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Uzbekistan, which became independent in 1991, is a young state with claims to an ancient past. The desire to reanimate and reinvent national tradition, and thus to solidify the newly independent state's claims to nationhood, has complicated women's exercise of their human rights in the post-Soviet era. Uzbekistan's government has exploited the rhetoric of women's rights as proof of the nation's modernity in the process of forging a new national identity. Contradictory streams of government rhetoric, however, have sent mixed policy messages, since government also points to women's "traditional" role as the touchstone for its cultural heritage.1

Contradicting its claims to protect women's rights, the government has also at times urged the rejection of all things Soviet, and has invoked a particular, stylized version of "tradition" as a key strategy for developing a new national identity and national ideology, to substitute for defunct Soviet communism. This carried certain risks for the state, both because of the continuing political control of Soviet-era leaders, and also because the Soviet order had effectively laid the groundwork for Uzbekistan's claims on modern nationhood. It was Soviet rule that saw the creation of the republic as a territorial unit, the codification of languages, the writing of histories, the education of several generations of the elite, and the "liberation" of Uzbek women.

Uzbek women Under Soviet rule
Contradictory assessments of the meaning of the Soviet legacy for Uzbek women continue to animate debates on the contemporary status of women in society. During the period of Soviet rule, the state promoted a laudatory history of its own role in freeing women from what it viewed as the oppressive strictures of Islamic religious law and local custom. What is often excluded from this narrative, however, is the contribution of the movement for Islamic modernization known as the jadids, led by prominent members of indigenous society, which predated Soviet efforts to transform local society and the status of women by almost a half century. Jadid approaches to the "woman question" focused on equality and secular education for women as a necessary step for the renewal and progress of the nation. They fought against the conservative elements in society that, in reaction to the Imperial Russian conquest of the region in the 1860s-70s, had tended to reinforce traditional forms of female seclusion and veiling.2 Jadid efforts to promote women's education and freedom created a constituency for the more radical measures put in place following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.3

Seeking to transform what they viewed as the feudal social order in Central Asia into a socialist one, the Bolsheviks sought allies among the region's women, who they assumed would flock to support the new regime that promised women's emancipation.4 In 1927, the Soviet government launched what it termed the hujum, or offensive, against all traditional, patriarchal social practices deemed oppressive to women, including the marriage of underage girls, brideprice, and the most visible symbol of this oppression, the veil. Though some women seized the opportunity to be integrated into public life, others resumed wearing their veils almost as quickly as they cast them off. Male resistance to unveiling was both extensive and violent, resulting in the death or maiming of many women throughout the country. At the same time the Soviet government recommenced its brutal campaign to suppress Islam, viewed by Moscow as one of the major obstacles to the transformation of women's social roles and as a threat to Soviet political primacy in the region. 5

Though the Communist Party backed away from its most vigorous efforts to force social change in the early 1930s, recruitment of women into the party-state bureaucracy and into education continued.6 The collectivization of agriculture, the extension of state control over the economy, and the promotion of universal primary education during this period laid the groundwork for the other fundamental feature of Soviet-style women's emancipation: women's participation in paid employment outside the home.7 Though some women of the older generation continued to veil, by the end of World War II veiled women became an increasingly rare sight.

By the 1980s, the Soviet modernization drive in the region had produced paradoxical results. The state claimed to have achieved near-universal literacy among men and women decades earlier. Though the Central Asian republics as a whole lagged behind the other Union republics in the number of persons indigenous to those territories with higher education, these figures moved closer to gender parity, with women comprising 41 percent of students enrolled in higher education. Similarly, the numbers of women who completed secondary schooling increased substantially.8

In the face of these markers of modernization, in the words of one scholar, "Central Asian women (and men), confronted with the headlong pace of change in the public sphere, reacted by holding on yet more firmly to the order they knew in the domestic sphere, where they had a greater degree of control."9 Islamic ritual, relegated to the private sphere of life, continued to mark basic life-cycle events, although adherence to other Islamically prescribed norms, such as prayer, and dietary restrictions, declined precipitously.10 Yet the patriarchal structures governing women's position in the family remained largely intact.11 Nowhere was the contrast with outward markers of development more apparent than in the realm of marriage and family. Surveys in the early 1980s reported that Uzbek families aimed, on average, to have 5.58 children, far outpacing ethnic Russian expectations of 2.02 children per family. Between 1959 and 1989, the ethnic Uzbek population of Soviet Uzbekistan increased by 180.3 percent, confounding conventional wisdom that as female literacy increases, fertility rates drop.12

On the eve of independence, during the brief interlude of glasnost in the late 1980s, the Uzbek educated elites, together with their counterparts across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, began to decry the negative aspects of the Soviet legacy. Taking advantage of the new openness, initiated by First Secretary Gorbachev, Uzbek social critics of all stripes denounced women's so-called "double burden," created by women's integration into the labor force and expectations that women would continue to cover all of the domestic labor in the home.13 Moscow's attempts to rein in the high population growth rates in the region also prompted heated criticism. Politicians and public figures began to call for a return to "traditional" roles for women, a stance that women's activists decried as decidedly "anti-woman," believing that it was designed to drive women out of the labor force and higher education and back into the home.14

Post-independence Uzbekistan
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, assertions of Uzbek "national tradition" came into immediate conflict with those elements of the Soviet legacy that promoted women's equality. As in many post-communist societies, attitudes regarding women's roles in society and the workforce, and the structure of family, grew more conservative during the turmoil that followed the break-up of the Soviet bloc.15 Social scientists have noted that "one of the more fully elaborated and vigorously promulgated components of Uzbekistan's new national ideology is an imagined pre-revolutionary past in which the restriction of women to the private sphere supposedly enriched the lives of women and the entire nation."16 Uzbekistan's post-independence government under President Islam Karimov straddles two conflicting positions, on the one hand claiming to promote the Soviet legacy of women's equality, but on the other, seeking to legitimate independence through the reassertion of national culture and selected aspects of pre-Soviet traditions.

This position is further complicated by the government's contradictory stance toward Islam, which it also promotes as a facet of national culture and identity, but suppresses when it challenges state authority.17 Statements by government officials portray Islam on the whole as an encroaching threat to women's exercise of their rights, ignoring facets of the region's own Islamic heritage, such as the jadid movement, supportive of female emancipation. Since independence, the country has undergone a popular religious revival, although independent Uzbekistan has maintained the Soviet forms of state control over religion through a centralized bureaucracy. During the course of this revival, some Uzbek citizens, mistrustful of state-controlled Islam, and newly aware of the variations in Islam internationally, have sought out alternative forms of belief and practice, some more observant than the government-approved norm.18 Though very few in number, some women, particularly the young, have begun to veil.19

Having crushed all secular opposition to the authoritarian rule of President Karimov by the mid-1990s, the state's attitude toward uncontrolled expressions of religious belief, as a potential vehicle to carry critical social messages and civil discontent, grew more hostile. Reacting to a perceived political challenge from independent Islam, the state passed a 1998 Law on Religion that sharply restricted all forms of religious practice not regulated by the state, and forbade the wearing of "religious dress" in public.20 Shortly after the passage of this law, dozens of female students who refused to abandon their veils were expelled from institutions of higher learning.21 Currently, women who choose to veil are subject to various forms of state harassment, including arrest and fines.22 Ironically, as a justification for the state's campaign against independent Muslims, President Karimov has claimed that the Uzbek Islamic opposition forces outside the country aim to impose a Taliban-like regime on the country and force women to veil.23

In an attempt to salvage at least some of the Soviet heritage of women's nominal emancipation, Uzbekistan has nevertheless inscribed gender equality in its constitution and other laws, and instituted certain administrative measures to promote women's status. Article 18 of the 1992 constitution, currently in force, provides all citizens with equal rights without respect to gender, and article 46 repeats that women and men shall have equal rights."24 Uzbekistan's Family Code, amended by parliament in 1998, likewise includes explicit guarantees of women's equality before the law, in article 2 on the "Equality of Women and Men in family relations," and in article 3, on "Citizen's equality in family relations."25

In addition, the Uzbek government has issued proclamations and implemented some minimal policies designed to protect women's rights. A 1995 presidential decree, on "Measures to Increase the Role of Women in State and Society," gave representatives of the national Women's Committee, heirs of the Soviet Women's Committee, official government posts.26 According to the decree, the chairwoman of the national Women's Committee serves as deputy prime minister, and regional representatives of the committee at the provincial, district, and municipal level function as deputies to the appointed governors of these territories, the khokim.27 As deputy governors and mayors, Women's Committee leaders carry responsibility for administering social welfare payments to women and families, and for other policies directly related to women. Despite this apparent power, some commentators have dismissed the committees as purely administrative bodies that lack a substantive role in the formulation of policy.28

Women's Status in the Family and Society
Since independence, despite the administrative measures noted above, the government has taken little or no effective action to protect women's basic human rights, particularly access to education and employment, which have both eroded.

The past decade has seen the average marriage age, particularly for girls, decline, although the law sets the minimum age of marriage for girls at seventeen, and for boys at eighteen.29 Although some women's committee leaders expressed to Human Rights Watch their desire to encourage girls to delay marriage, the practice of evading legal age limits through religious, not civil marriages occurs with the tacit approval of local authorities. Early marriage tends to limit women's access to education and employment outside the home.30 The new bride, or kelin, occupies the lowest status rung in her new family, particularly until she produces a first child. Fundamental decisions about a young woman's life-whether or not she will work outside the home, continue with school, with whom she will socialize, and how often she will see her natal family-are made largely by her mother- and father-in-law.31

Strongly correlated with the trend toward earlier marriages for women, women's educational attainment in the post-Soviet period has declined precipitously. Women made up fully half of the population, and 41 percent of students enrolled in higher educational institutions in 1991. By 1997, that figure had dropped to 37 percent. Most observers assert that the downward trend has continued since that time.32 As well as shifting marriage patterns, changing social attitudes and unspoken state policies may be fostering this decline: higher education officials have expressed to Human Rights Watch the belief that post-secondary schooling should be limited to men.33

As elsewhere in the post-communist world, the economic hardship after the demise of communism has led to disproportionate declines in women's status and well-being. Overall economic contraction in Uzbekistan has led to an upsurge in unemployment; although official statistics minimize this problem.34 Growth of women's unemployment in the state sector of the economy has been offset to some extent by rising employment in the informal sector and in agriculture. Women are increasingly concentrated in low-wage sectors of the workforce, and receive lower wages than men for the same work.35

1 Nick Megoran, "Theorizing gender, ethnicity and the nation-state in Central Asia," Central Asian Survey (1999), 18(1), pp. 99-110.

2 Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley, 1998), pp. 222-223.

3 Marianne Ruth Kamp, "Unveiling Uzbek Women: Liberation, Representation and Discourse, 1906-1929," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, June 1998.

4 Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia: 1919-1929 (Princeton, 1974).

5 Dilorom A. Alimova, Reshenie zhenskogo voprosa v Uzbekistane 1917-1941 (Tashkent, 1987).

6 Douglas Taylor Northrop, "Uzbek Women and the Veil: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia," Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University, March 1999.

7 Dilorom A. Alimova, Zhenskii vopros v srednei azii (Tashkent, 1991).

8 Martha Brill Olcott, "Central Asia: The Reformers Challenge a Traditional Society," in Lubomyr Hajda and Mark Beissinger, The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society (Boulder, 1990), p. 266; UNDP, Human Development Report, Uzbekistan, 1997 (Tashkent, 1997).

9 Shireen Akiner, "Between tradition and modernity: the dilemma facing contemporary Central Asian women," in Mary Buckley, ed. Post-Soviet women: from the Baltic to Central Asia (Cambridge, 1997), p. 276.

10 Ibid.

11 Dr. Nodira Azimova, Dr. Dilarom Alimova, "Women's Position in Uzbekistan Before and After Independence," in Feride Acar and Ayse Gunes-Ayata, eds., Gender and Identity Construction: Women of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey (Leiden, 2000), pp. 294-295.

12 Martha Brill Olcott, "Central Asia: The Reformers Challenge a Traditional Society," in Lubomyr Hajda and Mark Beissinger, The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society, p. 261-2.

13 Azimova and Alimova, "Women's Position in Uzbekistan...", pp. 294-295.

14 Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva and Elmira Turgumbekova, "The Female Intelligentsia of Central Asia: Old and New Problems," in Tokhtakhodjaeva and Turgumbekova, The Daughters of Amazons: Voices from Central Asia (Lahore, 1996), p. 27.

15 Mary Buckley, "Victims and agents: gender in post-Soviet states," in Mary Buckley, ed. Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia, p. 7. See also Lynne Attwood, "The post-Soviet woman in the move to the market: a return to domesticity and dependence?" in Rosalind Marsh (ed.), Women in Russia and Ukraine (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 255-266.

16 Elizabeth Constantine, anthropologist, paper presented to a World Bank seminar, May 2000.

17 Republic of Uzbekistan. Crackdown in the Fargona Valley: Arbitrary Arrests and Religious Discrimination. A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 10, no. 4, May 1998; Mehrdad Haghayegi, Islam & Politics in Central Asia, New York, 1996.

18 Haghayegi, Islam & Politics; Bakhtiiar Babajanov, "Vozrozhdenie deiatel'nosti sufiiskikh grupp v Uzbekistane," Tsentral'naia Aziia i Kavkaz no. 1 (2), 1999, pp. 181-182.

19 Overwhelmingly, contemporary Uzbek women who choose to wear the hijab, or covering prescribed by some interpretations of Islam, have adopted dress similar to that worn by conservative Muslim women in Turkey and other parts of the non-Arab Muslim world: a long loose coat-like robe together with a headscarf covering the forehead and neck, and sometimes the entire face save for the eyes. The historical Central Asian variant, the paranja and chachvan, or total-body robe draped over the head and a netting covering the face, resembling the Afghan burqa, remains a rarity.

20 Law on Freedom of Conscience, article 14.

21 Male students who wore beards were also expelled. Uzbekistan. Class Dismissed: Discriminatory Expulsions of Muslim Students, A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 11, no. 12, October 1999.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, May 26, 2000. This witness matriculated at a newly-formed Islamic school for girls after having been expelled from a secular university. She has been repeatedly fined and beaten by police for her persistence in covering her face in public.

23 Kyrgyz Radio first program, as cited in BBC Monitoring, August 20, 2000.

24 Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, adopted December 8, 1992, part II, chapter 5, article 18; ibid., chapter 10, article 46.

25 Family Law Code, articles 2 and 3.

26 For analysis of the history of the Soviet Women's Committee, "one of the institutional pillars of the old regime," see Mary Buckley, "Adaptation of the Soviet Women's Committee: Deputies' voices from `Women of Russia,' in Buckley, ed., p. 159.

27 Pravda Vostoka, December 12, 1995.

28 Shireen Akiner, "Between tradition and modernity," pp. 292-293.

29 Family code, part II, article 15. Exceptions are provided for "with valid cause," in which "in exceptional cases, the hokim of the district or city in which the marriage is to be registered may, at the request of the parties to be married, lower the minimum age of marriage, though not by more than one year." State statistics show that the average age at first marriage remained at twenty-one (after dipping to 20.2 in 1995) between 1992 and 1998. UNDP, Human Development Report: Uzbekistan, 1999 (Tashkent, 1999), p. 74. However, the reliance on religious marriage ceremonies, anecdotal evidence shows, indicates that many marriages are contracted in fact before being registered with state agencies. Indeed, some observers tie the trend toward religious marriage ceremonies to families' efforts to circumvent the minimum age of marriage laws.

30 For a discussion of the human rights aspects of early marriage, see Early Marriage, Child Spouses, Innocenti Digest No. 7, March 2001,, June 20, 2001.

31 Human Rights Watch Interview, social scientist, name withheld, Tashkent, May 17, 2000.

32 UNDP, Human Development Report: Uzbekistan, 1999, p. 74.

33 Interview with Rector Damin Abdurakhimovich Asadov of Tashkent's Pediatric Medical Institute, Tashkent, June 3, 1998; see Class Dismissed..p. 16. Economic motives, beyond simple cost, may also play a role in discouraging women's higher education. One analyst notes that younger women command a much higher bride price than women over the age of twenty, even those with a university degree. Therefore, poverty may induce families to marry off their daughters earlier; and husband's families have little incentive to invest in the new bride's education. Anara Tabyshalieva, "Revival of Traditions in Post-Soviet Central Asia," Making the Transition Work for Women in Europe and Central Asia, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 411 (Washington, D.C., 2000), p. 53.

34 UNDP, Human Development Report: Uzbekistan, 1999, p. 23.

35 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Initial reports of States Parties, Uzbekistan, CEDAW/C/UZB/1, February 2, 2000, pp. 59-61.

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