Calling the Alraid Islamic Cultural Centre in Kyiv, a woman answers speaking natural Ukrainian with a western Ukrainian accent. Later, when I meet with Olha Fryndak at the centre, I discover she also speaks Arabic, even though she looks like an average Ukrainian woman and only her hijab, or veil, gives away her religion.
Fryndak hails from the Lviv region and turned to Islam when she was 15, at 16 she was already wearing the hijab and studying Arabic to better understand the basics of Muslim religion. She says she initially became interested in Islam through her elder sister, who was the first in their family to convert. “I was brought up in a Christian family,” Fryndak says. “We would go to Church and I used to read the Bible. When my sister introduced me to Islam it seemed a different world – a different way of life revealed itself to me and I decided I want to live that kind of life.”
In the more than a decade since then, Fryndak has discovered many advantages of Islam for herself – from a purely theological perspective to everyday life. “I discovered Islam is very close to Christianity in its essence,” she explains. “Both religions share mutual values, but in Christianity today these values are so neglected and everyone interprets them in their own way, so nobody knows how live ‘right’. Islam is a religion that leaves no questions unanswered – it tells when and how to worship, how to wash yourself and keep your life right for eternal life after death.”
Tetyana Manzhar, another Ukrainian who turned to Islam by her own decision in 2008 also appreciates the fact it gives very practical guidelines for life. “Where the Bible gives guidelines, the Koran tells us what to do and how to live every day.”
The Muslim Rulebook
Both Fryndak and Mazhar married after they adopted Islam; Fryndak’s husband is also of Ukrainian descent, Mazhar’s is from Pakistan. Living as Muslim families in Ukraine they discovered other advantages of Islam: “I believe that my relationship with my husband is secure from debauchery, flirtation, alcohol – anything that keeps a husband from his family,” says Fryndak. Mazhar echoes that belief and adds family relationships in Islam are considered extremely important and play a pivotal role in the social life of Muslim countries. “When I visited my husband’s family in Pakistan, I was surprised to learn they don’t allow their elderly to live alone – Muslims are brought up with a deep respect and inner obligation to take care of their parents. A woman is also much more protected in Islam – a husband is obliged to earn a living for the family, so that a woman does not need to work.”
This fact, which is usually regarded by emancipated women as discrimination, has a reverse side – a woman is expected to devote herself to family and children, as Fryndak explains: “I always wanted my mother to be at home more. To meet me after classes, eat lunch with me. Instead, my mother had to work a lot to earn a living for the whole family.” When I mention the Ukrainian tradition of the matriarch being at the centre of the family unit, Fryndak takes a contrary view. “I like the patriarchate principle of Islam, I never wanted my mother to be so strong and responsible for everything, it’s the husband who has the responsibility, and, you know, if a wife wants something, she knows how to persuade her husband,” she adds smiling wryly.
Mazhar also says she does not feel restricted or discriminated against being Muslim. She carefully follows the “rules”, including when it comes to cosmetics or hair. “I don’t use cosmetics before going out, but at home I style my hair and wear make-up for my husband and family.” For the extended families of both Fryndak and Mazhar it was a source of shock that both young women decided to adopt a different religion, and while Mazhar’s parents are still adapting to the idea, Fryndak’s mother also followed her daughters’ examples and adopted Islam five years ago.
The Muslim Perception
Speaking of how wider society view Ukrainian Muslims, the majority admit Ukrainians are very tolerant: many of the female members of the Muslim community in Ukraine work in schools, universities, in offices and never meet any resistance to them wearing a hijab, for example. Fryndak and Mazhar also combine work with family. Mazhar is an editor of the islam.com.ua site, while Fryndak works as a manager at the Alraid Islamic Cultural Centre, organising its cultural and educational programme.
For the interview, we are seated in the females’ section of the centre, which is situated on the second floor. The whole floor is provided for the needs of women and children and includes a playroom and a separate mosque for women – a regular room where women gather to worship and communicate. On weekends, all those willing can come to the centre to learn Arabic and the basics of Islam. At the moment, the centre is being renovated and reconstructed to accommodate the swelling Muslim community in Kyiv. In future, there will be an additional two floors to encompass a fitness centre for women, a beauty salon and so on.
The entrance to the centre in unobtrusive, set in a blind alley leading from Dehtyarivska Street, but as we are here on a Friday, a special day for Muslims, I see there’s an open-air market selling all kinds of products: halal meat and sausages, rice, bread and homemade sweets on huge round oven-trays. With traditional eastern generosity, the vendors invite me to sample and buy, so I leave the centre with a bag full of fresh goodies. Apart from the market, I also notice a Muslim hairdresser is on site as well as a clothing store for Muslim women. Muslims tend to buy clothes from Muslims, though Fryndak says it’s not essential and tells me she can easily find long-sleeved shirts and skirts in regular shops. Special cases involve sport clothing and swimming suits – both need to cover the hips. Hairdressing, however, is more complicated – Muslim women need to find a salon where men and women are separated.
Preschool and school education for Ukrainian Muslims is also an issue. Some Muslim parents, as Fryndak does, let their children attend regular Ukrainian state kindergartens, with the only condition being their kids don’t eat meat there. Others prefer home-schooling their children, to protect them from any prejudices and stereotypes Ukrainian society may have about Muslims.
Call To The Mosque
The main place Ukrainian Muslims gather for worship and cultural-educational activity is the Ar-Rahma Mosque. Construction of this huge and impressive complex took more than five years and was completed in 2011. Getting here is not easy – the journey includes first a tram from Lukyanivska metro station to Hlybochytska Street and then a long journey up the hill, passing an old Muslim cemetery along the way. This district in Kyiv is commonly known as Tatarka. It owes its name to the small group of Tatars who have historically called the area home, and, as Tatars are predominantly Muslim, the site of the mosque was not chosen by chance.
Ar-Rahma, translated as Mercy Mosque, is considered the first mosque in Kyiv, even though the first worship hall opened at the end of 19th century in Podil, as the Muslim community then counted nearly 500 members. Ar-Rahma Mosque features distinctive classical oriental architecture and within its 3,200 square metres includes a worship hall that can house up to 3,000 people, a smaller worship hall, madrassah – buildings used for teaching Islamic theology and religious law, a 27-metre high minaret, which serves only a decorative function, a hall for wedding ceremonies and other rituals, an administrative building which houses a publishing house producing newspapers and magazines in the Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean Tatarian languages, a PR-department and so on.
It’s the press-department representative Havva who meets me at the mosque and welcomes me in – she is also Ukrainian and adopted Islam when she was a student. She tells me you do not need to do anything special to become Muslim: “It is the personal will of the individual to become Muslim; in addition to that, a person has to acknowledge the one true God and all the prophets. The ritual itself is very easy – a person says two phrases in any language he understands and from that moment on the person is Muslim.” Havva also says Islam is very easy to follow, for instance a Muslim person working from 09.00 to 18.00 has to worship two times, but it only takes five to 10 minutes so the religion is not an obstacle to work or study.
Havva accompanies me to the worship hall inside the mosque – we take off our shoes and step on to a gorgeous soft red carpet covering the floor – Havva says the carpet was a present from a parishioner who ordered it especially from Turkey. The central feature is the minbar – a pulpit from where the imam (prayer leader) stands to deliver sermons; the front of the minbar is reserved for men, while women take their place at the back.
Havva then shows me the madrassah – it enrols children from the first to the ninth grade; the classrooms are indistinguishable from those you’d see in any school or educational institution, the only difference being female teachers wear the hijab. Apart from the compulsory school curriculum, which is taught here both in Ukrainian and Russian, children also learn Arabic and the basics of eastern culture.
As I leave the mosque, a group of children flood the inner yard fooling around and making lots of noise, and the thought occurs to me: people are people, and have much in common regardless of religion, nationality or language.
by Kateryna Kyselyova