Uzbekistan: Interview with Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva

WLUML Networkers
Since the publication in the early 1990s of "Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam: The Women of Uzbekistan" to today, Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva reflects on how circumstances have changed for women and activists in modern Uzbekistan.
A long time leader of the women's movement in Uzbekistan, Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva was a founding member and co-director of the Women's Resource Center (WRC) in Tashkent, an NGO founded in 1991 to work towards economic and social stability, democratization, and increased awareness of women's human rights in the region. The Tashkent Women's Resource Centre was closed down under pressure from the Uzbek government in 2005.

Dr. Tokhtakhodjaeva has written extensively on the status of women in central Asia in post-communist societies and was formerly a Regional fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. She received her PhD in Architecture, specializing in city planning and the restoration of architectural monuments. In 2003, she was voted "Woman of the Year" by the United Nations agencies in Uzbekistan. She works closely with the Women's Learning Partnership.

Recently, we with caught up with Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva:

Aisha Lee Shaheed: Your previous books have discussed social and political changes in the region, which required a great deal of historical research. What are some of the challenges you face in researching the histories of Central Asian women?

Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva:I thought that there would be new reseach and many new studies on this topic, but there have not been new points of view on the position of women. Most reseach was done under government orders and so the problems faced by women stays closed off from view.

There were many challenges in Uzbekistan and there were many new problems that we had not imagined 17 years ago. My country became more poor and, despite democratic rhetoric, autocracy increased and became a mixture of communistic and medieval styles. Freedom of speech and opinion remains limited. In this situation, there is an absence of communal public life and everybody is face-to-face with their own problems. My book [Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam] was written 17 years ago and I can state that the situation has become worse.

ALS: Who has inspired you?

MT:Many women who were actively involved with civil society organisations until 2005, at which time many NGOs were closed. The NGOs that continue their activity now work under the strict control of the government and in limited public space. They inspire me.

In the Soviet period, fear in society became the norm; now it is possible to talk about a victory of Soviet fundamentalism. Other opinions are restricted: officials talk about successes in social and economic spheres, but the life of ordinary persons - especially of women - has become worse. Poverty, illegal labor migration, criminalization, corruption, trafficking of women and children, forced labor and repression against the people with dissenting opinions, have all become common.

ALS: How have you directly experienced state repression? How do you think that this repression is linked to fundamentalisms?

MT: Tashkent Women's Resource Center was closed at the end of 2005, when the Office of the General Prosecutor opened a criminal file against the members of TWRC. After 4 months, the Women's Resource Center was closed. TWRC had not committed any crimes and most of our activities had been carried out in the past. I believe the government's action was intended to frighten off other activists.

ALS: Your book “Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam” (written around 1991 and first published in 1995) was written in a context of emerging forms of statehood in the Central Asian region. How would you assess the political climate in which you currently research?

MT:The time when I wrote that book was actually better than now: there was more freedom, we were full of hope. Independence raises the dignity of people and their faith in the future. But the leadership has been afraid of democracy and their political past keeps in them the worst features of communist leaders. So now, some people are nostalgic for the Soviet era because they could then appeal to Moscow for justice. Some people now dream about Islamic justice. This difficult situation leads my country into Third World conditions, with its problems including instability, dictatorship, low levels of literacy, faltering material economy, poverty. There are many protests under Islamic slogans.

ALS: What do you see as the biggest challenges for the Uzbek women’s movement?

MT:I talk about the women's movement until 2006. It was active in raising the problems of violence against women and appealed to women's rights as human rights. Women's organisations worked on health issues, enlightment, education and ecology. But it did not, however, succeed in creating stable networks, coalitions and alliances for women's common actions.

ALS: How is the Uzbek women’s movement shaped by dynamics of class and ethnicity?

MT:The Uzbek women's movement could not overcome the limitations set by the goverment over their activities. They could not protect their rights to be active and independent and could not organise actions together to fight for their rights. Unfortunately, under the government pressure, they were separated and indecisive.

The women's movement has been shaped by multi-ethnic women from the Soviet middle-class, that lost their stable position in the transition period. Other social groups have faced problems of language barriers and limited access to knowledge and technology. It was difficult to involve the young, middle-class generation in the women's movement, as their interests tend to lie more in business activity than social problems.

ALS: How would you asses the relationship between the Uzbek women’s movement and the women’s movement on regional and global levels?

MT:The Uzbek women's movement had close relations with others at the regional level, but this was limited by the existing restrictions on visas to visit neighboring countries. This limited our contacts.

The main limitation for stronger relations with global women's movements is a language barrier that leads to limited knowlege about feminism. Unfortunately, even now only a few activists know English.

17 March 2008