Special Series: Clara Zetkin, Islam and the Hijab in Azerbeijan and Georgia (1924)
Special Series: Clara Zetkin, Islam and the Hijab in Azerbeijan and Georgia (1924)

Special Series: Clara Zetkin, Islam and the Hijab in Azerbeijan and Georgia (1924)

Hello all,

In light of the incredibly inspiring uprising currently unfolding in all provinces of Iran, where women, students, workers and even schoolgirls are openly defying the dictates of an Islamist regime that treats women as second-class citizens and forces to them to wear hijab in public in the name of ‘decency’, I thought I should do my bit to shed some small light on the history of Marxism, Islam, women’s liberation and the hijab.

In the past few days, I have dusted off and re-read a book that I have planned on translating for some time: ‘In the Liberated Caucusus’, written by the then Secretary of the Communist Women’s Movement – and regular feature of this page – Clara Zetkin. It was first recommended to me by the historian Ian Birchall while I was working on my Zetkin book with Mike Jones almost a decade ago. Among other things, Zetkin’s 300-page account describes the pioneering revolutionary work of the Zhenotdel – the Women’s Department of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) – among Muslim women in the Soviet Republics of Georgia and Azerbeijan in the 1920s. Women who lived in these largely peasant societies were often illiterate, had traditionally been excluded from public life and – before the Russian Revolution of 1917 – were unable to initiate divorce proceedings against their husbands.

Future posts will provide translations of Zetkin’s account of the struggles communist women faced in speaking to and educating these women about their newly-established freedoms, not least by setting up ‘Women’s Clubs’ as sources of information, medical assistance and even refuge for women fleeing violent domestic environments. After all, as Zetkin reports, many religious men were not pleased about the new legal equality for women and referred to the Zhenotdel not as the ‘Women’s Department’, but the ‘Department of the Devil’. As Zetkin puts it elsewhere in the volume: ‘Of course, the Soviet order and Soviet laws infringe upon what the followers of Muhammed consider to be holy and sacrosanct’. The approach of the Marxist women (and their male comrades) thus had to be a sensitive and compassionate one; they wanted to create the legal and institutional basis for the liberation of women in these areas, but were adamant that liberation had to be an act of the women themselves, and not imposed on a benighted population from above in some kind of ‘secularism of the sword, as would actually happen later on as part of a ‘left’ turn on the part of the Stalinist bureaucracy. (One of the many remarkable features of the current revolt in Iran, for instance, is that veiled women are demonstrating alongside those who are demonstrating for their rights).

Zetkin’s report begins with her report of a historical rally in the city of Batumi, modern Georgia’s second-largest city, in 1924.

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Slightly later, there is another highly dramatic episode – the second of this huge gathering tonight. A relatively small number of women have dared defy the customs of the Orient to take part in this meeting. Most of them are veiled. Then, a Muslim woman [a ‘female Muhammedian’, in Zetkin’s parlance] emerges from a group of male and female comrades standing at the back of the stage. She casts her veil aside and, somewhat hesitantly, slowly and solemnly, approaches the speaker’s lectern. It is the first time that an unveiled Muslim woman has addressed a public gathering in Batumi. The impact of this move is tremendous, beyond words: the piercing screams and passionate sobs of women can immediately be heard. Several veiled women tear their scarves from their heads. Everybody understands that this woman’s act is an open rebellion against the customs and dogmas that enslave the women of the Orient. It is even more than this – it is a call on all women Muslims to rebel openly against the forces that place them in chains. The comrade then speaks. She says:

‘The veil does not protect us Muslim women from defilement. It makes us weak and helpless. It is a brick in the harem’s wall. We have to look the truth in the eye. We must not separate ourselves from our brothers who want to build a new, higher form of life for us all. Our enemies are the rich, the powerful and those who rule. We women have but one aide: communism. We must work and struggle alongside those are in favour of communism. It is for this reason that we rally around the banner of the soviets and the Communist International. We Muslim women – all of us – must stand by this flag. It will lead us to our rights, to freedom.’

The multitude listen to these words in silence, with bated breath. The erupting storm of applause that fails to die out, but begins over and over again, affirms how those present are grateful for the comrade’s great moral courage and that they share her views. To the left and to the right, we hear people talking about how the comrade stepping forward will act as a fresh, rousing, cleansing gust of wind through the stuffy atmosphere in which female Muslims are wasting away. The comrade’s words will be the topic of of conversation among women for days to come. Old, rotten prejudice is collapsing and a new courage with which to go about life is blossoming. And even when the comrade’s words have died away, the example that she set will continue to resonate.

However much the national question might dominate the psyche of the peoples of the Transcaucusus region and its forelands, the idea of international revolutionary solidarity between all working people has established strong roots and blossomed wherever the Russian Revolution has sown its consecrating seeds of lighting [the mixed metaphor is Zetkin’s!]. And so it is that the enormous meeting in Batumi is also a powerful rally for the Communist International. This rally by no means takes the form of rote-learnt, externally imposed conventions that draw on empty dead formulae and end in humiliating hypocrisy. No, it is the expression of a mighty, genuine feeling, which among some has already crystallised into a clear consciousness, and which among others still amounts to an instinctive sense or feeling. Every speech sees a passionate pledge to the Communist International, which is repeated in the cheers of approval among the thousands in attendance. To conclude the meeting, they rise as one and sing ‘The Internationale’. And now the meeting held behind closed doors becomes an tremendous demonstration on the streets outside. The voices of the thousands who could not fit into the meeting room and so had to wait patiently at the doors now ring out. Their cheers and chants in opposition to the old, parochial world fill the streets and squares near the meeting hall. Only by taking backstreets am I able to slip away from the crowds.

The ‘Muslim Women’s Club’ in Tiflis (Tbilisi)

The Muslim Women’s Clubs in the Eastern and South-Eastern republics of the Soviet Federation are a child of the proletarian revolution, the embodiment of that revolution in flesh and blood. They are a strong and victorious expression of the fact that the women of the Orient are awakening to an understanding of their own humanity following many centuries of existing under stupefying conditions, and are demanding their human rights, just as the rich Muslim women in Paris, London or Berlin are. (Which is, of course, not to underestimate the significance of these and similar cases, for these are also significant in light of the social position of women in the Orient and the shackles placed on their thinking and feeling). Such cases are akin to the temperature markers on a thermometer that record an increase in the barometric column and thus a change in temperature. And there is a huge difference whether this barometer displays 20 or 100 degrees. The social pyramid of the old order will not collapse if things only disintegrate at the top: only a shock to, or a coming apart of, the foundations that support it will bring down the pyramid as a whole.

The Muslim Women’s Clubs in the Soviet countries are an expression of life among the broad masses of women in the Orient. The emergence and growth of these clubs are a product of significant historical development. In the Orient, the working women are beginning to move and long to take action for emancipatory social conditions. These most disenfranchised of the disenfranchised, who have been forced into the deepest depths of social unfreedom and bound there by tradition, law and religious statutes, are now rising up. With body and soul bearing scars, they timidly and yet irresistibly rise up in order to demand their freedom and equality. Lenin rightfully attributed the greatest historical significance to this phenomenon, for he had a fine sense of each and every flash of revolutionary energy and assessed it in the context of the greater whole of global social change. Even if the stirring of the  masses of women in the Orient still only amounts to a weak summer lightning, it is the precursor of the looming storm. It confirms how the proletarian revolution will be a world revolution in word and deed, and that in this revolution the last among the oppressed and enslaved will liberate themselves. In the Soviet republics, the Muslim Women’s Clubs are not a care centre for bland feminist tendencies, but a rallying point and school for revolutionary forces.

The Muslim Women’s Club in Tiflis was founded by the Communist Party and is both the product, and the sphere of activity, of its Women’s Section [Zhenodtel]. It was initiated due to the fact that the Soviet order had deeply stirred the psyche of undreamt of numbers of Muslim women. For them, the revolution signifies a turning point in their lives, because Soviet laws do not recognise any authority of men over women, no preferential rights for one sex over the other, because they proclaim the full equality of women in all social areas, and because the soviets strive to realise this equality. The soviets energetically demand that the new legal position of women is brought to the fore and that women themselves play an active role in remaking society into an edifice in which working women too will be able, in line with their talents and abilities, to have an impact and to develop. But the longing of the majority of Muslim women remains bound by the power of hoary old prejudice. These women recoil from taking their place alongside men in public life by placing their demands, learning and cooperating in the building of the new order. An invisible barred harem window stands between their aspirations and their activities to realise these aims. The male and female comrades in Tiflis have become convinced that they have to meet the Muslim women halfway by establishing a social interstation between the secluded domestic lives of these women, on the one hand, and the meeting and conference halls of public life on the other. In other words, a place where the emerging feelings and strong aspirations of Muslim women can mature into clear-sighted consciousness and a decisive will to struggle. Informed by the understanding that the building of a revolutionary society in Georgia is impossible against the will, or without the active participation of, the masses of Muslim women, these comrades set up such an institution in the form of the Muslim Women’s Clubs.

The Tiflis Women’s Club

During my trip, I was to visit the first such club, in Tiflis. I travelled to the club in a state of great excitement. The club’s members had been informed of my visit. Had they not been told about my arrival, then I would have only been able to visit the premises and speak to a small number of Muslim women comrades, but I wanted to gain an impression of the community as a whole, and if possible to learn about the broader circles of women who are influenced by the club and its work. And so it was that I am an expected guest; the road and the pavement in front of the club are blocked by a throng of Muslim women, all of whom are unveiled. The car has to slow to a snail’s pace and is unable to make it all the way to the entrance. With some effort, and more as a result of being pushed and shoved than by actually walking, I finally make it into the entrance hall, head up the spiral staircase and arrive in the club’s large main room. There is the same pushing and shoving here as in the adjacent rooms, and the atmosphere is oppressive. It is akin to the excited hustle and bustle of an anthill.

When the Tiflis Women’s Club was founded in 1923, it had 40 members, and this was undoubtedly a big success. The Soviets provided the club with premises to accommodate this number of people. The founding of the club represented such a great and radical innovation that nobody expected it to grow quickly. But then the unexpected happened. Both the propaganda for the club and the work within it fell on fertile soil. Hardly a year has passed since it was found, and the organisation already counts 200 members, with other Muslim women applying to join. There can be no doubt that the Soviet government will give the club a larger premises. But this building must be in a certain location so that it can have reach greater numbers of Muslim women, meaning that setting up a new premises is not as straightforward as it might first appear.

The particular nature of the club demands that only women can gather here – women from the various peoples of the Stepp and the mountain regions who adhere to Islam.

The bright electric light falls on colourful, richly embroidered garments and veils which do not cover up the faces of the women, but merely increase the gracefulness of the figures and their movements; it falls on people whose expression of being strongly and inwardly seized by this moment is far more interesting than the colourful, exotic splendour of clothing on display. You can see on their faces that a message of salvation has sounded for them, a message that stirs their inner being. Each and every one of them is aware of a new emotional life that is struggling to express itself, that closely links them together and that extends far, far beyond the club’s walls. To the old woman, the proletarian revolution is a comfort in the twilight of her life; to the adult woman, it calls to a new life full of struggle and work; to the young girl, it is a warning to equip herself for what is to come. So it is that all of these women are joined in one feeling, united by one will.

The women speak

The assembled women sing ‘The Internationale’. I have heard the communist song of hope and struggle sung on hundreds of occasions, including by Russian male and female proletarians, and it has always been sung with the same steadfast joy of conviction and revolutionary readiness for action. Never have the words and melody of the anthem sounded as solemn or as enraptured as they did coming from the mouths of the Muslim women and girls in the Muslim Women’s Club in Tiflis. Their hearts lived in the song and their whole being were submerged in the performance. They sing ‘The Internationale’ in the mood of the pious Protestant receiving his evening meal in the conviction that he becomes connected to ‘his Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘his God’ by taking the wine and by breaking bread. The women are overwhelmed, blessed by the feeling that the song captures within it an acknowledgement of their humanity and their dignity as human beings, a recognition of their equality with men, and that this acknowledgement will see them become one with millions and millions of others on earth.

This mood breaks forth in the speeches given by several Muslim women who are leading figures in the club. Among them there is a young comrade who is so excited that she can barely speak. There is indescribable joy about the new value and position of women, about their integration into the community of freedom fighters that spans the globe. This joy is mixed with great gratitude for the liberating work of the proletarian revolution and the soviet order, and this rings out in holy pledges to protect and expand the soviet republic, and to serve the world revolution. But memories of unspeakable suffering, of humiliation and bitterness can also be heard in the speeches. The speaker asks: ‘Will this torture ever return, will it become the crushing fate of these blossoming daughters?’ ‘It would be better to die than for this to ever happen’, is the passionate response from a member of the audience listening attentively. Stormy applause makes it clear that this outburst of emotion reflects the general mood.

One of the speakers cries out: ‘What were our lives like before the revolution?’ ‘Our fathers sold us like young lambs when we hardly 10 or 12 years of age – sometimes even earlier. The man demanded our love and affection, even if we thought he was disgusting. Were he so inclined, then he would hit or whip us. Day and night we had to serve him as if we were his slave. And when he had enough of us, he would throw us out. He would hire us out to strangers as their sweethearts. If he felt like it, he would then starve us. He took our favourite daughter from us, who was our comfort and the help for our weak arms. He bartered her away, just as he had bought us. No Mullah stood by us in our distress. And where was a judge to rule in our favour? But, dear sisters, how different things now are! The revolution has arrived like a rainstorm on dry land. It has crushed injustice and servitude. It has brought rights and freedom to the poor and oppressed. Our fathers are no longer allowed to force us into another man’s home at a young age. We choose the man, and he will never be allowed to lord it over us, but should be our friend and comrade. We want to work and struggle alongside him, to build the new order with him. A new life must come into being for all. The soviets have written a new law. It states that we are humans too, like the men, and that we are free and have the same rights as men do. We too can choose the people – men and women – that we wish to see in the soviets. We too can take part in the soviets. If we have a complaint to raise against our husbands, a neighbour, or a person in charge, then we go to the people’s court. If we are in the right then he will rule in our favour. Nobody asks us whether we are followers of Muhammed, Moses or Jesus. The soviets brought us salvation. We are eternally grateful to them.’

Comrades who have been working among the Muslim women in Tiflis for some time explain the mood and tone of the assembly to me. With a few exceptions, these women are from the poorest sections of the population. Most of their families emigrated here before the revolution, lured by the hope of finding an easier and more pleasant way of life in the city than in the Steppe or the mountains. The man earns his bread as a trader, day labourer, servant, carrier, drover or something else outside of the home. The woman stays with the children within their squalid quarters. The move to the city ensured that she lost the old economic basis of her existence. Far removed from her hut or tent, from the field and the hearth, she goes without the primitive means or opportunities for productive work. She no longer uses the products of her labour for the household. Everything that she needs must be purchased, and she has no money for this. Only the man has money. As a result of this economic transformation, in the man’s eyes she loses significance as a partner in maintaining the household. The economic basis of the old patriarchal family has been shattered. But the authority of the man in the patriarchy continues, and under the worst possible conditions for the woman at that. More than ever, more harshly than ever before, she senses that she is a slave, her husband’s property. Living habits, traditions, language and religion separate her from the rest of the city population, even from the poor. Her poverty, her isolation and her desperation increase to the extreme. She is like a leaf that has been torn from a branch and then blown along by the wind. In the literal sense of the word, the revolution came to the women in Tiflis as a saviour. With it, unexpected and astonishing things came into their lives.

The female comrades tell me of how significant the women’s club is to Muslim women in the city. Here the most energetic, talented and eager to learn come together in order to receive their first socio-political education and training, and to acquire knowledge of all kinds. Individual women then join the Communist Party and train as propagandists, and organisers of their fellow tribesmen and fellow believers. But the club is also a place of refuge for helpless and defenceless Muslim women who wish to fight back against an injustice or against the danger of sinking into poverty and apathy. The club has ‘Sections for Cultural Activities’. Old women with white hair sit alongside budding girls and both of them endeavour, with a touching enthusiasm, to read and write letters. Courses and lectures provide elementary knowledge of the natural sciences and the humanities. Every day at a certain time, three qualified comrades provide legal advice – something that the women particularly seek and appreciate. Of course, the legal proclamation of equality could not change the centuries-old attitude of men towards women with one flick of a magic wand. The women must often win their rights in court. In the club there are also patching, sewing and embroidery lessons. Most of the Muslim women who moved to the city did not learn the craftsmanship of their female predecessors. The younger women in particular do not even know how to hold a needle.

As the comrades greatly emphasise, the aim of the Communists, of course, is to integrate the mass of Muslim women into the social economy as well. But this is difficult in Georgia so long as modern industry remains in its infancy. It will only begin to develop quickly when the Soviet government finishes building the large electricity factory close to Tiflis on the river Kura. Meanwhile, in some cases the Zhenotdel of the Communist Party is helping Muslim women to find a job. Several of them work in the cardboard factory and the tobacco and textile industry. As soon as the club has moved to a larger premises, the women comrades want to organise women’s artels – labour cooperatives for women. Productive collaborative work will increase the Muslim women’s confidence, teach them a sense of solidarity and thereby their understanding of communism, as well as to help the club expand.

The Women’s Club in Tbilisi is already a hub that draws many Muslim women from the city and the surrounding areas. Its moral and social impact extends well beyond its 200 members. It is no exaggeration to assume that at least ten times more women stand behind the club’s members, ensuring that on the decisive issues, and at the decisive moments, the club leads the whole of this layer of society. Each member spreads word of the club’s work and brings news of its life and activity to their circle of friends and acquaintances. And they do so with a burning zeal, with the fanaticism of religious belief.

When the club’s female teachers and leaders take me into a side room to show me the teaching and learning materials and open the draws and boxes where the textiles and handicrafts are kept, the women crowd around behind me. All feel the need to join in, to admire the club’s work and to celebrate their effort and ability. ‘That is our textbook with images showing us how people lived in the past’; ‘On this board, the teacher shows us how many people remain illiterate in the Soviet Union’; ‘Here there is a painting showing how we must look after our children’; ‘I wrote that’; ‘I helped to stitch that blanket, and I also made that blouse there’. ‘I can sew shirts like that one’. These exclamations from all around me are an expression of how the individuals are bound up with the work and learning of the community. In another adjacent room, the legal experts have been virtually overrun by women with questions for them.

I am to be shown how the club is also a place of entertainment and joy. The piano sounds and there is dancing. The first to dance is a comrade’s little five-year-old daughter, whose form, countenance and garb most vividly remind me of how I imagined the Queen of Sheba and Semiramis when I was a young girl. The little girl is a delightful creature with dark curls and large, blazing eyes. Her delicate movements and facial expression quite astoundingly align with the character of the music. She is obviously the club’s pampered favourite. Young girls then join her, mainly on their own, but sometimes in pairs. How far removed their movements are from the Oriental dances that we usually see in the West: passionate and yet chastely restrained at the same time, this is no exposition of the body or a beckoning with it, but an expressive outburst of the joy of life and movement.

The dancing is but a short episode in the evening. The revolution, the ‘new life’ that has awoken and that people are aspiring to create asserts itself again and dominates the feelings and thoughts of those present. The extent to which these thoughts and feelings have expanded beyond the previous narrow horizons of the Muslim women finds palpable expression in the questions, speeches and assertions of the comrades, all of which breathe the spirit of revolutionary solidarity. This sense of solidarity came over the rising women of the Orient like a revelation of salvation, it is a force that fires them on. They know it and believe it: this is the sign under which they will emerge victorious. As I leave the club, ‘The Internationale’ rings out again on the streets and in the club itself.

The Women’s Conference in Terek

The delegate-based women’s conference in the Terek region was an unforgettable experience – not only for me, but for also for many a Russian female comrade. A year ago, the call for such a conference was answered by 600 women peasants rallying. In part, they were armed with spades and picks and marched up to the district town together with their children in order to demand the release of imprisoned peasants and an end to all taxes. This year, 1200 delegates of women workers, wives of workers and peasants attended the conference in Pyatigorsk. The event kicked off on Sunday with an impressive street demonstration of unprecedented enthusiasm in favour of the Soviet Union, communism and the Third International.

The first session was dedicated to political speeches and discussions regarding the global situation, as well as the situation in the Soviet republics and in the Terek Oblast. The delegates then spent five days discussing questions relating to social welfare for mothers and children in the countryside, marriage and family law, measures to overcome illiteracy, general and political education for women, the election of, and activity in, women workers and peasants in the Soviets and Soviet institutions, relations with the party and youth organisations, questions of peasant cooperatives and so forth. But, by themselves, these facts alone are no indication of the transformation in the feeling and thinking of the masses of women who had freely chosen their representatives for this conference. No, this transformation found expression in the stirring words and enchanting scenes at this conference.

It was as if a gate had been opened, through which the life of the evening lands in the West and that of the morning lands in the East converged. Alongside Cossack, Ukrainian and other Slav women, there were Tatar, Bashkir and Armenian women, and particularly Caucasian women of various nationalities. What a colourful mosaic of characters and costumes.

Women peasants had walked 40 kilometres and more in the heat and dust in order to carry out their mandates. Older women from the mountains who had never left their worldly innocent auls took part in the conference too. They had never seen a city, let alone a railway. A white-haired old lady proudly carried a red banner for the female peasant delegates from Germany, which was to be given to the women peasants there. ‘So that it may light the way for your revolutionary uprising and remind you that the sun of freedom and right rose in the East’. ‘We have come to you without our veils’, called out one woman from the mountains, ‘because the truth has unveiled itself to our souls. That truth is the revolution, which brought us women freedom. We are sisters with you all’. On behalf of those who elected her, an older Georgian woman, dressed in dark black, declared: ‘Woe to the bourgeoisie if it should attempt to impose its old rule on us in the liberated Caucuses! We women too will resist this to the last, and not with sighs and tears, but with deadly weapons. That is something you had better know’.

Russian was the intermediary language of the conference, but around a dozen different languages could be heard. But regardless of the language that was being spoken, the very same tremendous, historic spirit could be heard: the spirit that was understood by all, the spirit of the revolution, of the most impassioned international solidarity.

The conference was, of course, an unrivalled testament to the huge amount of patient, clever and devoted detail work being done in order to awaken and enlighten the masses of working women. But it was anything but a show put on to boast of such accomplishments. The conference revealed the ‘soul of the people’ that had really awoken and was now asserting itself. Yes, it’s true. The tribes of the Northern Caucasus are in revolt and are rising up – not against the Soviet Union and the social revolution, but in favour of it. That the proletarian revolution is the path to freedom, to a higher culture that these women anticipate, to the fraternity of humanity, is something they have an overpowering feeling of, and something they think with increasing clarity.

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