinks Ukrainian women should stop wearing revealing clothes to gain respect. Their attire “is one of the reasons why Ukrainian women are treated only as sexual objects,” Khasanova said.

Some believe the Koran requires Muslim women to start wearing hijabs from their first menstruation, while others say the sartorial choice is a matter of divine inspiration. A special type is used for swimming. Called burqini, it’s made of airy fabric. In the West, designers offer Muslim women various styles. In Kyiv though there’s only one shop with authentic clothing.

Relationships

Muslim men and women generally don’t date, even in Ukraine. As alien as it sounds, a single girl can spend time with her prospective fiance only in the presence of relatives or friends. However, when it comes to polygamy, a woman has the right to object to her husband’s desire to have a few wives. In Ukraine, it’s a non-issue, apparently, with many men unable to earn enough money to provide for more than one family.

But being a Muslim wife does not mean being a husband’s servant. “There is no such responsibility as cooking, for instance,” said Olha Fryndak, 28, who works in Alraid. “Her husband has no right to force her.”

But there’s still inequality. A Muslim woman cannot marry outside the religion, while a man can take a non-Muslim wife. Fryndak said women don’t object to it because marriage to a Christian man, for example, would prevent them from adhering to all the rules of Islam. Also, a Muslim man cannot force his wife to convert. “Nothing can be done under compulsion,” Fryndak said.

Kateryna Sapryga, 17, took up the Islamic faith after her mother married a Muslim man. She said she started wearing hijab to school two years ago: “My classmates and teachers have shown respect,” Sapryga said.

To study applied mathematics, she entered the Kyiv Polytechnic University, an innate male habitat. She said she didn’t feel threatened. Studying in a room full of men is allowed. “If a man is your colleague or a classmate, it is ok.

Otherwise, they’re not supposed to be seen one-on-one,” explained Sapryga.

Many women prefer female-only parties. “We enjoy spending time with each other more than with men because we can dress up and put on make-up and jewelry,” Fryndak said. “Although there are no restrictions to fun, we don’t feel comfortable in a place where men drink, smoke and feel completely frivolous.”

When Muslim women and men spend time together, women are required to sit and watch their men having fun, Fryndak said. The same rule applies to the prayer. In the mosque near Lukyanovska metro, there’s a curtain separating men and women.

Work

A Muslim woman can work almost anywhere, unless a job somehow infringes upon her dignity. Fryndak said Muslim wives cannot be dancers or singers, “because a female voice has a certain tempting effect on men.” They are also not allowed to do hard physical jobs.

But while opportunities are ample for other professions, not many businesses in Ukraine are prepared to hire a woman in hijab. Civil service jobs are particularly unattainable, said one Muslim woman. But for many of them in Ukraine, family comes first.

«Kyiv Post», 12.08.2010
The original article on «Kyiv Post» site

Related publications in Ukrainian media:

Female Happiness According to Quran («TIMER»)

How Live in Flashpoints Ukrainian Wives of Muslims. Article in the Newspaper "Today"

El Sabi, Ukrainian, refugee from Gaza: There is no Life either in Gaza, or in Ukraine (Newspaper 24)

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