Women in the Shadows: Reflections on a Muslim Girlhood

Printed in the Spring 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: AbbasovaPyarvin. "Women in the Shadows: Reflections on a Muslim Girlhood" Quest 104.2 (Spring 2016): pg. 68-69

By  Pyarvin Abbasova 

Pyarvin AbbasovaThere are two main denominations in Islam, Sunni and Shi’a. The division happened soon after the death of the Prophet. Shi’as see Ali, cousin of Muhammad, as his successor; Sunnis believe that it was Abu-Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law. After many wars and persecutions over the centuries, Sunni has become the largest denomination. Shi’a is practiced mostly in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, India, and Pakistan, and accounts for about 10 percent of all of the Muslims in the world. Over the centuries the Shi’as established different traditions, holidays, and rules that set them even further apart from the Sunnis. The two sides are in constant conflict with each other, sometimes resulting in violence or war.

My family is from Azerbaijan, where 90 percent of the population is Shi’a. I grew up in a Shi’a family in Russia. Because I did not grow up surrounded by my own culture, I was ignorant about this rift in the Islamic world. In Russia I often felt like a stranger to my own people, because we lived in a Christian country, as well as a stranger to the Russians. My black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin unmistakably showed that my roots were not Slavic.

Like many Muslim girls who are growing up in non-Muslim countries, I just wanted to be like the rest of my peers. With little or no desire to wear long skirts, long sleeves, and a scarf on my head (known as a hijab) or to marry my first cousin (a normal practice in Azerbaijan), I was seen as a rebellious teenager, shaming my family. So at the age of nineteen I moved to the United States to start life on my own terms, an action that few Muslim women have dared to take because of the consequences they might face. I have also converted to Orthodox Christianity and begun my exploration of world religions that, among other things, has led me to Theosophy. Although during my teen years I rejected Islam and the role it offers women, studying Theosophy has helped me to make peace with the religion of my ancestors.

I have actually seen many happy Muslim families, where Islam was practiced with a pure heart and mind, where namaz (prayer) became meditation and Allah is seen in all living things. I have learned about the beauty of Sufism. Some of my friends willingly choose to wear hijab. They stay at home, even though they are lawyers, doctors, and accountants. These women are happy. They don’t want to experience the stress of an everyday job, going to work after six weeks of having a baby, or leaving a child at the hands of unknown people at the day-care center. And I can understand that — actually most Western women can probably relate to some degree.

In his book Man, Son of Man Sri Madhava Ashish says that in our present world there are people of three races— the fourth, the fifth and the emerging sixth race— living side by side. Those living in the shadow and in ignorance are of the fourth race, but there will be less and lessfewer and fewer of them as the planet evolves.

There is a shadow side of Islam that is impossible for me to accept. It comes from the unconscious desires and fears of men, and it hides its ugly form behind interpretations of the Qur’an.

It’s likely that few readers are familiar with the word namus. The word is Arabic in origin and literally means honor and respect. However, the meaning of this word is much broader. Namus is the cornerstone of any Muslim woman’s life. Her sexual integrity and purity is what earns respect and honor for her father, brothers, and, later, her husband. Anything that promotes that purity is reinforced, and anything that threatens it is prohibited. Virginity before marriage is of the utmost importance, and in many cultures it needs to be proved. That makes one’s virginity a social rather than personal matter. The infamous “hanging of the sheets” — whereby on the wedding night, blood-stained sheets are hung out to prove that the bride was a virgin —is not an old wives’ tale, but a strong, living tradition. Other things that can violate a man’s namus are the birth of a daughter (particularly if she is a first child), an offense on the woman’s part that the husband has tolerated, and the loss of control over the women in his family.

The concept of namus has led to the horrible things that are done to women in the name of Islam. A man’s respect and public opinion are of the greatest importance in Islam. As a result, any means is used to achieve respect, and in the eyes of society anything is justifiable. There are verses from the Qur’an that prescribe rules for women, but many ethnic groups take it further. Some people live in ignorance so dark that they perform abortions based on the sex of a child, murder raped women, and force women to commit suicide. One of the ways to ensure the purity of a woman is to hide her from the eyes of any man that is not her immediate family. As a result, women do not get an education, go to work, or in some countries drive a car.

For most Westerners the way Muslim women are dressed is a bit frightening. Their modest clothing is seen as an instrument of male oppression and tyranny. The classic image is of a woman in a burqa — all draped in black with only a little gap for her eyes to be shown. Very few know that according to the Qur’an this is only one of the many ways to dress. Hijab, burqa, niqab, shayla, khimar, chador, and al-amira are all styles of clothing for Muslim women. While the requirement is mostly to wear long sleeves and a long skirt, the color, fabric, design and type of headscarves are infinite. A burqa does not always have to be black; it can be blue, green, or golden brown. Different nations have different styles of traditional outdoor dress. It’s also important to understand that this is only the style of clothing for outdoors. When women are inside the house, in the company of women only, or with men who are close relatives, the veils are not required. It is interesting how Western ladies wear their best clothes when they go out, but Muslim women wear their best clothes, makeup, and jewelry at home. 

There are a growing number of women in different countries who willingly choose “modest” clothing. Believe it or not, there are even some Jewish women wearing burqas. Bruria Keren, one of the religious leaders of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sect, has encouraged wearing burqas based on one interpretation of Jewish scriptures. She states: “Follow these rules of modesty to save men from themselves. A man who sees a woman’s body parts is sexually aroused, and this might cause him to commit sin. Even if he doesn’t actually sin physically, his impure thoughts are sin in themselves.” Hundreds of women follow her lead and wear Arabian-style veils.I have heard Muslim women saying the exact same thing over and over again. In their eyes, covering up from head to toe is a way to be merciful to the weak minds of men.

In his book Yogatherapy, Swami Shivanada says the inability of men to control sexual energy is a major obstacle on the path of yoga. He says that for women this issue does not exist, because the nature of female energy is pure, whereas men need to achieve purity through tapas (discipline and hard work) and austerities. He also adds that women should not fast or be ascetics, because they will practice austerities too fiercely and in the end hurt themselves. But somehow in the Islamic world things are not viewed this way. It is the women that sacrifice in order for men to refrain from sin.

While there are many restrictions in Islam, there are also many paradoxes. One of them is the perception of men as strong, dominant figures, but who are nevertheless not strong enough to control their own sexuality. Another paradox is the practice of temporary marriage or nikah mut’ah practiced byamong Shi’a Muslims. Nikah mut’ah is a contract that allows men to “marry” women for a specific duration of time, usually no less than three days. The sole purpose of this “marriage” is to have a sexual relationship with the woman without any further obligation. The contract is private. and no one has to know about it, not even the man’s legal wife. It can be verbal or written. The woman will usually get financial support or payment. Sound a bit like prostitution? Not according to Twelver Shi’as, who believe in the sacred nature of nikah mut’ah. (Twelvers are the largest Shi’a sect. Their name comes from the fact that they believe in twelve divinely appointed leaders, or imams, the last of whom is hidden or occluded and due to reappear as the Mahdi, the promised redeemer.) Sunnis are very critical of nikah mut’ah, but it has been around for centuries and is still widely practiced today.

I often wonder where we would be if great women hadn’t taken a stand against cultural and religious norms. If H.P. Blavatsky had followed the rules of Russian society and stayed with her husband, had children, and lived a “happy” marital life, the Theosophical Society might never have been formed. She rebelled, she smoked, she cursed, and she tested every boundary. She traveled the world, became accepted as a chela, founded the TS, and wrote brilliant books. It makes me think that there are many women out there covered in scarves, chadors, veils, and saris that have never had a chance to spark, to get an education or explore their spiritual potential.

What would the world look like if all the women in Islam suddenly had the freedom to do what they wanted? This new world, I believe, would be a blessing to some and a curse to others, but it would not look like the world we live in right now.


Pyarvin Abbasova, M.D., was born and raised in Siberia. She is a psyhiatrist and yoga teacher, and has been a member of the Theosophical Society since 2009. has beenis a longtime volunteer Pumpkin Hollow Retreat Center in Craryville, New York Her article “Altered States of Consciousness” was published in Quest, winter 2015.


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