Accepted Paper:

The Social Life of a Headscarf: Clothes and the Transformation of Persons in a Village in Kyrgyzstan  


Louise Bechtold (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

Paper long abstract:

Headscarves are often discussed in connection to religiosity, in the case of Central Asia in connection to Islam. While women use different styles of wearing headscarves to perform religious identities in many regions of the world, in Central Asia this is only one aspect of what headscarves are made to symbolize. Based on long term ethnographic field research in a village in Kyrgyzstan in 2011-12 and 2016 the talk closely examines the every-day use of headscarves as markers of ritual transformation of persons and their social relations.

Headscarves are the most frequent gifts, which are gifted to women at important moments of transformation of their own lives and of social relations in general marked by weddings, and death rituals. Some cheaper quality headscarves are sold at the bazaar only for the purpose of gifting them, like the cheap kalpaks, and cheap shirts intended for men.

Women start to wear a headscarf when they get married. The women from the older generation tie white headscarves around the head of the newcomer-bride. Wearing a headscarf is one of a whole set of practices through which a daughter-in-law disguises her sexuality in front of her in-laws. At the wedding other women involved in the transformation of social relations, like the bride's mother and mother-in-law also receive headscarves.

Headscarves also symbolizes the transformation of closely related persons. Upon the death of their parent, sibling, or child women are dressed in blue clothes, or after the death of their husband in black clothes. Their clothes mark their status as women mourning a close relative. This phase of mourning ends when their children and brother's wives dress them in white clothes at the one year commemoration feast for the deceased.

While the use of headscarves as markers of increasing religiosity is central to discourses about the growing importance of Islam in Central Asia, this stands in striking contrast to the everyday use of headscarves in the village under study. It can help us to re-think the usefulness of such grand discourses for understanding the everyday-life of people and start looking for alternatives.

Panel ANT-07
Religion in Social Context