'Arab Style' Hits Bulgarian Province

Some Muslim Bulgarian women in southern Smolyan Province have adopted "Arab-style" dress. The country entered the European Union this year. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Ghodsee)

Kristen Ghodsee of the Gender and Women's Studies Program at Bowdoin College has observed a Persian Gulf-influenced Muslim religious revival in a southern Bulgarian province. In one of two recent UCLA talks, she describes her project to work out how it happened.

They actually have some very good reasons for pushing their men into the community of the mosque.

A huge lead-and-zinc mining enterprise near Bulgaria's border with Greece goes the way of Communism after 1989, depriving the southern Smolyan Province of its largest and, by far, its best employer. Muslim men are the first fired and remain jobless, and wives take up new roles as principal breadwinners for their families.

Kristen Ghodsee, an assistant professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College currently based at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, says that a Muslim religious revival taking place in two former Smolyan mining cities not only has roots in this economic collapse, but has a more proximate cause in the realignment of gender roles that the collapse occasioned.

"The primary site for performing a strong masculine identity, I'm arguing, moved from the mines to the mosques," Ghodsee told a UCLA audience on Feb. 15, 2007, noting the prestige of mining in Communist Bulgaria and its associations with manhood.

Kristen Ghodsee (right) with CEES Director Gail Kligman (Photo by Jonathan Friedlander)

One of two talks delivered by Ghodsee that day, "Men, Mines, and Mosques: Gender, International Aid, and Islamic Revivalism on the Edge of Europe" was sponsored by UCLA Centers for European and Eurasian Studies (CEES) and Near Eastern Studies (CNES). Earlier in the afternoon, she discussed her 2005 book The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea at the invitation of CEES and two co-sponsors, the Center for the Study of Women and the Sociology of Gender Working Group at UCLA. CEES Director Gail Kligman served as discussant at that event.

The peculiar form taken by this Muslim Bulgarian religious revival—the domes on the large new mosques and the "Arab-style" dress adopted by some women, though not their husbands—has everything to do with overtures by Persian Gulf–based Islamic charities towards Bulgaria's indigenous Muslims. (The roughly 250,000 Bulgarian-speaking "Pomaks" represent about one-fifth of all Bulgarian Muslims, by Ghodsee's estimates. There are also ethnic Turks and a smaller number of Muslim Roma, or Gypsies.)

Not Victims

Ghodsee is not suggesting that those Pomak women who have accepted a stricter, foreign-influenced version of Islam are victims

"They actually have some very good reasons for pushing their men into the community of the mosque," she said. The chance to drive down the incidence of alcoholism and of violence at home is a big one.

While researching her project on Bulgarian tourism in the summer of 2004, Ghodsee started interviewing locals in the south about the striking new mosques she saw. Why were they unlike other Bulgarian mosques, and where did impoverished communities in the Rhodopi Mountains come up with the funds?

In addition, in the two former mining cities, some Pomak women had taken to wearing full-length robes and hijabs that cover the face. This was a stark counterpoint not only to the mainstream European fashions preferred by most Pomaks but even to their traditional dress, which still under Communist rule included smaller headscarves tied around the hair.

Then, in the summer of 2006, "suddenly something happened," Ghodsee explained. Foreign Islamic charities and mosques led by strict Pomak imams, some of them trained abroad, began to assert themselves more forcefully in anti-discrimination cases and in local political issues. At the same, with Bulgaria's entry into the European Union already a virtual certainty, nationalistic political players started whipping up an anti-Muslim and anti-European backlash.

It was in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism, Ghodsee explained, that the Islamic charities began to sponsor the translation of religious texts into Bulgarian, trips to Mecca, lectures and foreign-language courses, the building of mosques, and other projects. These rather secretive non-governmental organizations first "got legs" in the international community after 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and of the Iranian Revolution, which was perceived as a broad regional challenge by many Sunni Muslims. They came to the Balkans after the outbreak of the Bosnian War, and slowly began working in Bulgaria, intensifying their efforts in the country after 2000. Ghodsee has put many of her research hours into "forensic accounting" aimed at uncovering at least some of the charities' more recent activities in Bulgaria.

The mosques, she explained, have become new cultural centers in economically depressed and marginalized areas in Bulgaria. Generations of Muslims had been repressed or had abandoned religious observances under official atheism.

Much of the discussion during the question period centered on the potential for conflict in Bulgaria and whether the EU plays a moderating role in these tensions. Ghodsee said that some Bulgarians fear that the country's "entire Muslim minority is going to pay the price" for a revival within a very small subgroup.

Published: Monday, February 26, 2007