Gendered Nationalism in Central Asia

Nov 23, 2015Central Asia, Issue 2 Commentary

By Safiye Embel


Central Asia symbolizes an interesting mosaic of push and pull between Russian dominance and Muslim resistance. The process of constructing a collective identity after the break of Soviet Union involves distinct gendered politics. The engineering of national identity positions women at the center of its politics. In Central Asian culture, women are used as powerful symbols of cultural identity. In the context of Turkmenistan, least globally integrated state of Central Asia, the survival of national identity generates through women. This link between sexuality and nationalism has been a major success in instilling a unique Turkmen identity.

Women’s role in nation building is the central ingredient in achieving a traditional and religiously conscious society. Historically, living under the oppressive Soviet regime for more than seven decades, Muslim women in central Asia resisted communism and atheism. While Muslim men superficially accepted Soviet political ideology outdoors, women in the private sphere consistently taught Islamic values and Turkic languages to the youth under the shadow of Russian Empire.  Communism was dictated by the state to children in public schools, therefore mothers’ volunteered a mission to educate kids in the household. Muslim women of Soviet era have been carriers of intellectual and historical knowledge and great storytellers.  Due to women’s protection of faith, culture and language Russians were unsuccessful in eliminating the traditional values in Turkmen region. To this day, women’s identity as mothers and guardians of tradition appears at the forefronts of the preservation and maintenance of Turkmen tradition.

Women’s role contributed to Turkmenistan in ways that was hardly explored prior to the independence in 1992. Since independence, Turkmen government abused women’s agency as instrument for their identity based nationalistic politics. The former president Saparmurat Turkmenbasy as well as the current president Gurbaguly Berdimuhammedow defined women as reproducers of collective identity, which lead to control of women’s agency. The government brought restrictions on women’s dress codes and hair. The official Turkmen dress was announced: long traditional dress with full-length sleeves. It reminds a folklore costume with its unique design and fabric. Female public officials are expected to wear official Turkmen dress at work. The national dress code is compulsory for girls from primary school to university. Today women of all ages wear different versions of the dress as a sign to honor the collective Turkmen identity. Similarly, girls of all ages are expected to keep two long braids, and wear “takhya” a beanie that covers small part of ones head similar to the Kippah of Jewish men. Although legally there is no hair code, there are customary laws against short hair, unnatural hairstyle and hair color. These cultural and historical symbols that are attached to sexuality explain the centrality of women’s role in maintenance of collective Turkmen identity.

Unlike various oppressive countries or cultures, which reduce women’s mobility as members of private sphere for reproduction and domestic purposes, Turkmen government plays an unusual politics. Women carry double responsibility both in and outside domestic realm. In domestic sphere, they carry traditional feminine roles as nurturers and caretakers; keep the house clean, wash and cook. In the late 1990’s with the rise of nationalism, women’s role as public symbols of tradition offered women the ability to be visible. Woman are expected and encouraged to work outside of the home as teachers, nurses, street cleaners, waitresses, school administrators, librarians, and tailors. Women work as farmers and control even traditionally masculine sector of agriculture. They bear twice responsibility of caring for their children and housework as well as supporting household financially.

Today women’s active role outside and struggle to do all deteriorates women’s agency. This method of oppression can be more dangerous, because the system is strategically devaluing women to a system of power that benefits men economically and socially. One of the major demonstrations of this is polygamy, which a legally criminalized yet widespread practice. Public rumor suggests that women outnumber men by three to one ratio and therefore underground marriage is culturally accepted up to three times.  Second or third “marriage” has interesting dynamics since it has no legal status. Second wives tend to be of a Russian or non-Turkmen origin. Expectations from second wives are slightly lower than first wives. Although first wives tend to give birth to three or more kids, non-Turkmen women generally won’t become mothers at all.  As Turkmen women’s role as breadwinners and guardians of culture remains, men retain hierarchy of power and privilege.

Women accept all, do all and suffer all in Turkmenistan. The post-Soviet era has devastating gender consequences for women physically, emotionally and mentally. The construction of a Turkmen identity heavily depends on women. Nevertheless, despite women’s hard work and public visibility, women have no real choice on motherhood or guardianship. What is clear in Turkmenistan is that women are strong fighters, they will shape the future of the region and real change will only come through them.

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