When I entered the café on that breezy afternoon, I looked around, searching for the three young women meeting me there.
On the patio outside, they were chatting and waved me over – Hamsiya, Aikol, and Myrzaiym are all around the same age and have all chosen to wear the hijab but have done so at different stages in their lives.
The conversation that unfolded over lattes would be about this choice and the challenges that came with it.
Throughout Kyrgyzstan, women are often challenged in how they choose to cover their heads – hijab or jooluk?
Both the hijab and jooluk are types of head-coverings; the hijab covers the hair, face, and neck, while the jooluk covers only the hair.
The largest differences, however, are in how these two head-coverings are perceived in Kyrgyz culture. The hijab is an undeniable symbol of a woman’s Muslim identity, while the jooluk is more of a symbol of Kyrgyz identity and marital status (jooluk is traditionally worn by women after marriage).
This question of how Muslim Kyrgyz women should cover their heads is a debate ringing throughout Kyrgyzstan, even on billboards.
In 2016, there was a government-supported billboard campaign that posed a question: Dear people, where are we heading?!
The goal of the billboard was to show three photos of women wearing different types of head-coverings - the elecheck which is traditionally Kyrgyz and then the niqab and burqa which cover more than the hijab and are typically associated with the more conservative Islamic societies in the Middle East.
In Kyrgyzstan, the hijab is becoming increasingly popular as a growing number of women in Kyrgyzstan are opting to wear it – an undeniable expression of Muslim identity. Oftentimes, the hijab is misunderstood as a symbol of oppression but for many in Kyrgyzstan, the hijab is a symbol of empowerment and of their choice to wear it, sometimes against the wishes of their families.
For Hamsiya, Aikol, and Myrzaiym, the hijab symbolizes their freedom of choice and also, the challenges that go against society’s expectations of young women.
Hamsiya is a spunky, energetic, and talented photographer who grew up around religion, coming from a religious family.
She started to wear the hijab when she was in school. She recalled painful memories of being bullied in school for this choice.
“One day, I was walking with my friend from the middle school,” Hamsiya recalled. “I was wearing a headscarf and one of my classmates, a guy, just came up to me suddenly and said, ‘are you wearing a scarf?!’
Then he just tore it off so easily and quickly.”
“I was so shocked. I know he was a child, but it was so aggressive. I didn’t do anything to him. My friend defended me, yelled at him, and got my scarf back. I tied it back on and walked home. I decided then I didn’t want to study there anymore.”
She transferred to an all-girls school that allowed girls to make the choice to wear the hijab or not.
“The scarf is part of my identity and so I wear it proudly but at that school, people would always point at me and shout at me. They were so aggressive,” Hamisya said.
Aikol is a journalist and an excellent writer. She is reflective and gives thoughtful, opinionated answers on matters she has clearly educated herself about. Aikol comes from a family she describes as similar to most other families in Kyrgyzstan – They are Muslim but they don’t practice Islam closely.
“I always knew I’m Muslim, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Aikol, “I never asked myself these questions, until I started interacting with Muslim people at university.”
At university, she learned more about Islam and how to practice it from her professors and peers.
“I started praying for the time and at first it was difficult because no one in my family prayed,” Aikol recalled. “They would always ask me ‘why are you doing this? You are so young,’ but thankfully, my parents always support me. Even if they do not agree with me, they are always supportive, so I didn’t receive harsh reactions from them. They were just curious.”
She began wearing the hijab when she was older which she said made it easier.
“For me it was easier. Hamsiya was a teenager and at that time in our society, people were more aggressive. For me, I did it when I was already grown. I already had a strong personality and could respond if someone said something to me. It was easy for me.”
Aikol paused for a moment and then chuckled, “her story is a little more dramatic.”
Aikol was referring to Myrzaiym who laughed in agreement at this comment.
Growing up, Myrzaiym’s family was not religious, except for one of her aunts.
One day, her aunt brought a teacher to Myrzaiym’s house and told her stories that were in the Quran – The one that interested Myrzaiym the most was the story of Adam and Eve.
After that, she began praying in secret and then, when she was 15, she decided to wear the hijab. This choice was received with criticism by her parents, relatives, and friends.
“It took me four years for me to wear hijab because I was afraid of the opinions of my classmates and the opinions of my relatives,” Myrzaiym said. “When I wore it, they all said things to me that made me sad. Even my grandmother said to me, ‘Why can't you just be a normal girl?!’ It was like if I wore the hijab, I became abnormal.”
She also had problems at school with both friends and teachers.
“I always want to be a leader and I wanted to become president of our school, but they wouldn’t let me [run for school president] because of my scarf.”
Her parents worried that her hijab would limit her and cause her problems going into medicine.
“My parents were afraid that it would be difficult for me to find success in medicine; they thought it would be hard for me because of my hijab.”
Myrzaiym graduated from medical school spring of 2018.
A Balancing Act
All three of these women reject the idea that wearing the hijab is going against culture or that wearing the hijab defines them or restricts what they can achieve.
“We [Muslims] respect the rules [of Islam] and some traditions, but at the same time we do modern things. I try to show it in my work,” Hamsiya said. “I am a designer, I am drawing, painting, I do calligraphy. Islam doesn’t close doors, it opens doors.”
However, they do continue to experience challenges in balancing their cultural identities with their religious identities when culture and religion seem to collide.
“Our tradition is very mixed. From one side people say we are following Tengriism and in other parts we practice Islam. Everything is mixed and people are okay with this, but now we are starting to get more knowledge and we are starting to see there is something wrong with the traditions that go against Islamic principles,” Aikol said.
“I think we are going back to our Kyrgyz traditions and reviving it. We [girls who wear the hijab] are not going against our culture, we are protecting our culture and respecting our culture because it is part of our identity.”