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Ghodsee Book Examines Changing Culture of Islam After Communism

Story posted September 08, 2009

The reconfiguration of gender identities in a Bulgarian Muslim community, post-Communism and amid an influx of international aid from the Islamic world, is the focus of Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press, 2009) by Kristen Ghodsee, associate professor of gender and women's studies.

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Ghodsee conducted extensive ethnographic research among a small population of Pomaks, Slavic Muslims living in the remote mountains of southern Bulgaria.

"A lot of people think there is one Islam, and that all Muslim populations share the same beliefs and that these beliefs have been unchanging over time," said Ghodsee.

"I have tried to capture the ways in which Muslim communities change and how Islamic belief and practice are incredibly varied and specific to certain cultural contexts."

After Communism fell in 1989, Muslim minorities in Bulgaria sought to rediscover their faith after decades of state-imposed atheism.

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Kristen Ghodsee

But instead of returning to their traditionally heterodox roots, isolated groups of Pomaks embraced a distinctly foreign type of Islam, which swept into their communities on the back of Saudi-financed international aid to Balkan Muslims, and which these Pomaks believe to be a more correct interpretation of their religion.

"One of the key arguments of the book is that the shift from traditional to what I call 'orthodox' Islam in this small community in Bulgaria was the result of a crisis of masculinity after the collapse of communism," Ghodsee says.

"As a scholar of gender studies, it is always important to understand how gender roles are defined in a community and what happens when those roles are suddenly changed by an exogenous shock such as the advent of capitalism."

Ghodsee explores how gender relations among the Pomaks had to be renegotiated after the collapse of both Communism and the region's state-subsidized lead and zinc mines.

From Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria

She shows how mosques have replaced the mines as the primary site for jobless and underemployed men to express their masculinity, and how Muslim women have encouraged this as a way to combat alcoholism and domestic violence.

"As an ethnographer, I really focus on the individual stories of ordinary men and women," says Ghodsee.

"The book allows the reader into the world of Bulgarian Muslims living in a remote town in the mountains on the Bulgarian-Greek border. By presenting the world through their eyes, particularly through the eyes of women, I hope to demonstrate how social change occurs at the most quotidian levels; how daily life is affected by global processes over which individuals have no control.

From Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria

"Scholars spend a lot of time trying to see the big picture, but I think the small picture is just as important."

Ghodsee demonstrates how women's embrace of this new form of Islam has led them to adopt more conservative family roles, and how the Pomaks' new religion remains deeply influenced by Bulgaria's Marxist-Leninist legacy, with its calls for morality, social justice and human solidarity.

Funding for Ghodsee's research was provided by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), National Council of Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER), Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and a Bowdoin College Fletcher Family Fund research grant.

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