Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Is This Tajikistan’s #MeToo Moment?

Could a court decision punishing a victim of sexual harassment and the newspaper that helped her be Tajikistan’s #MeToo moment?

By Sher Khashimov and Steve Swerdlow for
Is This Tajikistan’s #MeToo Moment?
Credit: Pixabay

Last week a court in Tajikistan ruled that a young woman who spoke publicly about sexual harassment she suffered and the newspaper that covered her harrowing story should pay damages to her alleged abuser. Yes, you read that right: The alleged perpetrator of workplace abuse did not simply avoid being held accountable, a judge granted his demand that the woman who dared complain about his harassment and the journalists who investigated her claims owe him monetary compensation.

The ruling inflicts a painful blow to both press freedom and women’s rights in Tajikistan. But the woman’s unprecedented act of speaking out about physical and verbal abuse that are all too common for women in Tajikistan — and the public outcry that accompanied the case — could be Tajikistan’s first #MeToo moment and thus offers some hope for gradual change.

By all accounts, Parvin Jahongiri’s burgeoning career in Tajikistan’s small but innovative fashion world was off to a great start. Jahongiri, a 25-year-old fashion designer in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe, jumped at the chance to develop her fashion line when approached in August 2019 by Tohir Ibragimov, the director of Tajikistan’s “Fashion Week” and an influential figure in the country’s fashion industry. 

But things quickly went sour. According to Jahongiri, Ibragimov began subjecting her to verbal abuse almost immediately. In an April 2020 interview with the daily newspaper Vecherny Dushanbe (“Evening Dushanbe”), more commonly referred to by Dushanbe locals as Vecherka, Jahongiri described the psychological and physical harassment to which Ibragimov had subjected her. Jahongiri described Ibragimov as abusive and intimidating. On one occasion, Jahongiri said, “He simply grabbed me by the throat.”

The quote became the headline of Vecherka’s expose — a piece which the article’s author Zulfiya Golubeva said was thoroughly and meticulously researched. Vecherka also detailed how Ibragimov had allegedly insulted Jahongiri in text messages, threatening her with sexual assault one-on-one and also in front of clients.  

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Ibragimov categorically denied the allegations, claiming the conflict between them arose due to Jahongiri working too slowly, costing the company clients and money. He says he attempted to explain to Jahongiri that she was not meeting expectations under her contract in a civil conversation, but that she insulted and yelled at him “in the presence of witnesses.”

Multiple sources confirmed that Ibragimov has close family ties with Tajikistan’s powerful ministries — connections he repeatedly flaunted when confronted with Jahongiri’s complaint. According to Jahongiri, Ibragimov bragged, “Go and complain wherever you want. My uncle is a general, so nothing’s going to happen to me.” Jahongiri says he even threatened to “throw me in jail and not allow me to work. Each time the threats were different.”

Jahongiri said her motivation for speaking out was to prevent young women from living in fear  and from having to endure violence and intimidation in the workplace. Both Jahongiri’s story and her courage in coming forward immediately struck a chord with many women in Tajikistan, where gender-based violence and gender discrimination are pervasive and widespread. A 2019 study on domestic violence in Tajikistan by Human Rights Watch revealed harrowing levels of severe physical and psychological abuse of women in every region of the country, usually at the hands of husbands or partners.

Despite the passage of a law in 2013 on the “Prevention of Violence in the Family,” Human Rights Watch found numerous cases of rape, stabbing, strangulation, beatings, and the deprivation of food, clothing, and access to toilets or the kitchen. The report highlighted Tajikistan’s critical lack of services, including legal aid and shelters, for survivors of domestic violence. In addition, a rise in conservative norms and patriarchal practices in Tajikistan during the post-Soviet period only reinforced discriminatory gender norms. Harmful practices such as polygamy and unregistered marriages continue unchecked, even though the Tajik government has taken steps to raise the marriage age for men and women to 18 and to ensure couples officially register their marriages with the state.

This stark reality for women’s rights in Tajikistan makes Jahongiri’s decision to come forward all the more significant. But rather than address Jahongiri’s public complaints, Ibragimov sued her for defamation. Shockingly, Vecherka was later added as a defendant. While initially not intending to sue the newspaper, Ibragimov allowed the libel suit to go forward against both.

As with gender discrimination and women’s rights, media freedom in Tajikistan has dramatically deteriorated in recent years. The government regularly blocks access to critical websites and information online. But in 2020 it intensified its campaign by denying accreditation to numerous reporters from Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and banning the muckraking, Prague-based Akhbor.com as “extremist.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked Tajikistan 161st out 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom index, down from 149th in 2018. Journalists who cover controversial topics have been subjected to physical attacks and intimidation, like Abdullo Gurbati, an Asia-Plus journalist who was attacked twice last May. Journalists can also land in prison, like independent journalist Daler Sharipov, who was sentenced in April to a year of imprisonment on charges of “inciting religious hatred.” The court found him guilty despite the fact that the text Sharipov authored argues that Islam does not justify acts of terrorism.

The environment for journalists grew even more complicated in June. The government amended the country’s administrative code, making providing “false” or “inaccurate” information about COVID-19 in the media or on social media an offense that can result in fines up to 1,160 Tajikistani somoni ($112) — nearly twice the country’s minimum monthly wage. Media watchdogs say the amendment is a tool for censorship. 

Against this backdrop, the October 27 ruling that Vecherka must pay damages to Ibragimov simply for reporting Jahongiri’s story raised serious alarm among Tajikistan’s media experts. Vadim Sadonshoev, the head of Internews, says this precedent will deter independent media outlets from reporting on gender-based violence and any sphere where ordinary citizens are seeking justice against influential figures. Media expert and journalist Marat Mamadshoev says the ruling is the latest in a string of court defeats for independent media in recent years, which will lead to greater self-censorship. Gulnora Amirshoeva, the head of Vecherka, echoed these concerns, stating that if this disturbing trend continues it will make covering sexual harassment or gender-based violence virtually impossible.

But unexpectedly, Jahongiri’s case may reveal a silver lining. Forcing Jahongiri and Vecherka to pay damages to an alleged accuser struck many in Tajikistan’s civil society as unjust. Notably, many social media users that make up Dushanbe’s small middle class quickly denounced Ibragimov after the ruling. 

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This is new. After all, Dushanbe is a city so small that openly criticizing a person as connected and visible as the director of Tajikistan’s glamorous Fashion Week is not without consequence. In August, reacting to Jahongiri’s story, several activists shared Asia-Plus’ Facebook post about the upcoming Fashion Week widely and urged people to boycott the event. The initial post, written by social activist Malika Jurakulova, sparked heated discussions. The ripples from the case extended further when a day after the ruling Ibragimov was asked to step down as a mentor from a social program that assigns professionals to mentor children with special needs.

Comments under the Facebook post by lawyer Navruz Odinaev analyzing the ruling label the judges as “incompetent,” explore the role corruption might have played in the ruling, and urge Vecherka to appeal. The newspaper and Jahongiri have vowed to do just that.

While some have supported Jahongiri, it is important to remember how painful and scary it is to be a woman revealing sexual harassment in Tajikistan. Since the moment she came forward, Jahongiri has been met with social scorn, threats, and distrust — even from some whom she would have considered allies. On the ruling, she told The Diplomat, “I feel awful. Not because I pity myself, but because of the injustice of it all. I, the victim, had to explain myself, while the abuser painted himself as the victim. Worst of all, during the trial those who testified for him tried to make me out to be a whore.” But Jahongiri is not deterred. “Losing in court has only made me more determined to go forward and seek justice.”

By coming out courageously to share her experience of sexual harassment with the public, Jahongiri made history by arguably giving Tajikistan its first #MeToo moment. What is unclear, however, is whether in Tajikistan’s highly patriarchal society, where media freedom is under pressure, a Tajik #MeToo movement has any room to grow momentum.

Sher Khashimov is an independent researcher currently affiliated with the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @sher_khashimov.

Steve Swerdlow is a human rights lawyer and an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @steveswerdlow.