Earlier this month an Uzbek groom hitting his new bride in the head at their wedding reception because he lost a game made international headlines. This is not the first time brides have been hit by their newly wed partners – there are a plethora of similar cases caught on camera and circulated on local social media platforms. The availability of mobile phones and the internet to record violence and publicize it made it possible to draw attention to the severity of the issue of violence against women, but legal response measures still haven’t overtaken unwritten social rules.
Domestic violence has traditionally been viewed as a private, “family matter,” but in recent years actions by the Uzbek government have demonstrated the political will to begin addressing it — granting civil society and the public space to openly discuss the issue. Notably, Tashkent issued two presidential decrees to prevent domestic violence and to improve social rehabilitation of its victims in 2018. A year later, the government adopted two laws on guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities and on protection of women from harassment and violence. Tashkent also introduced protection orders (up to two months) and rehabilitation centers (including shelters) for victims of gender based violence. Despite these measures, violence continues.
The nature of violence in Uzbekistan is perpetual. Women and children are treated as property and domestic violence is still seen as a mere “family matter.” Traditions dictate that wives need to be patient through thick and thin, while children are never to look defiantly in the eyes of their parents, let alone speak up or go against their parents’ will. Years of having no control in life decisions transforms into tyranny over those even weaker. Men, who grew up having no say in any decision as children or young adults, coupled with unemployment (especially in rural areas), lack of income and self-realization in life, finally get a taste of power and control when they have a wife. Similarly, women, who live first under the strict control of their parents then of a husband, may become a “monster-in-law” when their sons finally marry. Controlling household matters and having power over a kelin (daughter-in-law) is the only way to feel self-worth and importance.
The youth are not independent. Every major life decision – whether to study at higher institutions or not (especially for girls), whom to marry and when, where to live, when to move out of their parents’ house, and more – are decided mostly by the elderly, sometimes through manipulation and force. For example, forced marriage is not widespread, but arranged marriage limits choices of the youth considerably. Parents, through match-making, find a proper family that fits their own socioeconomic status and arrange a few dates for the youth. In most cases, both young boys and girls have to decide whether to marry the “chosen one by parents” or not after a couple of dates. To note, in 2021, over 93,000 girls under the age of 20 got married – 305,000 marriages were registered in total.
While many obey the elderly out of love and adherence to social norms, financial dependence deepens the issue of power and control. University fees, wedding and living expenses are all covered by parents in a majority of cases. Most men live under the roof of their parents, even after marriage. When men leave for Russia or other countries for work, they send money not to their wives, but to their parents, who then in turn allocate the remittance to the wife. When the “infamous” groom (born in 1997) hit his bride, a “preventive” discussion was held by law enforcement representatives not only with him and the bride, but with their parents as well. This is just another indicator of the power dynamics at the micro-level – parents control children regardless of age, husbands abuse wives, mothers-in-law abuse kelins.
Media, especially the entertainment media industry, play a big role in perpetuating violence further. TV shows and movies often depict young women according to social norms and expectations – very polite, patient, and obedient, serving not only the husband, but his whole family. Mothers-in-law, on the other hand, are shown as cruel, manipulative, and bitter. Saida Rametova, an Honored Artist of Uzbekistan, is in particular famous for her roles as “monster-in-law” in movies such as “Super Kelinchak” (Super Daughter-in-Law), “Supper Qaynona,” (super mother-in-law), and “Onam Bilmasin” (Don’t Let My Mother Know). Movies such as “Begona Bahor” (Alien Spring) and many others show how couples end up in miserable divorce because of the cruel treatment of mothers-in-law and negligent behavior of young husbands. While these movies are a reflection of reality, they also “inspire” men and mothers-in-law to be more evil, normalizing the abuse of young brides.
Islam has become another “tool” for many elderly to manipulate the youth. Dissatisfied with a kelin’s service, many parents demand their son to either talaq (divorce) the wife or be disowned. Imams both in mosques and on internet platforms have stressed that this way of disowning is not according to Islam, but the practice continues. While many prominent imams warn against treating kelins as “slaves,” others call on kelins to serve their in-laws properly for “this is how your son’s wife will treat you later.”
The power dynamics are changing, especially in urban areas. Youth are becoming more independent and the internet has exposed them to different social realities. Activists run emancipating social media accounts such as “НеМолчи.Уз” (Don’t be silent) – an independent information project against gender-based violence in Uzbekistan. The impact is huge. Yet in parts of Uzbek society, where suffocating social norms raise future abusing husbands and monstrous mothers-in-law, violence is perpetuated.