By Oksana Kotkina
When a young Christian woman in Russia decided to convert to Islam and get married, the clash of cultures became overwhelming.
“I was born and raised in a Christian family,” Anya Vlasova says. “My mom brought me to church regularly, but I couldn’t accept the concept of Trinity, and that Jesus is considered the son of God,” she continues. “I just thought it was the only right way to live.”
Anya’s parents had troubles accepting her new faith and her new dressing style, and her grandfather stopped communicating to her completely until she stopped wearing her head cover. At that time, Anya could only find peace in a mosque.
This 24-year-old Russian convert to Islam from Christianity went from full head covers and five-time-a-day prayer to being a moderate liberal Muslim. And now she is preparing to enter Oriental department in Moscow State, the oldest Russian university.
“It was strange to me that God could be painted,” she says remembering her feelings from her Orthodox childhood. “And it was strange to me that I was given bread and wine and told that it was flesh and blood,” she says. “And if I quarreled with my parents; they told me to say this during the confession – as if it was not something that happens only between you and God.”
Vlasova says that she has always been interested in all things exotic. At the age of 8, she started to write fairytales about Africa. In those fairytales, she described how a black prince fell in love with a white girl. At the age of 12, she read Indian epos Mahabharata. And one day, when she was a student at journalism department at Moscow State, she learned there was a place she could study Arabic.
“My parents warned me that most of the Muslims as all the other people were different, and that some of them might have been the members of ISIS,” Vlasova says. Nevertheless, she went to the Arabic study group, and in several months she changed her beginners group to the intermediate one. Around the same time, she found Muslim spiritual songs. – nasheeds.
“I felt better after listening to them,” Vlasova says. “And soon I switched to Quran recitations.” She went to the mosque and said shahada on her first visit there, and at the same time, she changed her dressing style and started wearing long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, and head covers.
“Anya was in her last university year, when she got covered,” Anya’s stepsister Nastya Sirina says. “Anya felt she was treated differently by one of the professors because of her new religion.”
“Our parents do not mind the fact Anya dresses in a specific manner,” she continues. “She can wear whatever she likes, but they are afraid Anya’s style of clothes makes the life more difficult for her,” Sirina says.
“Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do at that time,” Vlasova says of her style change. “I had communication problems, and my classmates didn’t really know me as a person.”
In her Arabic speaking club, there was one young man she particularly liked.
“I don’t mind marrying you; I like you,” Vlasova remembers her future husband, an Egyptian Ahmed Fayed saying. “I don’t think he was really ready for it,” she says now.
“He was my first man, and I did not know how to behave with him,” Vlasova says.
“It was a little funny how Anya communicated to us that she had married,” Anya’s stepsister remembers. “We were driving to our summer house with my father in my stepmother, Anya’s mother, when Anya suddenly called and said that she got married” Nastya Sirina accounts. “It was around midnight,” she says, adding that had Anya said to her parents in advance about her forthcoming marriage, they would have talked her out of it.
“Anya’s parents financially helped Anya and Ahmed,” Sirina says. “For example, at first after their marriage Anya and Ahmed lived with us in Anya’s former room,” she says. “Then they rented a separate apartment for them not far from ours,” she continues. “Anya’s parents viewed this as an investment in her future; they hoped that later Anya and Ahmed start working and would be financially independent.”
“We would hardly see a covered Muslim as a top manager or a high-profiled professional in a corporation.”
— Dilyara Ahmetova, Muslim Spiritual Administration
However, Fayed, despite the fact that Anya’s parents found him a job, did not seem to have any inclination to work, while dressed in hijab Anya could not find a place she in her hijab and long skirts that would drag on the ground behind her.
Photo from Vlasova’s personal archive
“I have a friend who came across a similar situation,” Natalya Tambieva, who is researching Islamic feminism in Saint Petersburg State University. “She was applying for a job, and she got phone calls after the potential employers saw her CV,” Tambieva says.
“But every she received denials after the potential employers saw her photo in hijab,” she says and then explains that potential employers usually would not admit they reject the potential employee because of a head cover. “They would say you are not qualified enough,” Tambieva explains.
Officially, hijab is allowed on national identity photo in Russia, if you are wearing it constantly. However, many Muslim women prefer not to upload their photos to professional networks. “My workmate, also a university professor and a Muslim, doesn’t have her photo on our university page,” Tambieva says. She maintains that living in a secular society that forbids certain types of clothing is as restrictive for Muslims as religious norms might be for other women.
“It is hard to find a job in hijab,” Dilyara Ahmetova, press secretary of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Russian Federation, says. “There are very few career success stories of the covered women working outside Islamic religious organizations,” she continues. “We would hardly see a covered Muslim as a top manager or a high-profiled professional in a corporation.”
“Post-colonial theory that developed within post-modernist philosophy claims that we cannot judge people living in other cultures applying the same norms and rules that we use in ours.”
— Natalya Tambieva, Saint Petersburg State University.
Islam, the religion the very name of which means ‘obedience’, according to some schools of thought was in fact a step forward in terms of human rights protection in comparison with the times of Jahiliyyah – an Arabic word for barbarity. Post-colonial theory that developed within post-modernist philosophy claims that we cannot judge people living in other cultures applying the same norms and rules that we use in ours. With regard to Islam, post-colonial theory emphasizes that such practices as polygamy, head covers, and unequal witnessing rights, when two voices of a woman equal to one voice of a man, might have a different meaning within Islamic culture.
“Some Muslim women estimate that Islam, where a woman might become a second wife knowingly and with all the rights of a wife is still better than being a mistress, as this situation is dealt with in the Western secular world,” Natalya Tambieva says. She further explains that Islam limits the situations when polygamy is allowed.
“In a month after our marriage Ahmed went back home to Egypt and informed me that his mother insisted that he should take a second wife,” Vlasova says. At that time, her older friend who knew both Anya and Ahmed acted as Anya’s parents’ representative and explained to Fayed, who performed an imam’s duties in the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow, that he was not allowed to take another wife.
When Fayed ran away to Egypt for the first time, Vlasova also informed the imam in Moscow of indecent conduct of her husband, and imam advised Vlasova to divorce her husband. However, her parents bought tickets to Alexandria for them and Vlasova and managed to return Fayed to Moscow.
“In a few month he said his mom was ill, and he had to get back home, but he would come back in a few weeks,” she says. “My parents bought him the ticket again,” she says. However, Ahmed never returned to Moscow.
“I think his mother might even did not know I existed,” Vlasova says.
“I wrote a letter to imam in Moscow and asked for the divorce,” she says. “Fayed then wrote to him too, and accused me of indecent conduct,” she says. “I feel imam believed him,” she admits.
Now Anya is living with her mother, her stepfather, and her stepsister Nastya Sirina.
“Anya’s mother is an Orthodox believer,” Sirina says. “But it seems to me that it is not a question of the contrasting religious views, but more of a question of not exhibiting your faith so openly,” she reasons. “When Ahmed left, Anya gradually took off the head cover,” Sirina says.
Photo from Vlasova’s personal archive
“At a certain point, I looked in the mirror and decided that it was not me there anymore,” Vlasova says. “At first, I started to wear headscarf only on my head without covering the neck. Then I let my earrings to be seen, and then my hair,” she remembers. “Then I decided to take the scarf off completely.”
Anya Vlasova has found a job in a local fast-food restaurant. She is preparing to take an exam in Arabic to Master’s program. Her father is paying for her private Arabic classes.
She came a full circle from conservative religion to finding her own culturally relevant religious views and practices, and in effect she found herself.
“Now I know what I want in my life,” she says.