Part Three

By Elmira Akhmetova

In the previous essays, ISLAM UNDER THE SOVIET UNION – Part Two and ISLAM UNDER THE SOVIET UNION – Part One, I have been narrating about how Muslims were facing many problems during the times of the Soviet Union. This piece is again from the series of Islam in the Soviet Union. Some thoughts or experiences could be interesting and beneficial for some of you.

As I had already pointed out in Part I, although the Soviet government prohibited to practice our religion completely, we grew up by knowing that we were Muslims. But we could not grasp the real meaning of being a Muslim or what we should do and what should not. What is interesting is that old ladies never go out without covering their hairs. And this was accepted as tradition or a part of culture. But young women never covered themselves and I never heard in my short life the word ‘hijab’ until I reached the final year at the university.

We were defending our final year project paper at the Kazan State University. One of my classmates came into the classroom and shouted that Naila from the parallel section was wearing something strange and weird!! We all run to the next classroom… Yes, we heard that our friend Naila got married to an Arab student who was pursuing his studies at our university. Yes, we have noticed that Naila became choosy in terms of food. She was learning how to pray, that we all heard already … But to see our classmate in such a strange dress was shocking and unacceptable for us. She was wearing a long skirt and blouse with long sleeves on a hot summer day and was wearing dark blue (I still remember even the color of her scarf regardless of how many years have passed!) scarf in an Arab style, the style which we never have seen before.

To compare with the news what we have seen just now, our defense of the final project paper became so unimportant for us. We were very critical of what Naila has done, it had been accepted by us as a crime against humanity because her dress was unusual, strange and mysterious. So I did not hesitate to come closer to her and demand to finish this show off from her and became a normal (!) person.  She calmly replied that she began practicing Islam and wearing the scarf is obligatory in Islam. I stunned to hear that, could not help myself rather than suggest that she is free to wear it at home or in the mosque, but not in a public university.

Naila’s answer triggered my curiosity anyway. This was the time when I began thinking deeply about the meaning of life, my identity, and my lifestyle. But there was no example to follow, no one around to get advice, and no an Islamic book or a scholar to learn about it as well. Very soon, this curiosity led me to a newly opened mosque in my city where I learned about the opening of weekend classes to learn a basic knowledge about Islam. Along with studying at the mosque in weekends, I became a full-time MA student in Oriental Literature at the university.

With the help and the guidance of Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala, a young girl, who had criticized her friend for wearing a scarf so rudely, began wearing hijab herself a few month later. This was the destiny written by Allah SWT and this way was not the easy one. When I went to the university for the first time in hijab, my scarf was removed by force by some lecturers. I had no other option that wearing it outside and taking it off while entering the university.

More than twenty years have passed since I have chosen the Islamic dress code. Yet, I still remember how it was difficult and dangerous for me and other first hijabi girls in Russia to walk in streets alone while all people were looking at you or even coming so close, shouting immoral words at you, throwing rubbish on you. I still remember the discomfort and chills experienced each time while entering the public transport or any other public place.

I have been beaten for two times for wearing a scarf, both times by men. The second incident happened in 1998 when I was returning back from Malaysia to my hometown. I took the train from Moscow to my city, Kazan. A Russian man saw me on the train and demanded to take my scarf off and began attacking me so rudely. Alhamdulillah, a train attendant was able to lock me in her room until police arrival. I reached my destination safely.

This was the real experience of challenging the common lifestyle, and the actual taste of being a Muslim and I am thankful to Allah for that experience.

Writer is a faculty member at International Islamic University Malaysia

In picture: Muslim women in Russia in traditional scarf