Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Islamists Bolstered by Female Recruits

Women are flocking to join outlawed Islamic movement strongly critical of the authorities.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

A banned Islamic group is growing in strength in southern Kyrgyzstan as a result of the increasing recruitment of women into its ranks.


Observers say women now make up around 10 per cent of Hizb ut-Tahrir's membership, which is thought to number several thousand. "In the Jalal-Abad region alone there are more than 150 known female members," said one party activist.


The recruitment of women has coincided with an increase in government pressure on the Islamic group, many of whose members have been forced underground.


Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates a global Islamic state (Caliphate), condemns the current government and the US military build-up in the country - although it insists its methods are non-violent.


The group has so far confined its activities to spreading propaganda, mainly through leafleting, unlike the more militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is pursuing an armed struggle against the authorities in the region.


Saida K, a midwife, became involved through her husband Rakhimjan and is now taking a course of study in preparation to join the group, which will require her to make personal sacrifices.


"I realized that Hizb ut-Tahrir is working towards justice in the world and I support this idea. I had to leave my job, since they don't allow employees to wear scarves and long-sleeved clothes which the Sharia (code of Islamic law) demands," she told IWPR - the interview conducted through a screen as the group's austere form of Islam prohibits women communicating with male strangers.


Life, Saida believes, would be better in a theocratic state because the current secular authorities had failed the country, "When I was working as a midwife, I had a negligible salary, but at least I had a job - most people of working age are unemployed."


She pointed out that they don't like the disparity between people who have very little, and high-ranking government officials who live in mansions and prosper. "That is exactly what we want to change", said Saifa.


Women make particularly eager recruits says Sanobar S, who instructs new members in the party's ideology. "They are far more religious than men and because they don't work are less tainted by secular influences," she said.


Both Saida and Sanobar admit, however, that older women, especially those brought up during Soviet times are not so willing to join, as they are not keen to comply with the Sharia's ban on women traveling alone and its strict dress code.


Not that the group make recruitment a priority. Sanobar says its main aim is to spread knowledge of Islam. "It is not necessary for everybody with whom we speak to join Hizb ut-Tahrir. The most important thing is that they start living according to the laws of Sharia," she said.


And the message appears to be meeting with some success, as the number of women with covered heads and wearing enveloping ankle-length dresses has been visibly increasing - even in the cities - in recent years.


The government has been unnerved by the influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir and is determined to crackdown on the group. But by arresting male members, the authorities have driven their wives into the ranks of the Islamists. "Seeing how the police treat her husband the woman becomes sure that she is following the correct path and works to carry on his ideas," said Samobar.


So far, however, there has been only one known conviction of a woman for membership of the illegal group. In 2000, Zukhra Teshebaeva of Jalal-Abad was sentenced to three years in prison for religious dissension over a photocopier in her home allegedly used to duplicate leaflets


Well-known analyst and human rights activist Vitali Ponomariov says a similar trend is evident in Uzbekistan.


"Women there have staged protest rallies against use of torture and violent and cruel treatment of their husbands. In the next two to three years, the role of women in this party will be strengthening," he said.


Ponomariov told IWPR that the increase in female membership could improve the effectiveness of the organisation, as women have distinct advantage over men. "When men are holding rallies, the authorities immediately use repressive action against them without any hesitation. When it comes to women, they will think twice whether it is worth to undertake forceful measures."


Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan