Women and Power in Central Asia (Part I)
Sunday, January 22, 2006 2:10 PM

In the 1920s, when Bolshevik governments were set up throughout the region, Central Asian women experienced unprecedented changes. Women threw off their "paranja" -- the Islamic dress that covers a woman from head to toe -- as the Soviet state introduced equal gender rights and formal equality under law, including quotas. Quotas were built into the school system, government, parliament -- and even the Soviet Army.

"One of the things that happened after Uzbekistan became independent is rediscovery and a rebuilding of Uzbek nationalism," says Alison Gill, who researches Uzbekistan for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But, unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of that has been that the government -- as it has pursued its policy of reviving Uzbek nationalism and Uzbek identity -- has reverted to some old-fashioned, or traditional, ideas about women, and encouraged traditional gender stereotypes." Along with a strengthening of those stereotypes, more and more girls are dropping out of secondary schools, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Many Central Asian families, meanwhile, have strong prescribed gender roles. Women are subservient and often fall victim to violence and abuse from husbands and in-laws.

Rebuilding nationalism in post-Soviet Central Asia also meant a revival of Islam.
Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, based in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, say Islam grants equal rights to women and men. Nonetheless, many women find it difficult to find support among their male relatives or religious scholars themselves. Gender stereotypes are rooted not only in religious traditions, of course, but also in lifestyles. Burdened with stereotypes, Central Asian women have also had to cope with economic hardship, including unemployment and poverty. Many have had to become their family's main breadwinner. In some cases, this has opened up opportunities to pursue careers in business -- a field that so far has proven more welcoming to women than politics. Kyrgyzstan, where women have historically been politically active, is illustrative. Not a single woman took up a parliamentary seat or senior government post after the February 2005 parliamentary elections and the subsequent revolution that ousted former President Askar Akaev.
 Karamat Ismanova, a member of Kyrgyzstan's Erkindik (Freedom) Party, says women should continue their efforts at representation in the country's political establishment, as their involvement in decision-making is crucial to guaranteeing sustainability and peace in Kyrgyzstan. "We need to support our women, our daughters and mothers, to become candidates to the parliament and other branches of power, too," Ismanova says. "Only then will we be able to ensure Kyrgyzstan's territorial integrity and peace."

Many Kyrgyz women argue that a gender quota should be implemented in order to help them advance in politics. That has been the case in neighboring Afghanistan, where the country's fledgling legislature held its first session on 19 December. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has vowed equal gender rights and encouraged women to run for office. And with the introduction of a 25-percent gender quota in September elections for parliament and provincial councils, women candidates ran in unprecedented numbers. Sixty-eight of 249 seats in the People's Council, the lower house of the national legislature, were set aside for female candidates. Their candidacies -- and record voter participation among women -- came despite challenges in the form of social mores, a lack of resources, and intimidation by local militia commanders.

Women's rights activists -- who comprise more than 55 percent of human rights campaigners in Central Asia -- say advancing women's rights in any sphere requires a broad change in mindset. They say greater equality can be achieved by ensuring that there is no discrimination in legislation and that women are protected from abuse. They also say the job should not be left solely to the government and the international community. Central Asian women themselves must demand an end to discrimination, they argue, and men in the region must recognize the need for equal rights.

Cited in: "Women and Power in Central Asia (Part 1): The Struggle for Equal Rights", Gulnoza Saidazimova, RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty, 29 December 2005.

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