Project on women's activism in Uzbekistan. Where to start? | MIT Center for Civic Media

Project on women's activism in Uzbekistan. Where to start?

As I was thinking about an introduction to my project on women’s activism in Uzbekistan, I figured that placing it in a historical perspective would be an appropriate first step. For this research I have used the materials from the following books: “The New Woman of Uzbekistan” Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Communism by Marianne Kamp, “Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition” Nation Building, Economic Survival, and Civic Activism” by Kathleen Kuehnast and Carol Nechemias, and “Gender and Identity Construction” Women in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey edited by Feride Acar and Gunes-Ayata.

While doing this research I saw that Uzbek history describes numerous instances of women’s activism and efforts to promote it. I see the value of these examples in that they reveal the potential on the part of women to take on active citizen roles in the social sphere despite coming from the society with long-standing patriarchal values.

Uzbekistan’s Soviet past is definitely worth discussing in that regard. From the start of the Soviet Union, political strategies were aimed at transforming Central Asian women into active participants in building socialism. Shortly after the October Revolution, an aggressive and often violent unveiling campaign was organized. Education became widely available for many Uzbek women. Local Women’s Divisions set up literacy courses, handcraft making groups, and clubs. Though few women ended up in the party, thousands of them participated in these programs.

Transformation of an Uzbek woman was encouraged in other ways as well: women’s division activists worked on expanding women’s knowledgeht of and use of their rights to vote and be elected through various election meetings organized specifically for women, and by involving women into Party organizations.

Women made use of social media by publishing newspapers. A couple of examples are Yangi Yo’l (New Path) a magazine “by and for Uzbek women” published by the Women’s Division of Communist Party of Uzbekistan. It included such themes as education for women, reforming marriage, rights. Another popular publication Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East) was a Russian newspaper published by the party’s Central Asian Bureau in Tashkent. It contained articles encouraging and propagating the increased activism among women, despite the possible family tensions as a result of changing gender roles.

The access of education was one of the very important and radical changes brought by the Soviet rule. By 1939, according to the official statistics, 73% of women in Uzbekistan aged from nine to fifty were literate, compared to around 10% in 1920’s. Before the Soviet Union, the mainstream education system in Uzbekistan was Islamic. Though this traditional education was available both for girls and boys, Islamic school reinforced gender differences in the society. Men’s and women’s religious practices and knowledge had to be separate. Women could not possess a religious authority that was superior than that of a men; girls could not study in madrasa (Islamic college). By secularizing education the Soviet approach provided more of an equal education access.

Interestingly enough, there is a reason to think that there already was a tendency of moving away from the traditional education practices in Uzbekistan before the imposition of the Bolshevik rule. This shift was driven by the progressive movement called Jadids. The movement was aimed at reforming the educating system by shifting its focus away from conservative norms and religion and by promoting gender equality. In fact, many Soviet schools were built on the Jadid approach. This shows that the transformation of the Uzbek society regarding opportunities for women and equality attempted by the Bolsheviks was not as shocking and radical as it may seem. The existence of Jadid movement and their progressive view of education and role of women shows that patriarchal ideology was ready to be challenged by the society from within before the big changes came from without.
The initial purpose behind this historical note was to provide some background info and familiarize the audience with the context of the topic. Yet, it helped me a lot in recognizing the tendencies and potentialities within the Uzbek society that are not in line with the traditional family and gender ideologies. This might help in the further shaping of my approach to the project, as I will remember to look carefully for examples that may not be direct action or outright activism, but quiet and steady practices that challenge the dominance of patriarchy.