Dossier 22: Traditional Stereotypes and Women’s Problems in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan: A Survey of the Mass Media

Publication Author: 
M. Tokhtakhodjaeva
January 2000
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Following independence in 1991, the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan has been undergoing sweeping social, political and economic changes, all deeply affecting the country's women. However, women's problems continue to be ignored, while the role of women has become a battleground between the various forces, including fundamentalism, which seek to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Soviet power. This paper uses the discourse appearing in the local mass media as a case study to highlight the problems currently confronting the women of Uzbekistan in the transitional period.

A review of the mass media in Uzbekistan reveals that problems affecting women are barely discussed. Meanwhile the representation of women in the media has seen the introduction of a new, somewhat alarming, element: alongside stereotypical Soviet-style images of women standing by a machine at a plant, or women on a plantation, there is a new image, typical of patriarchal discourse - a blushing bride, a mother sitting by the cradle, an elderly woman surrounded by numerous relatives, and a woman running her home.

The formation of public consciousness through mass media

In radio and TV programs devoted to the revival of national identity, special emphasis is laid on the image of a shy and modest girl, obedient to her parents' will, who is kind as well as good at managing the home. These programs provide information on the activities of women's committees and makhalla (local community) committees, as well as talks on moral and ethical problems facing women in the family context and the upbringing of an 'Asian woman'. In a popular TV talk-show, 'A Fiancée and a Bride', the same stereotype prevails and the show's popularity illustrates the persistence of the image of an Asian woman as something special, a person who must be, first and foremost, an obedient daughter and wife and an excellent mistress of the house. The proponents of traditionalism emphasize the 'special' destiny of an Asian woman using false statistical data, myths about the past, misinterpreted information about the allegedly weak feminist movement in the East; by appealing to women's 'natural and biological' needs, they demand the revival of polygamy and hold up to shame 'the amorality' of the West. For most young women participating in these talk shows their ideal is a woman who has devoted her life to her family, husband and children. Meanwhile, the image of a modern woman, who in additional to her domestic preoccupations is engaged in some kind of business or in public activities, is left off screen or mentioned only in passing. There is also a cycle of TV programs devoted to business, which features many businesswomen. However, this cycle was meant for Russian speaking women and is not accessible to the Uzbek-speaking majority. A review of the mass media in Uzbekistan also reveals that there is little analytical and critical material which dwells upon women's social problems. The articles that do contain criticism reflect either a conservative position or attack all models of an equal woman, whether Soviet or western. While discussing violations of women's rights, the authors base their stance on moral and ethical perspectives and not legal perspectives, thus strengthening a traditionalist socialization of women. At the same time, pre-Soviet family relations are idealized, the role of men in the family is exalted and the conclusions in such articles are usually directed at women. The mistress of the house, a wife and mother: this should be a woman's ideal. The rest is of lesser importance, or is even alien to her destiny, they seem to argue.

Criticizing women's current economic position, the authors are all for introducing the norms of the Shariat, in particular the legalization of polygamy, as a means of providing women social protection. The only positive conclusion to be made about articles such as the one titled 'Is Polygamy a Sin?' is that they bear witness to the freedom of speech in Uzbekistan, since such articles stand in direct contradiction to the guarantees of women's equality contained in the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

This paper shall attempt to analyze the extent to which the mass media in Uzbekistan fails to reflects current realities and why on the other hand both authors and their audience accept the image of a 'domesticated woman' as an ideal. It further highlights the fact that there is a lack of discussion of social problems such as domestic violence, the violation of women's rights by parents, husbands and in-laws, and the deterioration of women's economic and educational status. This is instead supplanted by criticism of the 'Soviet' model of equality, by appeals for the revival and legalization of polygamy as the only means of protecting women from social problems, and by the rehabilitation of traditions which violate women's rights but which are justified as coming from Shariat.

Such a situation is not accidental. It witnesses the fact that Uzbek society is not homogenous and that two distinct trends can now be discerned in its development: the modern and the traditional.

The modern aspects of Uzbek society began emerging in the early 20th century, heavily influenced by Muslim reformists. During the Soviet period, modernism formed part of state policy. However, under totalitarian Soviet rule, modernization was introduced by force. Examples include the Khudjum (the forced deveiling of women in Central Asia) in the 1930s, the ideological struggle against religion, collectivization and industrialization, and the repression launched against part of society. The modernization of society was also conducted through the educational system and the policy of russification.

Meanwhile, traditional society continued to existed in parallel with the new Soviet social structures. At first openly and subsequently more subtlety it resisted modernization and upheld a way of life 'bequeathed by our forefathers'. However, Soviet social scientists ignored the persistence of traditional society and thus its influence on public attitudes was not studied. The portion of the population adhering to traditional lifestyles is greater than those who pursue a modern lifestyle. The majority rural population and part of the urban population, due to their poor education, the nature of their daily work and their mentality, still pursue a way of life they identify as their own or the 'Muslim' way.

So, what is a traditional society? Traditionalism not only stands against the new, it demands a constant correction of lifestyles in accordance with the 'classical' model, no matter which model - Islamic, Christian or any other - society is based upon; what is important for traditionalists is that society must not move away from the 'ideal'. Traditionalism is maintained where there is a socio-economic basis for it[1]. There is just such a basis in Uzbekistan, namely: a high proportion of the population is rural with few of the population employed in industry, among other factors. The influence of the rural population on the urban population is one of the factors that Uzbekistan's President Karimov has identified as a threat to national security, along with the shadow economy that developed during the Soviet period, the domination of clan identity over n local politics, parochial tendencies, and corruption.[2]

After independence, when the revival of national identity became a cornerstone of the new statehood, certain aspects of traditional society were given some degree of legal cover and traditionalism was ideologically rehabilitated. It is currently enjoying an upsurge.

In the sphere of family relations, traditionalism is re-emerging with a vengeance. From 1989 the traditionalists began promoting their position through the mass media, mainly 'non-governmental' publications. Meanwhile the state initiated and promoted the concept of the modernization of society and economic policy; in order to be successful, it argued, reforms aimed at reviving industry and agriculture required the introduction of the modern way of life. Yet there is no open confrontation between 'modernists' and 'traditionalists', since the 'modernists' have accepted an ideological trade-off and have adopted some of the traditionalists' motifs.

Nevertheless, the state and traditional society appear to differ regarding the solutions to various social problems and open discord can be observed in attitudes towards women's issues. One of the first attacks on the Soviet model of women was a cycle of articles and other works by well-known literary figures of Uzbekistan during Gorbachev's perestroika. They targeted family planning and women administrators. These publications reached their peak in 1991-92 coinciding with the rehabilitation of Shariat norms regarding women's issues. Events in neighboring Tadjikstan halted the ideological advance of traditionalism in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, the adoption by state 'modernists' of elements of traditionalism in order to strengthen support for state policy has meant that while Soviet achievements in modernization have remained targets for conservative criticism, traditionalism has become a 'sacred cow'. As a result, women's status fell in the period 1992-94, and it was only the return to the path of protectionism towards women in 1994 that enabled an increase in the number of women in state bodies and a real consolidation of their rights.[3]

It was in response to the situation in 1992-94 that the first nongovernmental feminist organizations appeared, indicating that a stratum of women were against the revival of traditional society. However, in the mass media, especially in the Uzbek vernacular, there has been no promotion of modernization trends regarding women, and this is cause for concern.

The Decree of 2 March 1995 'On Measures Increasing the Role of Women in State and Public Construction in the Republic of Uzbekistan', signed by President Islam Karimov, gave impetus to women's committee activities at all levels. However as during Soviet rule, they use a formal approach and lack a clearly defined position on the issue of modernization. Moreover the committee women themselves are to a great extent influenced by traditional stereotypes, with some especially at the lowest level, being clearly adherents to traditionalism.

The transition to a market economy has resulted in the financial consolidation of the layer of petty bourgeoisie connected with the 'bazaar', business and services. This layer existed during the Soviet period, but under the aegis of the shadow economy. During perestroika and the transitional period, this sector was partially legalized and grew owing to the influx of a younger generation, thus giving rise to family enterprises.

The growing affluence of this section of society, which invariably only had a mediocre education, has strengthened the hand of traditional society. Its members started showing their strength through the open support of religion, traditional rituals and clan solidarity. It is in this section of the population that the trend of supporting women's return to the 'domestic' sphere, an increase in veiling and the withdrawal of women from the labor market became most evident. Several factors were involved: the real income of state employees fell dramatically, even if they were highly skilled specialists; women with secondary education were dismissed (under Soviet rule there was hyper-employment as job positions were created for this part of the population). This relatively unmotivated section of the female population was unable to adapt to the new economic conditions. Home and family became not only a shelter from the storm of transition but also a means of self-assertion. The rights these women had enjoyed under the Soviet power were due to positive discrimination, but with the negative effect that they were considered unreliable employees for they abused their right to long-term sick-leaves, etc. An additional factor was that the traditionalist woman's focus on home and family left little time for improving their professional skills. Therefore, many of them were unable to compete not only with their male colleagues, but also with their modernist female colleagues. As a result, employment became burdensome and without reward leading them to prefer to be 'domesticated'.

The Soviet model in reality produced a kind of split personality among educated women, who appeared modern on the one hand, but who still found reference in their families and local communities on the other. The life of modern women in Uzbekistan has been full of contradictions, complexes, stress and dramatic social clashes. A woman was torn between the role dictated by the state and the role defined by the family. As a result, even educated women often hold strongly traditional views on women's status with only a half-hearted commitment to modernism.

Analyzing the current resurgence of traditionalism, one notices that there is almost no writings on social problems connected with traditionalism. In the post-Soviet period, information regarding 'national' traditions is merely a panegyric, with no analysis as to why traditionalism is not viable.

Women's Problems During the Transitional Period

Even a staunch supporter of traditionalism would agree that Uzbekistan today, despite all the difficulties of the traditional period, is significantly more advanced technically, economically and politically than the states that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries in Central Asia (Turkestan Province, the Bukhara Emirate and Khiva Khanate). Therefore, all current social problems must be solved at a level qualitatively different from solutions pertinent to the distant past. The urge to reintroduce polygamy is above a male obsession. It equates to a longing to establish societies such as those that currently exist in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the like. The call for a return to traditionalism for women witnesses the civil immaturity and patriarchal mindset of that part of intelligentsia which are essentially apologists for cultural values: the regard women's inferior position and the violation of their rights as the norm for Asian lifestyles. Such an approach to social problems contradicts the policies of the temporal state directed at the modernization of society and its economy through reform of the legislative, political and economic bodies, and at the building of a democratic society.

Traditionalism, however, opposes all these goals for it strives to preserve the status quo, seeking to replace statutory law with traditional norms dictated by clan politics, parochialism and corruption. The current state of society obstructs the dynamic processes of reform, initiative and pluralism in the economic and social spheres. The extent of women's rights in the public and private spheres are indicators of a society's readiness to face economic and social transformation and as the experience of the advanced states shows, without the active and conscious participation of women such positive change is impossible. Those who seek to make women 'domesticated' effectively deny Uzbekistan the opportunity to achieve the status of an industrially developed state and consign it to the status of Pakistan, Bangladesh and other impoverished countries.

Those working in local feminist organizations have observed that the principle of equality is violated first and foremost in the family. A girl is brought up to see herself as lesser than a boy. This is a violation of rights taking place within the home and in society that goes unpunished. In contrast, a boy is brought up so that he realizes that he is allowed to do many things girls are usually not allowed to do especially after they attain their majority. With such a consciousness, a man will never consider a woman an equal partner and will always restrict a woman's independence and choice, and particularly her promotion up the social ladder to a decision-making position. Society generally regards women as needing to be taken care of by a man or an older woman and hence they are denied the opportunity to learn to make independent decisions. Women too adhere to these opinions and therefore blame women themselves for the growth in the divorce rate and for poor upbringing of their children. They believe that a woman does not deserve an administrative position, for professional responsibility is of only secondary importance to her. Statistical data show that in Kazakhstan every fifth man with higher education holds an administrative position, whereas only every seventeenth woman with the same education attains such a position (we are using data from Kazakhstan as there is no such data for Uzbekistan; indices for Uzbekistan appear to be even worse).

But let us return to the issue of a 'domesticated' woman. In most families, for a girl it is enough to be attractive and industrious and good at housework. In the traditional family interest in a daughter's education and the growth of her personality, both spiritual and physical, is either lacking or insufficient. Education is reduced to instructions such as "you are a girl, you must be obedient and modest!" Thus a girl's major merits are physical attractiveness and modesty, seen as the basis for a happy marriage. Marriage (and all that accompanies it - obsession with dress and ornaments, etc.) is her primary destiny, with even education considered just a means of finding a husband. This does not enable a woman to realize herself as an independent being. Without a good education and profession, without awareness of their individuality, women strive to realize themselves through the husband. If never married, such women seek to realize themselves through a 'beautiful lover' in the form of an elderly and wealthy man. So, those women who are stigmatized in the press as a negative model of female behavior are in fact the very same 'domesticated' woman, albeit in a different form.

Uzbek writers contrast the model of a 'domesticated' woman with that of a western (modern) woman, ignoring the fact that an independent career woman is not an obstacle to successful family life. This model is described only in a negative light provoking hostility among traditionalist men. Such women are charged with amoral behavior, but none note their positive features: professionalism, their responsibility for their behavior, the quality of their work, their active involvement in civic affairs, and their sense of women's and social solidarity, All of this is completely lacking in the 'domesticated' woman. While the 'domesticated' woman was a globally pervasive model at the beginning of this century, after two world wars and major crises the West has finally accepted the modern model of an equal woman - but thanks only to the efforts of the women themselves who strive for their rights.

The Soviet model of equality, despite its imperfections, gave Uzbek women a great deal. Their educational status has risen significantly and there is a wide stratum of the female intelligentsia - scientists, teachers, doctors and artists - which cannot be replaced in the country's cultural, economic and social life. While women have the right to be 'domesticated', they must not be deprived of their right to be equal with men in public life. The socialization of girls should provide them the opportunity to make choices in life that strengthen their autonomy and economic independence. For this to be realized necessary to overcome patriarchal attitudes but the latter is as sacred as national and religious traditions, and is reproduced in the socialization process. Hence the predominance of patriarchal motifs in the mass media with the result that topics such as legal consciousness and the issue of maintaining a balance between one's personal, family and public interests are not discussed with reference to women. Only patriarchal solutions to social problems are discussed, i.e., women should be 'domesticated' and all responsibility for them lies on men. But under present conditions, not every man is able to provide a woman with an adequate living standard, hence the emphasis on polygamy. Yet there are too few princes to go round, a popular song goes.

Now let us discuss those women who are engaged in small business. They came to be called meshochnitsa (or women selling their goods from sacks) by authors who rage and fume against them. Admittedly, this kind of business (or 'shuttle business') does not appear to be part of a civilized society, and is in fact a typical feature of the traditional economy. But nobody remembers that it is these women who have clothed us all, and that their business is tough and risky. Nor has anybody mentioned the corruption that makes their goods more expensive. A study of this phenomenon would reveal that most of the women involved in the 'shuttle business' have a higher education and it was their sense of responsibility towards their families that made them enter this sphere.

On average, a 'shuttle' businesswoman provides employment to between 3 to 10 persons, her partners being mainly women. No longer 'domesticated', her business is connected with risk, as well as psychological and physical burdens. 'Shuttles' have achieved economic independence outside governmental structures, where there is no protection. In the course of their work, 'shuttles' gain a knowledge of the law and dealing with banks and there is no need for the state to waste resources on training her in economics. Supported by the state's economic policy, the 'shuttle' begins as a small business but through the accumulation of capital they can develop their activities into a medium-sized business. Instead of comparing how far these women conform to traditional stereotypes, writings on the phenomenon would do better to discuss their business problems, but instead of sound analysis emotions again prevail.

Another topic which merits serious discussion is that of women and crime, for during the transition to market relations it is inevitable that human conflict is aggravated. Living standards plummet and the worsening situation in the labor market forces some women to follow the road of crime.

Yet while the discussing the theme of woman and crime, writings in the mass media again fail to analyze the social grounds for crime. Before the transition to a market economy, women were primarily involved in crimes committed in the home, but now they are involved in organized crime. As studies by lawyers have revealed, women criminals are found, as a rule, at the lower levels of the hierarchy of organized crime. They commit crimes, but are seldom the initiators or organizers, especially of crimes connected with drug trafficking and the arms trade. Women involved in prostitution should not be regarded as amoral persons, but as victims of organized crime.

Those authors writing about prostitution also emphasize the personal attributes of the women involved, with the problem being regarded as a moral issue concerning only the women themselves, whereas prostitution is a social problem concerns men as well. The problems surrounding prostitution are both economic and social. Prostitution is yielding enormous uncontrolled profits and has become an important feature of organized crime. Social environments sanctified by traditionalism create the conditions which allow this business to flourish. Poor regard for spiritual development and education, and a system of taboos create an atmosphere of sexual tension on the one hand, and encourage the sexual freedom of males on the other. Intolerance of 'mistakes' made by women, women low social status and poor self-esteem, coupled with the cult of wealth create favorable grounds for this phenomenon. Significantly, the women who advocate polygamy justify this precisely by referring to women's 'natural and biological' needs. In order to raise public awareness, publications on the subject of prostitution should contain the statistical data and an analysis of the psychology of social relationships but instead tend to focus on the titillating aspects, exposing the effective illiteracy of the authors.

In many publications the authors often address the subject of women's dress. And this question is again treated from the standpoint of women's conformity to the model of a 'gentle and modest' Asian woman. The position of the authors is traditional and is aimed against the western model. This problem, however, is much deeper than these authors' superficial approach. A woman's dress draws an invisible line between the traditional and the modern. There must be a clear position regarding hijab. The authors claim these are only white and black kerchiefs. But they mean hijab and the latter is not simply a form of dress, but a symbol of women's segregation. A woman wearing hijab recognizes her secondary status and dependence on men.

Hijab is not a passing symbol, but one of permanent adherence to a particular way of life which rejects contemporary change. Hijab can exist as a woman's choice, for it corresponds to the 'domesticated' woman's inner state and religious ideals. But this dress often belongs to a woman who is forced to be 'domesticated' or it can act as camouflage for the cynical manipulation of the symbol of a modest and religious woman. Whereas such cases might be a real topic for discussion, the authors of writings on the hijab have their own position.

Foreign radio stations also discuss the phenomenon of hijab, but here there is also a one-sided approach, i.e. the defence of the right to wear hijab. Nobody links the growing prevalence of hijab and the rise in early marriages and polygamy to a decrease in women's educational status; but there is an obvious link. Women are usually forced to wear hijab by their parents, husbands and in-laws. But nobody complains about this violation of women's rights as human rights, since for a woman it is easier to complain against strangers than her relatives. Women's committees are well acquainted with all these facts but do not make them public on the request of the women themselves because for the rest of their lives they have to live with those who violate their rights.

Violence against women is rarely discussed by the mass media, but if it is touched upon, it is regarded as merely the 'misconduct' of individual men. But this problem exists and it affects, first and foremost, 'domesticated' women. And on this point the authors are far from understanding what human rights are. While assessing problems such as violence against women, authors frequently blame the women themselves, which bears witness to the lack of basic knowledge of international and national legal standards and a lack of civic consciousness on the part of the authors.

The issue of women's health is also ignored. However, this problem is directly linked to the state of women's rights. Cases of difficult pregnancy and labor, high maternal mortality and infant mortality are often the result of the unequal status of a girl or a woman in the family which lead to malnutrition, overwork, nervous breakdowns. Of course, this is coupled with the state of public health, but the key to their health lies in the acknowledgment of their rights and position in the family.


Journalists in Uzbekistan largely reflect the opinion of traditional society and fail to analyze issues from the perspective of economic, legal and social development. This analysis is instead replaced by myth and a superficial approach towards women's problems. There are a number of reasons why journalists are slaves to traditional stereotypes: - the Uzbek intelligentsia mainly consists of first generation urban citizens who have not lost their spiritual and social links with their rural background. The urban population is involved in the non-productive sphere while the 'hereditary' intelligentsia constitutes an insignificant part of the modern intelligentsia.

Legal illiteracy is characteristic of post-Soviet society. Laws and even the Constitution are treated with contempt, leading to the ignoring of the basic legislative principles of a secular state, a highly dangerous trend as the experience of such states as Algeria shows.

Captive to traditional stereotypes, the mass media in Uzbekistan tends to propose primitive solutions to women's problems: women's return to the home and hearth, a revival of polygamy and the allocating of all responsibility for women's well-being to the husband.

As a recommendation, it would be sensible to involve journalists in the work of feminist organizations so that they, together with the activists of the feminist movement, will be able to mould public opinion in the direction of social modernization, and help defend the equality currently granted to women and protected under law.


V. Mukomel, 'Central Asia, the Burden of Change', in The USSR: a Demographic Diagnosis, Progress Publishers, 1990

Sh. Bashbekov, 'Woman is a Domestic Creature', Halk Suzi newspaper, 1 March 1997

A. Akbarov, 'Is Polygamy a Sin?', Uzbekistan Adabiyoti va San'ati (Literature and Art in Uzbekistan) newspaper, 18 November 1997

H. Nasrullaeva, 'Polygamy is not a Sin', Hurriyat newspaper, 17 December 1997

S. Bonu, 'Woman Carrying the Weight', Vatan newspaper, 28 November 1997

E. Norelina, 'My Husband Has Two Wives', Vatan newspaper, 16 December 1997

Sh. Salimova, T. Sadykova 'Mother is Moonlight and a Sunbeam', Uzbekistan Ovozi newspaper, 17 June 1997.


[1] S. Polyakov, Everyday Islam: Religion and Tradition in Soviet Central Asia, M.E. Sharpe Publishers, London, 1992.

[2] I. Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the 21st Century - Threats to Security, Conditions and Guarantees of Progress, Uzbekistan Publishers, 1997.

[3] On Measures to Increase the Role of Women in State and Public Construction in the Republic of Uzbekistan, Decree of President I. Karimov of 2 March 1995.