As Islam Replaces Communism in Uzbekistan, Economy Stagnates, Men Remain "More Equal" Than Women

By Jones, Lucy | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

As Islam Replaces Communism in Uzbekistan, Economy Stagnates, Men Remain "More Equal" Than Women


Jones, Lucy, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


As Islam Replaces Communism in Uzbekistan, Economy Stagnates, Men Remain "More Equal" Than Women

Narsha Myohamasteva guzzles vodka as she swats the 50 or so flies swarming above the dinner table in the richly carpeted front room of her mother's home in the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan.

"I like to enjoy myself and go to parties," says Narsha, a Russian-language teacher, competing with a video about the Princess of Wales dubbed in Uzbek playing in the background. "I'd be bored if I didn't," she adds, her mouthful of gold teeth glinting in the dim light.

Narsha's sister, Nadira, however, by contrast sits silently at the comer of the low-lying table, which is covered with colorful plates of carefully arranged sausage, cheese, salads and the rice dish plov.

She doesn't participate in the toasting and covers her head and neck with a scarf when her brother-in-law enters the room. She leaves early because her in-laws ask her not to stay out late.

Nadira married into a Namangan family which, since the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan gained independence in August 1991, has reverted to Muslim traditions banned under communism. She rises at dawn to read the Qur'an and divides her day between looking after children and her in-laws. Her husband forbids her to work.

"This is my life," she says, adding that relations with her in-laws are difficult. "But I can't do anything to change it."

An Islamic revival in Central Asia is fundamentally changing the position of women in the region. And in the Ferghana Valley, encompassing parts of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a conservative, rural area that has experienced a particularly vibrant resurgence of Islam, women are seeing their rights eroded more than those of their counterparts elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

They are working less and earning less (although in part this also reflects the region's economic difficulties). They are becoming less likely to enter higher education or hold a position in parliament. They are also increasingly under pressure to fully cover themselves in public. Arranged and plural marriages are becoming more widespread.

"Women are losing everything they gained in the Soviet period. In some regions they are practically being sold. Men are increasingly regarding women as objects," said Svetlana Garfareva, head of the Kyrgyz women's organization "Vimka" -- the Center of Mass Information on Women in Central Asia, based in the city of Osh in the Ferghana Valley.

In the Ferghana Valley, more than 40 percent of marriages in 1998 are thought to have been arranged -- a significant increase since Soviet times when the illegality of arranged marriage, although it did not prevent the practice, certainly made it a dangerous business. (The handing over of a dowry was considered particularly risky because it could be used as evidence of an agreement.) During the Soviet period, people usually met their future spouses at the weddings of friends or relatives.

An increase in arranged marriage is thought to have led to a wave of "bride suicides" since independence. Last year, women's organizations in Uzbekistan estimated that more than 800 women committed suicide because of desperately unhappy arranged marriages, involving tyrannical mothers-in-laws, drunken and violent husbands, and financial pressures.

There are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helping women in such situations, including a recently opened hostel for battered wives. But in general, women tend not to trust such quasi-official groups -- a legacy from Soviet times, when people had little respect for public bodies.

Marital problems are also not a top priority for these NGOs. These groups devote most of their energies to tackling the most basic of women's issues -- such as the right to decide how many children to have and when, decisions normally taken by Uzbek husbands. (Families are large in Uzbekistan. According to the 1989 census, 55 percent of families had 5 or more children. …

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