Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

How to Talk About Feminism in Tajikistan

Issues of feminism and gender activism in Tajik society are controversial.

By Lolisanam Ulugova for
How to Talk About Feminism in Tajikistan
Credit: Lolisanam Ulugova

In early March, when the countries of the former Soviet Union traditionally celebrate Women’s Day, a pair of journalists in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, planned a public event to discuss gender issues. The event, under the title “I, We, Women — Sounds Proudly” was publicized on Facebook and drew some interest: 130 people  clicked “interested” and 57 noted a desire to participate. 

But the meeting did not proceed as originally planned.

Takhmina Khakimova, a video journalist and one of the meeting’s organizers, said that she and another journalist friend, Nisso Rasulova, planned the event to tackle three topics: “Misogyny,” “Guys in Feminism,” and “Choosing a Profession.”

Well-known experts in the gender field were invited to speak, among them Dr. Zulaykho Usmanova. 

Unfortunately, the organizers were refused rental of their initial chosen meeting place. The cafe told them it faced technical problems. 

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Khakimova and Rasulova had to begin again and find a new location. But after a new location was listed on Facebook, the cafe owner turned them down.

Finally, the participants were able to hold their meeting on March 13 at the small “Chatr” cafe, whose hostess is a public activist. The tiny place could fit the 35 people who resolutely decided to take part in the meeting. 

Khakimova said that they were watched by men in cars when they arrived for the meeting. Some brave participants approached the men, inviting them to attend the meeting, but they did not take up the offer.

When the meeting finally began, after about 10 or 15 minutes the lights in the cafe were shut off. The meeting continued by candlelight. Then, a local policeman appeared, and called the owner of the cafe aside, telling everyone to disperse. The main motivation, they were told, was the ongoing pandemic for which many public gatherings around the world have been cancelled in the interest of public health. But at the time — mid-March — Tajikistan had not officially reported any cases and later that month large official Nowruz celebrations went ahead as scheduled. 

Khakimova regrets that the word “feminism” for many people in the country has a negative connotation and is associated with other words also ending with -ism, like terrorism and radicalism; activism is not well perceived in Tajikistan.

“There is a concern that feminists may help to overturn the power of men, stop recognizing men, and not get married, threatening the might of the state,” she told me. She said that it was suggested to her that she not to interfere in gender issues. “There are the structures that deal with women’s issues, such as the Committee on the Rights of Women and the Family, as well as the League of Women Lawyers, and let them deal with women’s rights,” she was told.

The ordeal was stressful, Khakimova said. 

I asked well-known gender researcher Sophia Kasymova, Ph.D. candidate in sociology and the author of two monographs, “Transformation of the Gender Order in Tajik Society,” and “Gender aspects of migratory processes in Tajikistan: Challenges of the time and choices” about the cancelled meeting and the place of feminism in Tajik society.

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Lolisanam Ulugova: The dispersal in March of a meeting of feminists and some civil society activists in a public place indicated fear and distrust to the meeting participants. What do you think is happening with the issues of feminism in Tajikistan, why is there a struggle for constitutional rights to gather and talk about this subject?

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Sophia Kasymova: The fact is that feminism is primarily a political ideology. I emphasize “political” because it represents the political interests of a certain group of women’s populations (where more, where less) of a country that intends to promote its ideas among its target group. In our case, perhaps this was the first case in Tajikistan when a small group of emancipated Tajik women spoke publicly about feminism. It was the political context of the issue that provoked opposition. The history of feminism is replete with such opposition at different times and in different countries. So, such counteractions are quite expected in our country.

The Khujum (offensive) movement in Central Asia at the dawn of Soviet power contributed to the liberation of women and their access to public space. This was a socially painful but a clear economically beneficial shift. With the declaration of independence of the Republic of Tajikistan, many traditions returned with it. The social concepts of nomus (shame) and imon (honor) force women to obey men and to give in them, which make women economically and socially inactive. Such a situation may contribute to increasing the economic dependence of women on men. What needs to be done to defend the former gains in the women’s issue and to move on to liberate women?

I do not quite agree with the formulation of your question. Let’s put everything in its place. The “Khujum” campaign and the entire gender policy of the Soviet state had a different degree of influence on the female population of Tajikistan, wider than the Central Asian region. Soviet propaganda showed only the glossy side of the campaign. It was a very thin layer of the female political elite (famous singers, social activists, athletes, heroines of labor, etc.) In fact, most women still lived within the framework of the traditional patriarchal gender order. According to this logic, there is no return to the past. On the contrary, in modern socio-political-economic-cultural conditions there is intense destruction of patriarchal foundations. This is manifested in the entry of an increasing number of Tajik women into the public space (education, social work, migratory mobility), which has traditionally been the place of men. It may be regrettable, but the reality is that women are more likely to face discrimination though the gender disparity in possessing resources. The real liberation of women is a long and painful process. The famed freedom of European women did not appear easily and overnight, it is the result of a long historical development of specific societies, where women, along with men, took an active political position.

The sacred position of a man in the family contributes significantly to the patriarchal nature of Tajik society, following the sacredness of state power. What are your predictions regarding the possibility of a shift in society’s thinking in the future?

Firstly, there is nothing “sacred” in the power of men. I compare the situation of men and women in our society a hundred years ago and today, for example. The difference is significant. This is the answer to your question. The “turning point” in the consciousness of our society has been an ongoing process for more than a hundred years. Currently, a “turnaround” or a change is observed much more intensively in society which is surely influenced by migration and globalization factors.

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Issues of feminism and gender activism in Tajik society are controversial and far from being perceived in a neutral context. Perhaps events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, namely the censorship of the Bishkek Feminnale exhibit in 2019 and the disruption of the March 8 International Women’s Day March, scared the Tajik authorities.

However, by prohibiting such meetings as the March 13 gathering, the authorities themselves are violating the constitutional rights of their citizens. Perhaps this time they were able to disband the meeting, but they won’t be able to stop conversation about such topics from continuing. Moreover, the declared topics do not undermine the foundations of the authorities, rather, they are in unison with state gender policies. Beyond praising women, mothers, brides, wives, and so on, there are a number of concrete issues that need to be addressed and discussed, and not just by officially regulated organizations and individuals.

It is good that there are activists like the organizers of the failed event who take the initiative to cover issues that contribute to reducing the gender imbalances in Tajikistan. Women need not only be presented flowers on official holidays but deserve to be allowed to contribute fully to society. 

Lolisanam Ulugova has been an art manager in Tajikistan since 2000 and writes about arts, culture, leadership, activism and feminism.