The stories included in this text are real experiences of victims of street harassment in Uzbekistan. Their names have been changed for their safety.
For the past eight years, every time Nargiza boards public transportation she experiences an anxiety attack. She always makes sure that nobody stands behind her; she always plans an escape route. Nargiza was only 11 when a man assaulted her in a Tashkent bus. He managed to lay his hands all over her body before he was dragged out of the vehicle by other passengers.
“I was so humiliated that I couldn’t talk,” says Nargiza, now 19, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I cried so many times going back to that moment in my head. Now I can share my experience, but when I opened up about it to my friend for the first time, I couldn’t stop sobbing. I am lucky to have supporting people that assured me that it was not my fault.”
Roughly eight in 10 girls in Uzbekistan have experienced some form of street harassment, according to a survey conducted by Uznews. Street harassment includes verbal harassment, such as catcalling, whistling, shouting sexist comments, and gestures. It also includes physical forms of harassment, such as touching, groping, following or stalking, path blocking, upskirting, genital flashing, public masturbation, and assault.
For most of the past 30 years, women’s rights in independent Uzbekistan were not discussed at all. The term “domestic violence” was only introduced into the law in September 2019.
Since coming to power in late 2016, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has tried to bring Uzbekistan out of years of isolation and open the country politically and economically. As part of this opening, the government began to put more emphasis on issues related to women’s empowerment and equality, however, old habits die hard. Despite the political will, it will take time for the change to take effect on the Uzbek streets.
“I was in the city center with my friends, when a men slapped me and left.”
“Men catcall me in my hometown every time I go out – from young to old. I remember times when I was still in school and wearing my uniform, older men would ask me for my name or ‘invite’ me to spend time with them. It was disgusting.”
There is no criminal liability for street harassment in Uzbekistan — no fines or punishment. There is only a general definition of harassment in the law “on the protection of women from harassment and abuse.” If a case of street of harassment is reported, the perpetrator can be charged with “hooliganism” if they are charged at all.
“Taking into consideration the impunity of street harassment, even if a man touches you, you cannot do anything about it because the law is not on your side. Even if you try to bring it under street hooliganism, it still won’t work because there are a number of factors that must take place to file a report,” says Nastya Sever, an activist with Exponaut, an art feminist collective.
Street harassment is commonplace because perpetrators are almost always left unpunished and cases are rarely reported. Tolerated by society, such behavior has formed a culture of harassment – sexual and verbal forms of street harassment are seen as a norm and a part of the usual experience of women in public.
“If a girl walks on the streets and gets harassed, she might not perceive it as harassment because it happens every day, it happens to everyone,” says Nastya Cherepanova, a feminism activist with Sarpa media.
At the core of street harassment and gender-based violence lies the patriarchy, the system of power that implies male dominance over women. In Uzbekistan’s patriarchal society, men feel entitled to command women how to behave and how to dress, with a preference for adherence to traditional standards. If those standards are not followed, they “teach them a lesson.” But street harassment is not about the target’s appearance; it’s about the proclamation of dominance by the harasser.
“Here, if a girl says no, men often don’t take it for the answer. A woman can’t answer for herself, ‘no’ is accepted only when it comes from a dad, a boyfriend, a husband – in other words, her ‘master.’ For many men, a woman’s opinion does not matter,” says Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a Tashkent- based journalist.
In Uzbekistan, girls experience street harassment as early as 11-12 years old, as they enter puberty. However, there is no open discussion of the topic at school, where they spend most of their time. Students are not given instructions on how to deal with gender-based violence. Instead, female students are given speeches on teenage pregnancy — the shame it brings onto the parents, the school and the whole mahalla (community). Girls are lectured constantly on how to dress modestly so that boys don’t look at them, and girls are publicly shamed, in front of the whole class, for wearing slightly shorter skirts.
“I was in the car, when a driver intentionally stopped just to shout at a girl and shamed her for the length of her skirt and drove away. Then the whole time he was grumbling about her being shameless.”
“There were three of us, we were followed by two people in National Guard uniforms. They stopped when we stopped, and walked when we walked. They asked for our names and numbers – the very people that were supposed to protect us, were harassing us, we didn’t expect such behavior from people on duty.”
When harassed in public, whether on the streets or on public transport, girls don’t know how to react. Verbal and physical sexual harassment objectifies a person, it violates their personal boundaries. It triggers the “fight-or-flight” response – pounding heartbeat, rapid breathing, rising blood pressure, muscles tensing – as adrenaline hits the brain. Some find the courage to respond to their harassers, brush them off with a slur or fight back, but many freeze.
“Two guys on bicycles approached us from the back and slapped my ass. I was with my friend. I was in shock. “
“When someone harasses me, I start shaking and don’t know what to say. I may find the strength only to mumble something but I feel extremely scared.”
Street harassment, both verbal and physical, has a deep impact on the victim – it degrades their dignity, causes damage to their self-image, and diminishes their confidence. Girls feel guilty and embarrassed, taking on the responsibility for what has happened to them.
Uzbek culture puts considerable emphasis on the public image of a person. Unless an individual acts in accordance with social norms and common behavioral patterns, they are condemned by society. In case of apparent wrongdoings, rumors spread within the community, attitudes toward a person change, and they may be ostracized. Social disapproval affects not only the reputation of a person but damages the reputation of their family as a whole. The pressure of constant observation makes people unceasingly insecure. Afraid of judgment, and the social consequences, many Uzbeks opt to hide the problems they face.
“People here are not used to discussing problems publicly, they are accustomed to hiding or sweeping them under the rug. This is a result of traditional thinking – people are afraid of other’s opinions,” says Nigina Khalmukhamedova, the founder of Exponaut.
In Uzbekistan, in order to avoid harassment, women are forced to change their behavior. Certain places trigger memories — like public transportation does for Nargiza — so they chose not to go to those places or do so feeling fearful or extremely uncomfortable. Feeling unsafe, many women do not go out alone, especially at night. And women are not able to fully express themselves through clothes and often dress in ways that won’t draw much attention.
“I avoid overcrowded buses.”
“I have a fear of unpopulated streets, unknown paths, public transport.”
“I don’t feel safe walking and especially riding a taxi. Every time I get in a taxi, I have to send my mom the car number and I’m on pins and needles all the time.”
On the streets, women always have to stay aware of their surroundings and be on guard. They take precautions like talking on the phone and wearing headphones — to avoid having to engage with the men who catcall them. They carry pepper spray, keys, or something sharp in their purses or pockets in case anyone attacks them.
“I once was followed by a guy three days in a row. He would follow me everywhere, waiting for me near the school, then went with me to my dancing classes, once even followed me to my home, right to my doors. I was so scared. He left me alone only when my mom confronted him.”
The problem of street harassment — and sexual assault — requires a systematic solution rooted in a change in social mindset, accompanied by legislation to punish harassers and the empowerment of the education system to both support girls and teach boys how to truly respect them.
One example of legislation can be seen in France. In 2018 the government introduced a law that fines harassers on the spot. By introducing such regulations, the government declared that such discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated on the streets.
Tanzila Narbaeva, chair of the Uzbek Senate since 2019, said in November 2020 that topics related to sex education and gender equality will be included in the school curriculum as part of upcoming “Nurture” lessons. Narbaeva, who also serves as head of Uzbekistan’s Gender Equality Commission and from 2016 to 2019 chaired the Senate’s Women’s Committee, said that issues related to family formation, reproductive health, childbirth, contraception, and marriage between relatives, among other matters, will be discussed with the students.
Sex education should be included in school curriculums to teach children about consent and respect for personal boundaries among other important topics. Girls and boys should receive an education free of harmful gender stereotypes. It will be hard to undo years of traditional education, however, as both teachers and parents often enforce the rules of the patriarchal system in which they were raised, passing its burdens on to their children.
“To address street harassment a special campaign must be developed, considering the experience of other countries. Such a campaign should be addressed to the entire society to make an impact on people’s way of thinking,” Cherepanova, the activist with Sarpa media, says. “I am tired of telling girls to take care of themselves, we should appeal to boys, to parents and teachers who all too often ignore the issue.”