The Miniskirt and the Veil: Aid and Islam in Bulgaria

Spotlight on Fellow Kristen Ghodsee, Centerpoint, February 2006

Feb 01, 2006

In 1989, while traveling through Spain, Kristen Ghodsee stared in disbelief at the television in the bus station in Barcelona as images appeared of the Berlin Wall crumbling. A year later, she backpacked through Eastern Europe to witness the unprecedented changes in the region. But these countries that held such promise soon suffered economic collapse, and Ghodsee wondered what went wrong.

Since then, Ghodsee, an ethnographer who teaches gender and women's studies at Bowdoin College, has conducted extensive fieldwork during repeated trips to Bulgaria. Currently, she is a Wilson Center fellow studying the effects of international aid on the Muslim community in southern Bulgaria.

Some one million Muslims live in Bulgaria, comprising 12 percent of the population. Should Bulgaria accede to the European Union, as expected by 2008, it would be the first EU country with a large, indigenous Muslim population. "This is part of the reason why Muslim foundations are so interested in reinvigorating Islam in Bulgaria," Ghodsee said. "Islamic aid is being inserted at a historic point in time."

Aid from abroad has helped build 700 new mosques in Bulgaria since the fall of communism. "Bulgaria is a poor country," said Ghodsee, "yet the Sultan of Oman is investing $400,000 to renovate a mosque."

Foundations and charities, primarily from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states, have funded Koranic schooling in Bulgaria, scholarships and lodging to study Islam abroad, and job training. Meanwhile, Saudi organizations have spent millions of dollars to sponsor Bulgarian Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca.

These resources are particularly attractive in an impoverished country, but are Muslims embracing this Islamic revivalism or are they simply attracted to this infusion of funding? This question lies at the crux of Ghodsee's research project. The influx of aid has caused conflict, increasing religious division between the secular and religious Muslims in Bulgaria while the shiny domes of new mosques symbolizing this aid are augmenting ethnic tensions between Christians and Muslims. For now, Ghodsee contends, Bulgaria's EU aspirations are keeping a lid on these tensions.

Bulgaria's Muslim population is divided between the more populous, more secular Turkish Muslims and the Slavic Muslims, called Pomaks, who are geographically isolated, poor, and becoming increasingly religious. Some Pomaks are turning to Salafism, an insular and less tolerant form of Islam, in part to distinguish themselves from the Bulgarian Turks, said Ghodsee, whose current research focuses on three predominantly Pomak cities in south-central Bulgaria.

In addition to ethnic and religious divisions, Ghodsee said foreign aid has affected gender relations, most visible in the growing number of Muslim women wearing headscarves. These women trade personal freedoms for the economic security promised by fundamental Islam. Conversely, she said, some moderate Muslim women consider that the work of Arab nongovernmental organizations endangers their traditional independence. This generation of working-class, educated Muslim women are more likely to resist the religious influence that curtail women's rights despite their growing poverty.

But, said Ghodsee, "Older women and especially younger women under the age of 30 see a growing number of opportunities for social mobility through closer connections with the Middle Eastern world, and are increasingly attracted to a more traditional version of their faith."

by Dana Steinberg, editor, Centerpoint