Are western women immoral
Like many post-colonial societies before them, the Central Asian countries are still searching for their own national identity almost 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They are turning away from Russian cultural influences and trying to adapt their national traditions to modernity. However, some of these traditions have the potential to strengthen conservative patriarchal values and behaviors and thereby threaten gender equality. Women are under considerable pressure to conform to ideals of femininity and modesty in order to meet the demand for the preservation of national identity.
Central Asia represents a paradox with regard to gender equality. The usual link between positive economic development and advancing gender equality does not apply here. The post-Soviet states of Central Asia are rated better in terms of gender equality than other Muslim countries such as Algeria or Central American countries such as Mexico. There is usually a strong correlation between a country's position in the Human Development Index (HDI) and a country's Gender Inequality Index (GII). The countries of Central Asia are special cases. They are generally located in the lower range in the HDI (the lower the ranking, the weaker the socio-economic development) - with the exception of Kazakhstan, the wealthiest country in the region. At the same time, the degree of gender injustice is limited (the lower the ranking, the greater the gender injustice). A striking example is Tajikistan with a 127th place in the HDI and a 69th in the GII. For comparison: Mexico ranks 74th in the HDI and 76th in the GII, while Algeria ranks 85th in the HDI and 100th in the GII.
The Soviet legacy
In Central Asia, equality between women and men increased during the Soviet era through specific policies such as literacy campaigns and the promotion of full employment for women on the basis of "equal pay for equal work." The beginnings date back to the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, when liberation of women from centuries-old patriarchal oppression was a priority for the Soviet government. During this period, strengthening women's rights in Central Asia had two goals: women and men should have equal rights and, perhaps more importantly, the position of Islamic clergy and religious traditions should be weakened. The hujum, as the forced unveiling of women was called (the term literally means attack), provoked serious resistance from the local population. Ultimately, persistent coercion and propaganda led to the fact that in the last days of the Soviet Union hardly any Central Asian woman - except perhaps members of the older generation - covered her head. Even if Soviet women had gained a lot, they were faced with a double burden. They were very active in their workplace, but at the same time they were also the ones who mainly had to take care of the household. Emancipation was recognizable in the public space, but not necessarily in the private family area.
Since the independence of the Central Asian states, a multitude of ongoing socio-economic processes have influenced gender equality and also endangered the aforementioned achievements of women. The economic collapse after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a certain renaissance of the religious and the globalization accompanied by Western influences had significant consequences for the role of women in society. Above all, the decolonization and de-sovietization efforts after the collapse of the Union have led to a renewed interest in promoting national traditions based on an idealization of the past.
National garb against Muslim and Western way of life
This interest in and promotion of national traditions was reinforced by governments trying to counter the popularity of foreign Islamic practices. The latter had also led to clothing habits that were considered alien to national traditions. Practical steps to combat foreign Islamic influences while strengthening national clothing habits and culture can be observed in both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, where a partial ban on the hijab has been introduced. In 2007, Abdujabbor Rachmonov, Tajik Education Minister from 2005 to 2012, issued a decree forbidding women to wear the hijab (covering hair, ears, neck and neckline, the editor) in educational institutions. The crackdown on the hijab reached a new level in late 2010, when Rachmonov publicly condemned parents who sent their children to see mullahs in class. Once again he criticized women who wore the hijab and even went so far as to call them "monkeys". Men are also restricted: they are banned from wearing long beards and half-length trousers, which are associated with Salafism, a conservative movement in Islam that is viewed as hostile. While women are accused on the one hand of propagating extremist ideas when they wear the hijab, on the other hand they are also criticized when they dress in European clothing because it is "sexy" and a betrayal of national values. The decree forced young women to dress "according to their position and national traditions" and to avoid "provocative" clothing such as tight jeans or mini skirts. In 2018, the Tajik Ministry of Culture published official dress codes for women to give girls and women guidelines on how to dress according to national traditions. These guidelines are not binding, but they do put pressure on women to dress according to national values. This is also confirmed in the remarks made by the Tajik President on Mother's Day 2015: "[...] there is no greater sin than betraying one's parents and the fatherland."
In Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Education banned hijabs in schools in 2016 with a controversial decision. The trend of minors wearing hijab was seen as foreign Islamic influence threatening national traditions. The decision to ban girls from wearing the hijab in school has generated a lot of opposition. Some parents and children even resisted the decision of the Ministry of Education, but were ultimately sanctioned with fines.
In Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, the issue of women's clothing and the renewed interest in national traditions created similar tensions. Turkmenistan, known for its extravagant politics, has issued an (albeit unofficial) ban prohibiting women from driving. In addition, the import of hair dye and nail varnish was banned. The president, who has always been seen in public with dark hair, now prefers a shade of gray. The ban is more likely to affect women than men.
In Kyrgyzstan, there was a brief war of posters in the capital Bishkek in 2016. The first showed two groups of women, one in traditional costume with round hats, the other with niqabs that cover all of their faces except for their eyes. The poster read: “My poor people. Where are we going?!". A little later a similar poster appeared, but now it showed women wearing T-shirts and shorts. The poster warned of the dangers of Western clothing. It contained the same question: “My poor people. Where are we going?!"
Defending national identity through control over women
The countries of Central Asia have also passed or are planning unusual laws regarding marriages to help preserve national identity. In Tajikistan, for example, changes were made to family law in 2011 that restricted marriages to foreigners. The most notable change is that the foreign spouse must purchase Tajikistan housing for the native. Since foreigners are only allowed to purchase real estate after a five-year stay in Tajikistan, this restriction makes marrying a foreigner considerably more difficult. In Kazakhstan the laws have not yet been changed, but there is a discussion - especially in the social networks - whether or not foreigners who marry a Kazakh woman should be subject to a tax. Most of those in favor of such a law state that it would help preserve Kazakhstan's national identity.
An even more worrying development is the phenomenon of "disgraceful patrols" in Kazakhstan. These patrols are made up of conservative nationalist men known as uyatmen in Kazakh. They boast that they will ensure the victory of morality. Her main target is women who she believes have violated the principles of decent national behavior. In 2016, one of these Uyatmen became famous in the media for covering a statue of a woman in Astana with a scarf because he had found her immoral. The selfie with the now moral statue that he posted on social media went viral, drew heavy criticism, but also found some support. In Almaty, doctor Asel Bajandarowa raised her voice for women's rights and posed barely dressed for glossy magazines. She stands for everything that the Uyatmen despise and is famous for a Facebook comment in which she stated that Kazakh women should not have to submit to the "stupid" conditions of traditional society. Other Facebook users mimicked Bayandarova's post and protested the outrage of the moralists. While most of the abuse and ostracism takes place online, there have been instances where women who are considered immoral and disgraceful to the nation have been intimidated in real life.
Sere Asylbek, a nineteen-year-old singer from Kyrgyzstan, recently released a video clip in 2018 that immediately spread rapidly because of its provocative content. By April 2019, the video had been viewed 258,000 times on YouTube. Asylbek can be seen there with a skirt, a purple bra and a black blazer over it. Behind her you can see young women in long robes. After jumping into a lake, everyone reappears in different outfits, from jeans and blouses to traditional dresses. The message is emancipating, it encourages women to wear whatever they want. The video sparked violent backlash in Kyrgyzstan. Asylbek even received death threats for having offended Kyrgyz culture, according to conservative activists. Her father wasn't too enthusiastic about her approach, but he supported her by posting a strong message on social media himself: “Sere is my daughter. A free daughter of free Kyrgyzstan «. Asylbek claims she was inspired to write a song about freedom for women after a young Kyrgyz woman who was abducted in May 2018 was stabbed to death by her kidnapper in a police station while they were both under police surveillance. Bride robbery is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, but actually widespread. A United Nations statement dated May 31, 2018 stated that "13.8% of women under 24 marry under some form of coercion."
The developments described above illustrate the increasing development of patriarchal discourses and practices in Central Asia. Patriarchy determines behavior by providing a binary understanding of human relationships based on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different. Women are assigned a more private role and men a more public one. Patriarchy determines what constitutes appropriate behavior for men and women, with men being strong and active and women beautiful and humble. Both themes, beauty and humility, have become particularly prominent in Central Asia in recent years.
The resurgence of the notion that the fate of the nation depends on the morality of women is a significant step backwards from the liberation of women during the Soviet Union. De-Sovietization and nation-building required a redefinition and promotion of national traditions. These processes take place in the context of globalization, which leads to distortions in the establishment of an identity for the Central Asian nations. On the one hand, Islamic traditions are spurned and blocked, on the other hand, Western influences are perceived as corrupting society. Social and political forces in Central Asian countries are trying to control how women behave and dress, thereby reducing the progress women had made in earlier times. Pressure from the state to enforce its laws and from society (which in some cases includes violence) threatens to lower the high GII values of the Central Asian countries. But we also see that there are women in Central Asia who stand up and fight to (re) regain autonomy and control over their bodies.
The cases described here reveal nationalistic tendencies that are directed against both Western and Islamic influences. This return to the conservative is not necessarily religiously justified, it is rooted in a conservative national and traditionalist movement that seeks to restore the purity of the local culture. A doctor from Almaty put it to »Eurasianet« as follows: »If a man is corrupt, it destroys the family. If a woman is corrupt, it destroys the nation «. Women's clothing symbolizes the authentic nature of the nation and it serves as an instrument to delegitimize strictly religious behavior and liberal Western values. The relatively repressive political conditions in the region, which are characterized by a paternalistic style of governance, represent a barrier to empowerment for everyone, but especially for women. It should not be forgotten, however, that women's clothing is also regulated in Western societies. In France, in 2016, the government banned women from using public beaches in Islamic bathing suits that cover their entire bodies (so-called burkinis). The government of the Canadian province of Québec has just passed a law that bans civil servants (police officers, judges, but also teachers) from wearing any kind of religious symbols. The law is supposed to apply to all religions and to affect various religious attributes (for example crucifixes, kippas, turbans or veils), but it is mostly understood as an anti-hijab law. In many countries, the female body continues to be the scene of political disputes that undermine women's freedom of action and their ability to make life choices.
From the English by Hartmut Schröder
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