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.)
During 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: