Nitrocellulose, Butyl Acetate, and the Hadith

I’m fairly confident that I’ve never discussed nail polish as much as I have this last week. What’s more, I’ve generally been the one bringing the topic up.

Last Thursday, the day before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, the 29-year-old mother of my host family sat with me while I ate breakfast. She was meticulously applying fingernail polish with a bit of a grimace. After finishing the last nail she shook her head and lamented that this was the last day that she could wear nail polish for a month.

I was obviously aware of the required abstinence from food, drink, smoking, and sex (and for the most devout, malicious or impure thoughts and speech) during the daylight hours of Ramadan, but I hadn’t heard anything about nail polish. Surprised, I questioned how nail polish fit into that suite of things to avoid. She explained to me that giving up nail polish wasn’t a part of her fast. The problem was that if she were to perform her ablutions—the washing of face, feet, and hands that is required before prayers—while wearing nail polish, because the water wouldn’t reach her nails the ablution, and therefore the prayers, wouldn’t “count”. I expressed my skepticism that there had been any decrees made about the wearing of nail polish, considering that the guiding texts for how Muslims should conduct themselves were written before nail polish was invented. She said that I was probably right, but since she had never read any of these texts she needed to rely on what others told her.

This conversation shows two important aspects of how this woman engages with Islam, which are both fairly good examples for how urban Tajiks observe Islam. Firstly, the problem of nail polish negating the effectiveness of ablutions isn’t Ramadan-specific. The fact that she saw this something that she’d have to deal with for four weeks shows a more relaxed way of practicing Islam. Many in Dushanbe will abstain from alcohol or dress more conservatively during Ramadan, even if they don’t pay attention to these rules during the rest of the year. Secondly, she didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what’s allowed and relied on what others say. Many times that I’ve heard people here talk about how to be good Muslims they have fairly different opinions that are based on hearsay. While well-read Muslims the world over debate what it means to be a “good Muslim”, they might be based on different interpretations of the Quran and the deeds of Mohammed.

I felt bad for the mother of my host family and wanted to give her a more definitive answer about if she really had to leave her nails unadorned for a whole month. I thought that I’d ask my Afghan Dari instructors and conversation partner about the topic, since Afghans are pretty well-respected as devout Muslims and I thought their opinions would carry some weight. One told me that all Afghan women wear nail polish all the time. I asked my conversation partner if ablutions still counted if they were performed with nail polish on. She said that if you’re really religious then you can remove your nail polish before ablutions and re-apply afterwards. Since this answer was sort of equivocal, I turned to my male Dari instructor. He said it had nothing to do with ablutions, but that during Ramadan—since people are supposed to be abstaining from impure thoughts—women shouldn’t do anything to attract men: showing cleavage, wearing makeup, or wearing nail polish.

So I still haven’t come away with any good conclusions to share with the mother of my host family, but I think it’s safe to say that there are no hard and fast rules that will satisfy everyone.


By: Kramer Gillin

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2012

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