Mukhlisa Bubi: the first female Qadi

Words: Fairuz Farhoud

Art: Maegan Farrow

The popular imagination pictures influential Russians from the revolutionary period as white men, standing before groups of workers, riling up their collective spirit. Representatives of the nascent feminist movement from the same time are usually white women from the West. Mukhlisa Bubi does not fit either of these moulds, and as a result, is rarely discussed in either revolutionary history or the history of women’s rights. 

Mukhlisa Bubi was a Muslim woman who advocated for girl’s education and marital rights in pre- and post-revolution Russia. She was also the first female qadi (judge) in the Islamic world. 

Bubi was born in 1869 in the Russian region of Tatarstan, an area which already had a tradition of Muslim education. Her father was a teacher. From early in her life, she campaigned for girls’ education and its modernisation: in 1901 she became the head of a school for girls in Tatarstan, and four years later expanded her efforts to establish a new girls’ school, which she achieved with the support of her brothers and their wives. She named the school (or madrasa) Darul-Muallimat.

The work of Bubi and her school was acknowledged in her lifetime, and the institution became the base for unprecedented support for women teachers. Official licenses to teach were awarded to Bubi and other women by the regional Zemstvo (a local organ of government) – having previously only given out licenses to men – thereby creating a new generation of educators.

But by 1912, her school had closed following the government-ordered destruction of other Jadid (reformist Muslim) schools in the region, on the basis that it was a pan-Turkish and pan-Islamist centre. The government was quick to suppress any movement that pushed for the unification of Islamic and Turkish peoples.

Bubi was undeterred. In 1913, she took her passion for women’s education to Troitsk, where she taught at another girls’ school, and opened a second in 1914. In a speech at the opening, Bubi emphasised the importance of girls’ education for the strength and continuation of Islam. 

She was elected to the All-Russia Muslim Congress (the central spiritual administration for Russian and Siberian Muslims) in May 1917 as a qadi. This was momentous and unprecedented, both in Russian and Muslim history: never yet had there been a female judge. Bubi was elected by a group of 900 delegates, only 112 of whom were women.

Russia’s ongoing Marxist revolution had, in some ways, enabled the creation of a modern Congress, which was open to the discussion of women’s rights: Bubi’s success was mainly possible because the delegates were predominantly Jadids, too. 

Her election didn’t stop her educational work. Soon after, she moved to Ufa and worked under muftis (jurists on Sharia law) to broaden access to education. As a qadi, she headed the department of Family Affairs, working on issues of divorce, marital consent, inheritance disputes, dowries and more. Her judgements resonate to this day and guide ongoing discussions in the Islamic world and wider feminist discourse. 

Specifically, she wrote on women’s labour and duties, and their value to society. She held radical opinions on polygamy, arguing that women should not be forced into being men’s second wives. She drafted marriage contracts that explicitly stated women’s rights in the relationship, including the right to file for divorce if the husband were to take a second wife. Her opinions advanced ideas of women’s rights in Russia in general, too, particularly in regard to child marriage, the minimum age for which was raised in 1918 – to 16 for women and 18 for men. 

She was re-elected in 1923 and continued her work as a qadi for several years. Her refusal to let Stalin’s anti-religious policies distract her from her cause proved too much for the state establishment, though, and she was interrogated and arrested by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in 1930 under suspicion of being a bourgeois counterrevolutionary. In 1937, at 68 years old, she was sentenced to death and executed. 

The legacy of Bubi cannot be overstated. She tirelessly fought for Muslim girls to receive the same education as their male counterparts, and pushed for this education to be provided by women. Her work as a qadi broke down barriers and set the scene for later Muslim women to undertake the same role: in 1964, new female qadis were appointed in Indonesia, and in 1970 Sudan followed suit. Her work had a lasting impact on her religion, her country, and her cause across the world.

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Fairuz Farhoud is a student at the University of Edinburgh studying Ancient History and Classical Archaeology. Follow her on Instagram.

Maegan Farrow is an artist based in Bristol. Follow her on Instagram.