On a warm autumn day in early November, pedestrians in downtown Bishkek met an unusual sight: a 500-strong crowd of hijab-sporting female Muslim activists riding bicycles, heading to a state hospital to donate blood. “Passersby were in shock,” laughed Jamal Frontbek kyzy, whose organization Mutakallim helped organize the event. “We wanted to dispel stereotypes. We wanted to do something good for people.”
Mutakallim leads discussions on the role of women in Islam, organizes confidence-building exercises for female Muslims, and advocates for girls’ right to wear hijab in schools. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with such Islamic-themed missions sit at the crossroads of an often fraught discourse on the role of Islam in a country where many civil society groups fiercely defend secularism, a Soviet legacy in a country with a lengthy Islamic cultural tradition. Groups like Mutakallim and their more secular counterparts participate together in roundtables and conferences, but often find themselves on opposite sides of heated public debates, most recently about sex-ed.
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Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.