Human Journey

Insight into Kyrgyz identity through hats, hijabs, and other types of head-coverings

Young women wear modern versions of traditional Kyrgyz head-coverings. Photo by Toby A. Cox

This past week in Kyrgyzstan, two holidays were celebrated: Ak Kalpak Day and International Women’s Day. How are these two holidays connected? Well, they’re not, but both got me thinking about the role head-coverings play in how both men and women in Kyrgyzstan express their cultural and religious identities.

Kyrgyz culture is one that wears many hats – both literally and figuratively. Each of these hats and head-coverings adorn the minds of the Kyrgyz people, preserving centuries worth of history and ideas in their seams.

Adyl attends Kalpak Day celebrations in bishkek’s ala-too Square. His kalpak features the symbol of tengriism. Photo by Toby A. Cox

Before Islam was introduced, the Kyrgyz people practiced Tengriism, an ancient religion that emphasizes the importance of maintaining harmony with the universe and balance between humans and nature. These ancient Tengriist beliefs still subtly appear in many Kyrgyz traditions, alongside those rooted in Islam, which is the dominant religion in Kyrgyzstan today.

On March 5th, hundreds gathered in Bishkek to celebrate the Kalpak and enjoy the warm weather. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The Ak (white) Kalpak is not just the national hat for men; it is a symbol of Kyrgyz culture so revered that it warrants its own holiday (March 5). The Kalpak’s shape and color represent Kyrgyzstan’s snow-capped mountains; its 4 panels represent the 4 cardinal directions and, some say, the 4 natural elements. The symmetry found in both the Kalpak’s shape and the designs that decorate its exterior represent harmony and balance, two values highly regarded in ancient Tengriist beliefs.

Argen, 1, wears the Kalpak while enjoying Kalpak Day celebrations with his parents. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The Kalpak is a hat reserved for men, but there are many types of traditional head-coverings for women such as the elechek, shokulo, and the more common jooluk.

Sezimai, 14, wears the Shokulo. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The elechek, usually worn by older women, and the shokulo, usually worn by younger women, are both traditional Kyrgyz head-coverings. Now, however, they are only worn for holidays and at cultural events.

Jangyl Eje wears an elechek in traditional fashion. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The elechek is 11 meters of durable fabric that is wrapped several times around the woman’s head. I asked two women, Oinaz and Rahat, about the meaning behind the elechek. Oinaz explained to me that women don’t wear the elechek now because it’s heavy and not practical, however, during nomadic times, it served a purpose. She said that women, especially older women, were often times the community healers. These healers could unwrap their elechek if they needed material to tend to wounds or to set broken bones. Rahat added that the fabric was also used to swaddle babies born on the road and to prepare those who passed away for burial (in Kyrgyz tradition, the dead are wrapped in cloth before burial).

“In nomadic life, the elechek was very handy … plus it was great for hiding wrinkles!” Rahat quipped.

In present-day Kyrgyzstan, women who opt to wear a head-covering generally choose the jooluk, however, the hijab, although not typically viewed as ‘Kyrgyz’, has grown in popularity since the dissipation of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The jooluk can be wrapped and tied in many different ways. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The jooluk is a scarf that wraps around the hair and is tied in the back (some women like to make fashion statements with how they wrap and tie their jooluk). The jooluk is worn by married women and is sometimes affiliated with Islam and sometimes not.

Myrzaiym’s journey to her decision to wear the hijab was not easy. She chose to wear the hijab at the age 16, against the wish of her parents. Photo by Toby A. Cox

The hijab, on the other hand, is a traditional Islamic head-covering that covers the hair and neck. It is worn by both married and unmarried women and is a symbol of Islam and Muslim identity around the world. It’s important to note, however, that hair-covering, although often equated with Islam, is not an uncommon practice and appears in many cultures and religions around the world – including Christianity and Judaism. Russian Orthodox Christian women wear head-scarves before entering the church and more traditional Jewish women also wear head-coverings, usually after marriage. (Historically, hair has been viewed as a symbol of vanity, so covering one’s hair is viewed as an act of humility and piety).

geography also plays a large role in religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. Hijabs are most common in the southern regions, although they are increasing in popularity in other regions too. However, in most villages in the north and center of Kyrgyzstan, jooluks remain the most common head-covering. photo by toby A. cox

Women in Kyrgyzstan use these types of head-coverings as a way to express their cultural and religious identities. Many women who choose to wear the jooluk view it as a symbol of Kyrgyz tradition. Since the jooluk also covers the hair, many religious women view it as both a symbol of Kyrgyz culture and their Muslim identity. However, many young women are increasingly opting for the hijab, typically viewed as more pious because, unlike the jooluk, the hijab also covers the neck and is a powerful, undeniable symbol of Muslim identity.

In the summer of 2016, a billboard campaign was launched to get people thinking about how people (especially women) should express their religious identity. The text of the billboard reads “Poor people, where are we heading?!” Photo by Toby A. Cox

Whether a woman chooses the wear the jooluk (symbolic of Kyrgyz culture) or the hijab (associated with Middle Eastern culture) has inflamed public discourse and impassioned opinions about what is ‘Kyrgyz’ and what is not ‘Kyrgyz’.

Kurmanzhan, 19, chose to wear the hijab one year ago. Here, she is shown wearing the hijab and a small elechek, simultaneously. Photo by Toby A. Cox

Across the globe, the way people choose to adorn their heads indicates how they define themselves and how they want people to perceive them (e.g. as a sports fan, university alumnus, of a specific political leaning, etc.) In Kyrgyzstan, hats and head-coverings are also a means of expression, indicating their cultural and religious identities, but have also become symbolic of heated debate that leaves many religious women at a crossroads as they try to balance their Kyrgyz and Muslim identities.

Toby A. Cox is a 2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow exploring the story of Islam and religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. She will spend the next 9 months conducting interviews in all seven regions of the country, gathering stories on how the Kyrgyz people perceive the role of Islam and Islamic values in Kyrgyz culture. Through this fellowship, Toby aims to learn more about how Kyrgyzstan’s history has impacted the religious identity of individuals and the multidimensional Kyrgyz identity. She will use writing, videos, photos, and maps to offer insight into the religious landscape of Kyrgyzstan, simultaneously shedding light onto the diversity of Muslim identity. Toby studied Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Languages at the University of Virginia and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Jordan and Kyrgyzstan. 

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