Gender and Development in Uzbekistan

In the pre-Soviet Uzbekistan (which was a part of the Russian Empire but was allowed to continue with their Islamic traditions), the traditionally patriarchal society was “thoroughly gender-segregated.” The girls stayed home until their marriage was arranged, and they were required to wear “paranji” (long and wide covering for the whole body) and “chachvon” (a black net made out of horsehair to cover their face) to follow the Islamic religious tradition.

With the establishment of the Soviet regime, the Zhenotdel (abbreviation of Women’s Department in Russian) took seriously their goal of gender equality and emancipation by turning to massive unveiling campaigns against “women’s seclusion and inequality” called “hujum” (“attack” in the Uzbek language) and gathering Uzbek women, by means of intimidation or force, for public unveilings and setting their paranjis and chachvons on fire. This was the Soviet way of social transformation of women, liberating and civilizing them from religious “backwardness.” In addition, many traditional religious practices such as polygamy, child marriage, and forced marriage became punishable by law. The Uzbek resistance to the unveiling was quite violent resulting in murders of the unveiled women by their relatives or husbands; and it was also seen as an attack on their religious and cultural traditions. (This part was not taught in our history books – some of the articles on early Uzbek Soviet history is an eye-opener for me.)

3236098During the Soviet period, access to education, health care, employment and social benefits was granted equally to men and women. The literacy rates were high, however, women were employed in lower paid sectors and jobs (education and healthcare). A lot of women were employed in agriculture in rural areas and factories in the urban areas. In addition to their day jobs, women’s role was still seen as traditional home and child caretakers.

20 plus years after gaining independence, the gender inequality still remains to be addressed. According to the Asian Development Bank 2014 report, the term “gender” is understood in context of women; and “gender equality” is seen “as a process of being just and fair to women” in terms of social issues, but is not recognized “as a pre-requisite… for economic growth and stability.” Although women score high in the access to education and health, the access to economic and political arenas remains to be seen. The law allows for 30% of political candidates to be women. However, they only represent 17% of all members of legislative, representative and executive bodies. Only 4.2% of seats in the National Assembly (Oliy Majlis) are represented by women, and only one of the fourteen national ministries is headed by a female.

In education sector, majority of students in postsecondary and higher education are men. They are also more likely to pursue majors in technical training (traditionally higher paid jobs). The women are mostly in majors considered traditionally as “female” areas of study – education and health care (lower paid jobs). As a result, the labor market shows specific gender patterns as well, with women in lower paid public sector (health care and education), and men in more profitable fields (construction, transport, communications, industry).

Even though the Constitution of Uzbekistan guarantees equality for men and women before law, there is no official policy in place for women’s empowerment. The government approved several actions plans as a response to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan was created, and it oversees women’s affairs throughout the nation. However, it is considered as a nongovernmental organization despite being chaired by a deputy prime minister, and therefore has no voice in decision making process.

The country has a system of Mahallas, the neighborhood committees that were not dissolved by the Soviet system and kept as a way of pushing government’s initiatives. After the independence, they were put in place to “keep traditional Uzbek family values” and to oversee “day-to-day family matters, provide support to vulnerable families, and mediate in conflicts.” According to the OECD gender index report, they sometimes function “as obstacles to women’s rights.” Without the mahalla committee’s approval women are unable to file for divorce even if they are victims of domestic abuse. The OECD report also mentions that “domestic violence is not defined in Uzbek legislation,” and that there is no specific law addressing domestic violence, unless “it resulted in the death or very serious injury of the victim.” It is instead addressed as a “family conflict” to be resolved within the family, and if needed, with the help of mahalla.

As we see, Uzbekistan has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. Hopefully, the reports with analysis and practical suggestions done by ADB, OECD and other international organizations will be taken into serious consideration and changes will be implemented by the government.

If of any interest, below are infographics related to Uzbekistan gender data from the World Bank and UNDP:

Gender at a glance UZB World Bank

Key indicators world bank and men in Uzbekistan: difference in education



Sources used:

Asian Development Bank, UZBEKISTAN: Country Gender Assessment. Gender and Development/Central and West Asia/2014. Retrieved from

Gender at a Glance: UZBEKISTAN (March 2015). World Bank, Europe and Central Asia (ECA), March/2015, 100430. Retrieved from

Danielle Kane, Ksenia Gorbenko, Colonial Legacy and Gender Inequality in Uzbekistan (September 25, 2015). SAGE Journals, Current Sociology 0011392115599583, doi:10.1177/0011392115599583

Social Institutions and Gender Index, OECD Development Center, UZBEKISTAN. Retrieved from

UNDP Uzbekistan, Women and Men in Uzbekistan: Differences in Education poster, 2010-2011. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Gender and Development in Uzbekistan

  1. It was an eye opener to read that family members preferred to kill their own family before going against culture and tradition. Were they (women) even considered as a wife, mother, sister, etc. or just another commodity? The change begins in the family unit and then filter through the hierarchy of society leading towards changes in legislation. So does religion dictate a woman’s place in society or is it made by man to keep them down?
    Excellent post Guljan!


    1. Thanks, Adrian! The Soviet unveiling campaigns should not have happened by force or intimidation. The unveiling signified the desecration of the Uzbek only known way of life, their religion, their traditions, their culture. The traditional clothing (no matter how oppressive it may have looked) was equal to purity of their girls and women. I’m in no way justifying the murders of the innocent women by their own family members. At the end, the Soviet way of life won simply by fear and intimidation tactics, killing those who did not agree with their system.


  2. It is surprising that in some cultures figures like the Mahallas still exist and it is even more surprising that this figure instead of supporting and empowering women, their decisions obstruct their well being within society. If we think about it, Mahallas could work as an effective and efficient conflict resolution mechanism and could promptly protect women’s and children safety.


    1. Thank you, Paola. I agree, mahallas’ role on paper is good, serving as mediators and providing social welfare for those in need. They have the potential of being really good facilitators of positive changes but not until the government put better policies in place to protect women and children.


  3. Hi Guljan, once again, thank you for such an informative post. I am absolutely horrified to learn about the public unveilings that resulted in the murders of women. I think this speaks to potential clash (and in this case tragic clash) that can occur when dramatic social transformations are hastily or forcibly imposed on a society from external forces, rather than from within a society or without any consideration of cultural/traditional variables. Are women represented in the mahalla committees? It seems that woman representation could provide such an important voice in these local organizations!


    1. Hi Lauren – thank you! I love your suggestion on putting women on the mahalla committees as that could potentially lead to a huge difference. However, the current president’s vision for the mahallas was a return to “Uzbek nationhood” and “morality” and the committees are chaired by elderly man called “aksakals” (literal translation “white beards”). Given the patriarchal structure of the committee, it is less likely they’ll consider interests of the women and, unfortunately, that is still the case…


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