Uzbekistan: Oppressive political climate keeps women dependent on traditional social models


Interview with Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva: In 1995, WLUML’s sister organization in Pakistan, Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre, published an English translation of Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam by Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva, which is available on the WLUML website here. The original appeared in Russian in 1992, just one year after the collapse of the USSR and the creation of an independent state of Uzbekistan. The book looks at the Sovietisation of Central Asia and argues that from 1917 the Soviet attitude to religion was confrontational and its goal was to destroy the Muslim religion through misleading tactics: while slogans regarding freedom of conscience were pronounced by the authorities, there were secretive directives ordering the suppression of the clergy.

The process of Sovietisation opposed all currents in Islam, annihilating nationalist and secular-reformist ideas emerging in Central Asian society. What was left of Islam was largely fanaticism with the result that Soviet rule ultimately strengthened the influence of the conservative clergy. The communist party had understood that tactical policy retreats regarding women’s rights allowed it to consolidate Soviet rule; its policy of women’s liberation did not have social support from the grassroots and failed to change social attitudes. The totalitarian system, by obstructing interaction between different strata of society, was unable to destroy traditional ties and people continued to group themselves according to origin, not interests and attitudes. The family in modern-day Uzbekistan is still accorded the role of an institution that defines social values. Tokhtakhodjaeva wrote at the time that without secularization, the women’s issue as a problem of individual equality could not be resolved and women’s emancipation proved to be an illusion.

The Uzbek author has since published The Re-Islamization of Society and the Position of Women in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan (Brill, 2008) looking at the impact of the reestablishment of traditional Islam on the political, economic and social structure of the former ‘Soviet’ society, above all on the position of women. 

In 2008, WLUML briefly caught up with Tokhtakhodjaeva (you can read an interview here) and she explained how the government shut down the Tashkent Women's Resource Center, of which she was the founder and chairwoman, at the end of 2005:

"The Office of the General Prosecutor opened a criminal file against the members of TWRC. After four 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."

Tokhtakhodjaevawrote in Between the Slogans that “since the beginning of the 1990s vociferous and didactic calls have come from the pages of the mass media for a return to the ‘natural’ role of women, and for women’s conduct to follow the Muslim norms of modesty.” Crucially, “the women’s question has truly become a litmus test of the direction of today’s undisclosed policies, with the climate manifesting itself in the suppression of those who are weaker or do not share one’s views”. Tokhtakhodjaeva recently elaborated on this theme:

"One of the main problems we have is of traditions and the reality of the post-Soviet era. Traditions are very useful for dictatorships because they appeal to people’s ‘culture’, sanctifying patriarchal inequality between the strong and the weak, and denying the individual rights of the person, especially of women. The media propaganda is all about how excellent these traditions are and puts pressure on anybody who criticizes this situation and appeals to the universality of human rights. It is this lack of freedom that pushes people to emigrate, including women. In such a climate, women become powerless and dependent on family and community."

In a May 2011 interview with WLUML’s Eleanor Kilroy and Cassandra Balchin (Editor of Between the Slogans), Tokhtakhodjaeva explained that two decades on from her first publication, the issues of modernization and secularization are still relevant. She spoke of her regret that Uzbekistan has embraced ‘wild’ capitalism, ‘with a bad face’:

"There exists no real market competition because of kleptocracy. It is also very important in society that there should be a competition of ideas. In its absence, people try to find themselves in society – some turn to religion, some put their energies into business and some try to be part of the state system, but those who do must reckon with the clans."

 She further laments that there is no longer the ideal of a ‘mission’:

"In Soviet times – perhaps thanks to ideology – educated people like school teachers, university lecturers, felt like they had a mission, that they could do something for people. Now that is absolutely absent. In the 1990s, many of the women who had grown up in Soviet times and had benefited from an education were able to set up NGOs. Since 2005, all of the NGOs have closed and been replaced with government-funded organizations. It has become very difficult to organize, but also people have become more egotistical and there is not a cooperative sense of unity between them, even amongst women. The educated and economically independent women of today have little interest in working together to protect their rights. Meanwhile, the official media channels propagate the ideal of working women, but first the woman should be beautiful and a model of tradition."

After independence, each Central Asian state chose a policy of nationalism and many Russian schools were closed. While there is a history of religious fundamentalism in Uzbekistan, Tokhtakhodjaeva says that it is very difficult to discuss the role of religion without talking about nationalism and ethnic identity:

"The government’s promotion of nationalism is a very primitive idea. For Central Asia, Islam was the belief that had united all the ethnicities. Islam has long existed as an idea of resistance to kleptocracy and totalitarianism; many people think that when Islam has a place in society, people will be kinder, more tolerant because religion talks about such things. But I am not sure they are right because when religions are under pressure they become more oppressive. The government is afraid of fundamentalism and in each Central Asian country, Islamists are under pressure."

As in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the labour force in Uzbekistan has gone abroad in large numbers in recent years in hope of escaping a dire economic situation at home and earning a decent wage in countries like Russia and Kazakstan. The non-government Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders cites estimates suggesting that between two and five million of the country's 28 million people are out of the country, mostly in Russia and Kazakstan, but also in the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. In a September 2010 report by the Institute for War and Peace, ‘Uzbek Government in Denial on Migration’, Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek analyst now living in the United States, said: "For many years, Tashkent has been boasting of high economic growth, saying that up to a million new jobs are created every year, and not admitting to the high levels of unemployment in the country. At the same time, Uzbekistan is becoming the main supplier of unemployed labour to job markets in other [former Soviet] countries, particularly Russia."

Tokhtakhodjaeva confirms that those who received a good education in Soviet times have tried to emigrate since independence, to Europe and the United States while the low-skilled find work in Turkey and South-East Asia. Women from rural areas are increasingly migrating to neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia:

"Women’s access to work has become worse – even those with some education prefer to earn money in Turkey as domestic workers. Some told me they were amazed that there were demonstrations and a free media in Turkey. Many people also try to live in Russia because their children receive a better education; the Russian language gives people more opportunities."

When men emigrate to work in Russia, they often start new families:

"The women they leave behind have little education or real profession so they migrate to urban areas. In rural areas the education has become very bad – there is an absence of book shops and normal medical centres. Often there are no adults left in the village and when one of the older generation dies, it is the adolescents that are left to organize the funeral!"

The minimum legal age for marriage in Uzbekistan is 17 years for women and 18 years for men. A 2004 United Nations report, however, estimated that 13 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed. Tokhtakhodjaeva describes a divide based on economics:

"The average age of marriage in all of Uzbekistan has decreased from 22 years of age during the Soviet era. In rural areas the girls are marrying younger in spite of government legislation. In Uzbek society, there is a hunt for rich men on the one hand, and on the other there are women who do not want to live on a man’s money – they want to be independent. However, it is difficult for a woman to operate a business without a male guarantor. The number of single women has increased. I spoke some and they said it was better for them – they can be economically independent, have the opportunity to travel, can realize themselves."

In Between the Slogans, the author explained that during the Soviet era the Communist party ‘elected’ women to judicial bodies, which was a gross distortion of a development – the growing participation of women in public life – that should have been cause for celebration. There were quotas for women’s promotion, but the main criteria for selection were the candidates’ social origin and political affiliation, Thus, women deputies and delegate were often uneducated and mediocre favourites. Now, there are many intelligent, articulate women, but they are not part of the new nomenclature:

"During Soviet times there were a few women ministers and women in high positions. Now there is only one woman minister in our government and women who have high positions in government bodies are few. These women do not have their own personality and the problem of women’s leadership has become stronger. I do not know of a woman in a high position who is capable of giving a good speech – they are given those positions only because they are women and not because of their abilities."

In 2009, photographer and filmmaker, Umida Ahmedova, was charged with “slander” and “insult” (respectively Articles 139 and 140 of the Uzbek Criminal Code) of the Uzbek people. The charges were brought by the Tashkent Prosecutor's Office, in relation to her 2007 book of photographs, Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk containing 110 photographs reflecting the life and traditions of Uzbek people, as well as to her documentary films Women and Men in Customs and Rituals and Virginity Code, available on the WLUML website here.

"They said she was against our ‘values and traditions’. She was not active in civil society, but when the government charged her with humiliating our traditions and style of life, she became a political figure, because the campaign against her was undeniably political!"

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Two years ago Tokhtakhodjaeva created the exhibit “The New Women: The 20th Century”. One photo is of Mukarrama Turgunbaeva, a renowned dancer and choreographer who established the first school of Uzbek national dance in the 1950s. A selection of the images are available on the Women’s Learning Partnership Flikr account, Archival Photos of Women of Uzbekistan:

"Women like me try to be involved in some project to achieve women’s equality. I collected pictures from women’s family albums, choosing 100 for the exhibition. The exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Uzbekistan was only on for ten days and attracted many visitors…. I would like to do a film about women at the beginning of the twentieth century, and I talked to a few famous women historians and invited them to take part. All of them refused because they said, we will do it when we’re retired. It is a pity because we are existing now, and a society that has fear cannot develop."

A strong sentiment that emerges is love for her homeland; Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva cannot understand why there are not many books about Uzbekistan because, she says, “it is a wonderful country with good opportunities for development”.

By Eleanor Kilroy for WLUML