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Tajikistan: Between security and objectification of female body

After a long political struggle against the Islamic opposition, Tajikistan’s government initiated a “traditional-national” policy, according to which women should wear “traditional-national” garments. This objectification of female body serves to perpetuate the political power of the ruling elite.

November 13, 2017 - Hafiz Boboyorov - Stories and ideas

Image by Steve Evans

Zarina works in a private company to be able to pay for rent and maintain herself and her two children, while her husband works in Russia. He is saving money to build a new home for the family. Just like many other Tajik women, in order to protect both her marriage and her job, Zarina has to wear the hijab.

Meddling by state and religious officials in people’s personal and family affairs is commonplace in Tajikistan. The authorities set restrictive rules on public prayer for the youth, on wearing beards for men and garments for women. A number of western countries, human rights organisations and activists claim that these restrictions are against the principle of the freedom of conscience and citizens’ individual choice.

Human Rights Watch, among others, relates the restrictive rules set by the Tajik government to silencing opposition forces, especially the Islamic opposition represented by the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

Post-war struggles

After the 1997 peace accords ending the civil war, the leaders and fighters of the Islamic opposition were integrated into state structures. Both the post-civil war government and its Islamic opposition divided the state offices among themselves with the share of 70-30, respectively. The post-reconciliation period was initially peaceful even though each side sought to extend their control over public offices and resources and each had a different ideological provenance. While the government promoted “secularism”, the IRPT adhered to Islamic values.

However, the divide over traditional and religious norms deepened in the following years, which took place in three stages. The first stage ended with a parliamentary election in 2010, in which the Islamic opposition won a considerable proportion of votes. The IRPT’s success reflected not only the religious needs of some segments of the population, but also the fact that it was the main opposition party, and thus the only alternative to the government. In response, the government set restrictive measures on political Islam and co-opted some key religious actors into the official structures.

In September 2015 the security forces crushed the rebellion of the deputy Minister of Defence, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, the former leading member of the Islamic opposition, and eliminated him in the aftermath. The court recognised IRPT as a terrorist organisation and most of its leaders were detained and put in jail, while hundreds more left the country in fear of their lives.

The upheaval marked the beginning of a new stage, in which the exiled Islamic activists resumed their ideological struggle abroad, mostly in the European Union. In this period, the government switched from a straightforward “secular” campaign to the ambivalent “national-traditional” ideology. The goal was to restore the state’s religious reputation. As part of the strategy, the government also alleviated its once uncompromised position on certain practices, including wearing beards and the hijab – this time using different arguments.

New rules, old game?

In early August, president Emomali Rahmon introduced amendments to the Law “On re-ordering traditions, celebrations and customs” which were approved by the parliament on August 23rd 2017. Although the law keeps and extends the restrictions, the official narrative has changed and begun to justify the measures from the viewpoint of traditional practices.

During his visit to the Khatlon Province in August, president Rahmon explained the law with reference to fundamental norms of Islam. Some opponents claim the justification had a lot in common with the one offered by Salafi groups, now banned in Tajikistan.

The change in rhetoric is visible on many levels. The Chair of the regional Department of Internal Affairs in Sughd Province, Sharif Rahmon Nazarzoda, who used to be intransigent to wearing beard and hijab, now claims that “[t]here should be an order, a culture to wear them”.

In addition, a short video has recently appeared in the social media showing the president talking with religious notables about the acceptable norms of beard wearing. This manoeuvre demonstrates that the conflict of interests between the government and its Islamic opposition is not based on any real ideological differences, but rather on the changing balance of political power between the two sides.

In this new stage of the struggle, the government carefully seeks to blend religious practices with the “traditional-national” norms. Rules and practices change in order to preserve the regime. Thus “normalising beard” replaces the beard shaving campaign, and “national and traditional clothes” replace the “alien garments” or “non-traditional dress”, including black hijabs and European skirts.

These seemingly concessive manoeuvres are aimed to save the reputation of the president, so far referred to as the “Tajik Peter the Great” – a pejorative title that compares him with the Russian ruler who introduced beard tax and imposed Western suits upon his Russian subjects in the 18th century.

Promoting traditional practices seeks to legitimise the authority of the president in light of the supposedly increasing “foreign threats”. It also seeks to enforce the authoritarian and paternalistic power of the “Leader of the Nation” (president Rahmon) as well as the wealth of his own family vis-à-vis the increasing unemployment and radicalisation of youth.

The law “On the founder of national peace and unity – the Leader of the Nation” adopted in November 2015 legalised the supreme status of the president over people and state and secured him and his family immunity from prosecution.

Tradition above all

The PR team of the Leader of the Nation has tried to counterbalance the rhetoric of the Islamic opposition which portrayed him as anti-Islamic. As part of the campaign, the Leader of the Nation and his family went on Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca – editor’s note) and promoted it via TV channels and other mass media.

Moreover, the Leader of the Nation regularly visits the country’s regions to manifest his support for traditional and religious norms and practices. The exposition of the docile role of women particularly strengthens the president’s new image. On his last visit to the Bokhtar district on August 16th 2017, he ordered the local authorities to find a bride and arrange the wedding of a young history teacher who recited an ode for him. The groom promised that his new wife will not have to resign on her job as a nurse.

Moreover, universities which promote the politics of the Leader of the Nation also offer exemplary female graduates to cover their wedding expenses. These and other similar programmes are aimed to promote the paternalistic figure of the Leader of Nation and his role in fighting the invasion of “alien culture and traditions” – in part reflected by Islamic hijab and the European skirt.

According to the new rules, women should tie white or colourful scarves in a traditional Tajik way, behind the head, exposing the neck under the chin. In early August, more than 8,000 women in Dushanbe were stopped by state officials and asked to remove the hijab, while six million mobile phone users received text messages on September 6th 2017 promoting traditional dress. The instructions to observe and respect traditional Tajik clothes have been part of the government’s policy to protect national culture and traditions.

Objectifying female body

With the new policy, the Leader of the Nation on the one hand deprives the religious opposition of arguments demonstrating his anti-Islamic policy, and on the other, meets the secular expectations of the regional powers – Russia and China – backing his government.

Indeed, the lingering struggle between the political elite and their Islamic opposition has shaped the female body as a convenient object of the traditional and/or religious norms. The way in which the two sides of the divide treat the female body exposes their relation to these norms. Consequently, the struggle between tradition and Islam shapes the public opinion and the expectations of the image and functions of the female body.

It also influences the choices of women, although these reflect not only the hegemonic discourse, but also everyday security practices. Hijab protects women in their everyday activities and ensures good family relations.

Young women often wear the hijab to secure their bodies from verbal and physical assaults. It is the central component of the hegemonic Islamic norm of iffat (chastity), which provides that women belong to mahram (husbands and unmarriageable kin, including fathers and brothers). According to this hegemonic masculine interpretation, hijab protects women’s iffat from non-mahram men.

In his recent article, a Tajik Islamic activist claims that non-mahram men are destined by God to sexual aggressiveness. “To struggle against Islamic hijab is thus to support rape”, he wrote. The alien European garments reflect the fashion of sexual wrongdoing, while the hijab is the guard of women and an antidote against sexually corrupt society. He further judges that only women wearing the hijab belong to their husbands while uncovered women often commit crimes, especially sexual perversion.

Men, who support women’s free choice to wear whatever they like, are stigmatised as indifferent to rape of their female relatives. Without the hijab, women are less mobile, insecure in public places, at universities and at work. Many assert that aggressive or non-mahram men consider women without hijab as potential sexual objects. When they wear the hijab, men change their attitude and address them as sisters.

Islamic norms demand that women wear the hijab, build family and bear children. Women obey this demand not only because of their docile submission to the norms, but also because of their need to protect themselves from sexual assault, domestic violence, polygamy and divorce. Family connections ensure better opportunities for mobility and employment of women, which means both financial and sexual protection. In a situation, where up to one million Tajik men go to Russia for work, their left-behind wives and sisters are often allowed to leave the house and work only if they wear the hijab. The individual choice and taste of women is less important.

After a long political struggle against the Islamic opposition, the Tajik government has initiated a “traditional-national” policy, according to which  women should follow some unwritten but clearly defined rules of wearing “traditional-national” garments. These differ from both the Islamic hijab and the Western skirt. The objectification of female body serves to perpetuate the political power of the ruling elite vis-à-vis both their Islamic rivals and secular regional powers.

Hafiz Boboyorov, PhD, is an Alexander von Humboldt fellow currently living and working in Germany. His research interests include collective identities, social changes and existential security of the people in Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics. 

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