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Muslim Women of the Fergana Valley: A 19th-Century Ethnography from Central Asia

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Muslim Women of the Fergana Valley is the first English translation of an important 19th-century Russian text describing everyday life in Uzbek communities. Vladimir and Maria Nalivkin were Russians who settled in a "Sart" village in 1878, in a territory newly conquered by the Russian Empire. During their six years in Nanay, Maria Nalivkina learned the local language, befriended her neighbors, and wrote observations about their lives from birth to death. Together, Maria and Vladimir published this account, which met with great acclaim from Russia’s Imperial Geographic Society and among Orientalists internationally. While they recognized that Islam shaped social attitudes, the Nalivkins never relied on common stereotypes about the "plight" of Muslim women. The Fergana Valley women of their ethnographic portrait emerge as lively, hard-working, clever, and able to navigate the cultural challenges of early Russian colonialism. Rich with social and cultural detail of a sort not available in other kinds of historical sources, this work offers rare insight into life in rural Central Asia and serves as an instructive example of the genre of ethnographic writing that was emerging at the time. Annotations by the translators and an editor's introduction by Marianne Kamp help contemporary readers understand the Nalivkins' work in context.

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1 A Short Sketch of the Fergana Valley

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FERGANA IS A VALLEY that runs from northeast to southwest, surrounded by mountain ranges that open up only to its southwestern corner, near Khujand.

The length of the valley from Khujand to Uzgentom (in [geographic] projection) is approximately 300 versts.1 The greatest distance between the base of the foothills is about 130 versts, and the smallest (near Maxram), about 30 versts. Longitudinally, the valley is cut by the river Syr-Darya, formed from the junction of the Naryn and Kara-Darya Rivers, a few versts to the south of Namagan. Many small rivers and streams run down the mountain slopes and partly in the foothills, but mainly when they flow into the valley, their flow diverges into an enormous network of ariqs, artificial irrigation channels.

The major cities, the most populated trade and industrial settlements, are Qo’qon [Kokand], Marg’ilon, Andijon, Namangan, Osh, and Chust. Apart from these cities, which correspond to six current uezds [administrative divisions or regions] of Fergana oblast’ [province], there are kishlaks (villages), some of which—for example, Isfara and Rishtan of Qo’qon region, Shaxrixon and Assaka of Marg’ilon region, and Uzgent of Andijon region—compare in size and population to such cities as Osh and Chust.

 

2 Religion and Clergy

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BOTH THE SEDENTARY and the nomadic population of Fergana practice the Muslim religion, the Sunni strain, the sect of the Hanafiya or Azami.1

The Koran lies at the foundation of the Muslim religion, as is well known; it includes 114 chapters of different length, each of which consists of a larger or smaller number of verses.

Since the Koran was written by Magomet [Muhammad] at different times and undoubtedly under various impressions, there is often no logical connection between chapters or even among verses in a single chapter. At the same time, the names of the chapters are very strange and almost never correspond to the content of the chapters.

In addition, some of the later verses contradict the earlier ones, which forced the Prophet to qualify: “When We abolish some regulation and order it forgotten, We give another one, which is better or equal” (Koran, chapter 1, verse 100).

The extreme brevity of narration in the Koran serves to show why its application in life requires explaining to the masses many issues mentioned in it.

 

3 Houses and Utensils

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THE MAIN CONSTRUCTION materials for all the native buildings are clay (to be precise, loess)1 and wood, mainly poplar and willow. Clay forms the walls of buildings and enclosures; wood makes poles, props, beams, doors, window frames, and roofs.

The building materials made of clay are (1) dried bricks; (2) guvala, elliptic globs about 6 vershok2 long and 4 vershok in diameter; they are made of thick clay, mixing in saman (fine-chopped straw), and they dry in the sun in the same way as the dried brick; [and] (3) loy, a soup of clay with or without saman.

Fired bricks are used very rarely, mainly in the construction of public buildings such as madrasas, caravanserais, etc., and almost never in the construction of private homes (except for their foundations).

The walls, devol, usually narrow toward the top. They are rarely made of bricks, which are used mostly in the construction of niches and fireplaces; much more often, the walls are constructed of guvala, which are laid in rows intersected by clay mud, loy.

 

4 Woman’s Appearance and Her Clothing

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NATIVE WOMEN are predominantly of middling height or short. Tall ones can be seen more often in kishlaks than in cities. Because of nutritional conditions, which we will dwell on later, the native girl develops quite slowly, but she is given in marriage, on average, at age thirteen or fourteen; so after getting married, the young woman continues to grow for a long time and sometimes considerably. There is a belief or a conviction that the more she likes her husband, the more and faster she grows.

There are quite a few plump women. Most of them are predisposed to being chubby and put on weight at a mature age, when they come into good living conditions. Plumpness is an indispensable condition of beauty; a woman with a curvy figure and a good complexion is often called a beauty even if she has ugly features. Women usually start filling out around age nineteen or twenty but usually after the birth of the first child.

Their build is rarely regular. Most have disproportionately long torsos, which are often considerably disguised by the fall of their outer dress; in the absence of large, well-developed breasts, the torso is extremely and equally flat in the front and in the back. Because of these shortcomings of their build, native woman would rarely look attractive in European dress.

 

5 Occupations and Food

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ISLAM RECOGNIZES staying at home and working hard as the best deeds for a woman. A pious, hardworking Sart man is called sufi (pure, godly), and a housewifely woman is mastura (homebody),1 but very few young women can qualify for this description.2 Having observed men and women for several years, we have come to the conclusion that there is a huge difference between them when they are the same age. A woman up to twenty-five or thirty years of age usually has little interest in housework or any other labor. If she is not forced to work by poverty or a husband’s pressure, she would not lift her finger and would run around visiting others, strumming a dutor [two-stringed lute], pounding a tambourine, and gossiping; the most she can do is sew a new dress for herself. The man is the other way round; before thirty to thirty-five, he is extremely hardworking, serious, and ambitious. In many families, he takes on the heaviest load in agriculture, crafts, and trade starting at age ten or twelve, while the majority of girls who are soon to be brides can do almost nothing. However, when they become mature, the roles of an average man and woman change. He often becomes deficient in energy and sedentary, even lazy; she, on the contrary, does not lose her energy and ambition until a very advanced age and, with very rare exceptions, becomes very energetic, good at homemaking, and hardworking. We see old gray-haired women who spend the whole day on their feet, never stop working, baking bread or sewing or weaving or preparing food, moki dek yurubti, running back and forth like a weaver’s shuttle.

 

6 The Woman, Her Character, Habits, Knowledge, and Behavior toward the People around Her

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IN GENERAL, THE NATIVE woman’s character should be described as lively and extremely merry; naturally, she experiences grief and melancholy from time to time, but she never indulges in them for too long. Even in extremely rough material and moral situations, she is never averse to chatting, laughing, singing a song. Especially when she is young, she sings or hums almost constantly. It is true that occasionally she lets herself get teary eyes, but this tearfulness is always false, insincere, and she uses it as a tool to achieve her goals.

All her movements are quick, sometimes jerky but almost never awkward. From a very early age a girl controls her movements, trying to make them similar to the local standard of propriety. That is the reason why not only most of a woman’s movements but most of her mannerisms are far from being simple or natural. For instance, she loves to walk fast, but respectability based on religion bans her from moving her legs too fast while walking, waving her arms, etc. (Koran, chapter 24, verse 31). That is why her gait has acquired a very special character. She moves her feet very quickly, making tiny steps, while not only her hands but her head and shoulders remain almost motionless or move very little. There is a similar imprint of moderation in her moral “I” as well. Not only the woman but even a ten- or twelve-year-old girl who receives a present that she loves extremely does not express this admiration; often she does not even express gratitude for it. She expresses gratitude only if the present is given as alms or financial assistance. If this is a dress, shoes, or an ornament, the highest degree of her gratitude would be to put it on right away, which would mean that she loved it. (The same is customary among men.) If the present cannot be put on, she shows it to the people around, accompanying it with gestures and a smile so sweet that one of our most experienced coquettes would envy it. We would like to note that many Sart women and girls have reached perfection in expressing their feelings with lips and eyebrows. When she wants to ask a question, she silently raises her brows slightly upward and does it so adroitly that any other question from her becomes unnecessary, because her whole face becomes a perfect expression of a question mark.

 

7 Pregnancy and Childbirth: A Girl

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THERE ARE MANY REASONS for a Sart woman to rejoice over pregnancy, especially her first. First of all, according to tradition, a husband almost never allows a young bride to leave the courtyard until she gives birth to the first child. Second, both religion and the folk mind agree that progeny is one of the best rewards for human virtue.1 For the same reason, an infertile woman who bears no children hears reprimands and complaints at every step from her husband for the lack of progeny. Being called unfruitful is almost as bad as being called unclean. There are many cases of women trying to hide their infertility by persuading everyone that they are pregnant, but the fetus became stuck inside and they cannot get pregnant again. Such stories about the imaginary fetus stuck inside are rather frequent. We have been addressed many times for advice on what to do with this stuck fetus and what should be done to get rid of it. At the same time, it was only rarely that we would hear complaints about too many children or the difficulty of raising them. Sarts say that a home with children is a bazaar (lively); without children, a mazar (depressing). We have encountered only one case of infanticide, and it was surrounded by exceptional circumstances. A disabled mother, who was born without feet, gave birth to a girl. Lacking the ability to move herself or to ask someone to take care of the newborn, she strangled the child out of despair. Cases of extreme fertility are not rare. More than once we met old women who had fifteen to seventeen children throughout their marriage.

 

8 The Maiden: Marriage Proposal and Marriage

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A MAIDENS FIRST PARANJI is usually sewn not of the gray fabric that women typically wear but from white ticking with narrow red stripes.1 Otherwise, her clothes and hairstyle remain the same as for younger girls. In cities, even in the poorest families, maidens are provided with soft boots; no longer are they allowed to walk barefoot, and galoshes on bare feet are worn only in summer at home.

All her street games with friends and peers are ended. The maiden starts participating more and more in household activities such as cooking, cleaning cotton, and spinning.

Now she can play and frolic at home as much as she wants, but when she is out in the street, she should behave, and she actually does behave, in a very reserved and proper way.

She rarely leaves the house alone, especially if she needs to go far. Often she is accompanied by one of her younger brothers or sisters. However, it is not considered shameful if several girlfriends get together and go somewhere without being accompanied. Such groups of maidens who are all of one age go together to Sayil, acrobatic performances, or bachcha dancing during holidays, etc.

 

9 Polygyny, Divorce, Widowhood, and Death of a Woman

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RELIGION ALLOWS a Muslim man to have no more than four wives at the same time. The number of wives he can have over time, according to Sharia, is unlimited. For instance, if he already has four wives but for some reason wants to marry a fifth one, he must first divorce one of his current wives, and then religion does not prevent him from replacing her with a new one. A woman who becomes a widow or divorces her husband can also remarry an unlimited number of times.

The eldest, senior wife is considered the mistress of the house; she is responsible for the overall supervision and management of the household economy and the performance of the work she decides to do; the rest of the work must be performed by the younger wives on her order. The latter call her byovyo (bibi, elder sister, aunt, mistress) and must treat her with the respect they would show an older close relative. (We will see below that in most cases these rules are not followed.) If the first wife dies or is divorced, her position is usually taken not by the next one in line but by the one that the husband loves most.

 

10 Prostitution

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THE READER KNOWS ALREADY that during the khan’s rule the Muslim government and its agents, one of which was society itself, punished not only prostitution but even ordinary adultery with death. Nonetheless, both of these were practiced, and not infrequently, because catching a man or a woman in the act was difficult, even impossible,1 and there was no shortage of motivations pushing a woman toward prostitution or an adulterous relationship with a man, then as now. Men have always been inclined to diversify their experiences in the sexual sphere. Women, great seekers of love affairs and all sorts of pleasures of that kind, also love to receive even small gifts, since most of them have always been financially dependent on their husbands and have never been in a good position to satisfy their needs and desires for flirtation. The young wives of those who have several spouses, then and now, are often left unsatisfied; and poverty, which was as widespread then as it is now, made women try all possible means to struggle against need. Thus, the only difference between the past and the present lies in the fact that previously, the fear of punishment forced men and women to be extremely cautious, which is why prostitution was clandestine, while nowadays it is practiced both secretly and openly. There were, however, historical moments in the past when the clandestine prostitution encouraged by the epicurean khans spread to an enormous degree, at least in Qo’qon, for instance, during the reign of Madali-khan. (See the Short History of Kokand Khanate, V. Nalivkin, 1886.)

 

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