Mukhlisa Bubi – the First Female Qadi in Russian History

28 April


In 1917, 6 May there happened an important historical even in the life not only of the Tatar Ummah, but also of the entire Russian Empire – the All-Russian Muslim Congress elected a mufti and a Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia consisting of six qadi (judges). Mukhlisa Bubi became one of the qadi. At that time it was an unprecedented event for a woman to take up the post of a Muslim judge. One can only imagine how profound knowledge Mukhlisa Bubi possessed and what role she played in the struggle for women’s equality among Muslim peoples of the USSR and Russia.


The First Female Qadi


Back in 1917, on 1 May, the All-Russian Muslim Congress opened in Moscow and was attended by about 900 delegates, 112 of whom were women. Among many other issues, the Congress adopted a number of decisions on women’s rights, including not just declarations of equality, but also a list of measures necessary to reach the equality. For instance, the work program adopted by the Congress included a clause on the importance of establishing day-care centers in enterprises.


It was the first all-Russian all-Muslim Congress where women participated. One of them – Salima Yakupova, Chairwoman of the Central Bureau of Muslim Women of Russia, was elected to the presidium of the congress.


Three female candidates were nominated for the position of a qadi at that time: Mukhlisa Bubi, Mariam Potashchi (Potasheva) and Fakhrelbant Akchurina. But only Mukhlisa received a sufficient number of votes (302 in favor and 208 – against).


The congress itself took place during the peak of the women’s movement in Russia. There was a rapid growth of women’s movements within Islamic communities themselves. The first women’s societies among Muslim women in Russia began to emerge only at the turn of the century (the first one was in 1898). Initially, as elsewhere, they were charitable societies. It is important that in the very beginning they focused primarily on charitable work in the field of women’s education. Several works were written which substantiated claims of potential equality of men and women according to the Quran, or at least a much closer approximation to equality than the present position of the authors. Works of the same circle argued for the necessity to promote female education for development of society and revival of the Muslim world.


A Glimpse into History


But before delving into Bubi’s activities, we should at least take a brief look at her biography.


Mukhlisa was born into the family of mullah Gabdelgallyam and abistay Badrelbanat Nigmatullins in the village of Izh-Bobya. She was educated in a local madrasah, in fact, by her mother, who opened women’s classes in the madrasah in 1857. At the age of 18, Mukhlisa was married off to a mullah from another village. However their marriage was a failure. As a result, Mukhlisa’s brothers, Gabdulla and Gubaidulla, who came to visit her, took their sister and her two daughters (the adopted and native one) with them. Just at this time, they took over from their father and headed a local madrasah, which had existed since the XVIII century, and together with their wives Khusnifatima, Nasima and sister started large-scale educational reforms in it.


The First Madrasah for Women


After the first reforms, the Izh-Bubinsk school was still far behind the other Jadid madrasahs operating at that time in prominence, number of secular subjects and length of study. It had its strong point initially in the female part of the madrasah, where education was based on the same curriculum as in male classes. The lack of education of female teachers was compensated for by regular evening classes with other teachers.


The village was quite wealthy: there were two brick factories on its territory, several merchant families came from the village, so there was no shortage of donations to the cause. The Nigmatullins-Bubis family managed to build a library that was significant for its time and attract several professors, who had received European and Turkish higher education, as well as to organize chemical and physical laboratories.


Evening ‘elective courses’ became a full-fledged program of their own, transforming into teacher courses for men and women, where graduates and students of madrasahs and kuttabs from various parts of the Russian Empire came to deepen their education.

In 1905, the Izh-Bubi madrasah became one of the most famous madrasahs in Russia, and its female section probably became the most famous female madrasah of the Empire. By that time, the volume of secular curriculum had been approximately the same as in the imperial gymnasiums (where the access for followers of other faiths was severely hampered). 


Mukhlisa abistay’s life’s work was education and upbringing of girls, establishing an educational complex for this purpose in the old Bubi madrasah for upbringing and education of young people.


Within ten years, the entire Bubi family had created an entire complex of educational institutions, including an eight-year male madrasah, an eight-year female madrasah and a four-year primary school. It is worth noting the fact that it became the first place for the Tatar people where one could receive secondary secular education in their native language. It was also the place where male and female teachers were trained for New-Methodical Tatar schools.


Staff Shortages


Mukhlisa Bubi’s brothers also noted that educating and training women, providing them with ample opportunities for educational and cultural advancement, was one of the main conditions for overcoming backwardness and ensuring progress of the nation. However, the first problem the Bubis faced was the lack of human resources to educate women. The brothers then decided to prepare their sister and wives for their upcoming work in a women’s school.


Simultaneously with her preparations for the work ahead, Mukhlisa was studying theological sciences based on the curriculum of a men’s madrasah under the guidance of her brothers. By 1905 she had become a highly educated woman, well versed in the Islamic doctrine. Her brothers fully entrusted their sister with the leadership of a female teacher’s seminary. In recognition of Mukhlisa’s authority as the head of the madrasah and a scholar of theology, she was referred to as ‘mullah-abistay’. 


As far as the madrasah’s curriculum is concerned, the basic subjects included religious studies (including the fundamentals of Muslim law), Tatar language and literature, Russian language and literature, mathematics. In addition, such disciplines as the Arabic language, geography, science, pedagogy and methodology, calligraphy, art, housekeeping, and handicrafts were taught.

In 1905-1908, the first pedagogical colleges emerged at the school, and it was allowed to take examinations and issue certificates for male and female teachers. Certainly, that certificate was an official document recognized by the Russian administrative authorities.


In 1914, another women’s madrasah was opened and in parallel permission was obtained to open a women’s teacher’s seminary. Mukhlisa Bubi became the head of that seminary and in that position she met her election as a qadi of the Spiritual Board of Muslims.


Establishment of Women’s Committees


She was described by her contemporaries as a well-read woman, who was fluent in Tatar, Arabic and Farsi. She was highly respected in the neighborhood. Her son, Gabdullah, later said that it was to his mother’s authority that he appealed when someone showed disbelief in innovations being made in the madrasah.


Mukhlisa Bubi got actively involved in the work of the Muslim Spiritual Board and was given responsibility for family matters. At the same time Central Muslim Women’s Bureau was active in establishing women’s committees. The process was not smooth: for instance, in the European part and Siberia the new women’s committees emerged in many villages, while in the Caucasus and Central Asia they were active only in several cities. The Muslim Women’s Committees sent out female and sometimes male lecturers to conduct lectures and give explanations of the decisions of the Moscow All-Muslim Congress to villages, and tried to set up leaflets and fundraising.


The new judge was supported by her qadi counterparts and Mufti-elect Galimjan Barudi.


The main idea of all her work for the benefit of the Russian Muslim ummah was the conviction that Muslim women could and had to reach equality with men, while maintaining morality and not violating the precepts of Islam. She also spoke about it in one of her articles – ‘Woman in the World of Islam’: ‘The Number of Women Serving the Great Cause of Establishing Islam in the World through Knowledge is not in the Tens but in the Hundreds’.


All-Russian Muslim Congress on Women’s Issues


To better understand the work of Mukhlisa Bubi and other leading Muslim women, let us look at the most significant decisions of the All-Russian Muslim Congress on Women’s Issues following a special meeting on 9 May 1917.


‘Only that nation can be strong whose women are endowed with equal rights, and this equality can be realized if only women are willing to participate in the work of institutions that develop legislation for women; therefore, Muslim women must be equal to men in political rights. Women must elect and be elected to the Constituent Assembly’.


‘Among Russian Muslims the cases of marriages without the consent of the bride and groom have become very frequent, with the consequence of mishaps in family life and unhappy lives of children raised in such families; therefore, the blessing of marriage must be considered possible only with the consent of the bride and groom’.


‘It should be taken into account that in Turkestan and the Caucasus, and also in Kazakhstan, it is customary to marry off unfortunate 11-12 year-old girls, and the congress, in view of the resulting physical infirmity and early death of young women and the infirmity of children, our future generation, decided to prohibit the marriage of girls under 16, whether in the North or in the South’.


From the Decision of the Congress on the Workers’ Issues, 10 May 1917:


‘It is forbidden to employ women in work that is harmful to their health. During pregnancy, women are entitled to four to six weeks’ leave, with pay for this time. […]’


‘In places where women work there should be cradles and crèches for infants; breastfeeding women must be given a break every three hours to breastfeed their babies. […]’


‘An inspection shall be established to supervise the observance of labor laws and the working conditions of workers in all places of work, not excluding public places. Where women are employed, the inspectors shall be women’.


Ilmira Gafiyatullina

Photo: Creative Commons