Shame and a prevailing culture of silence: How Tajikistan’s government is failing women6 min read
On 8 April, dozens of demonstrators participated in a march against gender-based violence in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Local government officials denied their requests to close the road, but the demonstrations continued regardless. Fortunately, there was little backlash against the protestors for this decision and there was no police presence at the rally. One thousand kilometres away in Tajikistan, however, holding rallies like this is still unthinkable for most women.
In March 2020, women’s rights activists in Tajikistan attempted to organise an “I, We, Women — Sounds Proudly” event in the capital Dushanbe to discuss women’s rights and gender issues. Unlike the march in Kazakhstan, the women here gathered privately in a small cafe. During the event, the lights were shut off and the local police were called. Following the event, one of the organisers, Nisso Rasulova, was taken into custody and held for questioning. Fortunately, Rasulova was not sentenced and is still advocating for women’s rights, but this incident highlights how dangerous it is for women in the country to speak out. To date, there has not been another attempt to organise a similar meeting.
While the other countries in Central Asia are far from bastions of feminism, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic have significantly more women involved in groups and initiatives advocating for gender equality. There have been annual demonstrations for women’s rights in both countries over the past few years. These countries also have more developed legislation on gender-based violence, though Kazakhstan has not criminalised domestic violence.
In Uzbekistan, there have been no demonstrations to date. This is likely due to the country’s history of violent repression, particularly under former president Islam Karimov. However, recently there was a significant victory in the form of a new law that specifically targets domestic violence. This law was passed after years of advocacy on the part of activists, such as Irina Matvienko, in the face of stark resistance from the government. Turkmenistan, unfortunately, has seen significant backsliding on these issues after the president introduced informal mandates banning women from riding in the front seat and getting cosmetic surgery.
In Tajikistan, there are still no laws that criminalise domestic violence or address sexual harassment. According to a 2021 World Bank study, approximately one third of women in Tajikistan experience domestic violence at some point in their life. This number, however, might be even higher, as the majority of victims do not report abuse. This is partially due to prevailing dismissive attitudes about domestic violence in the country. According to a 2016 study, a majority of both men and women in Tajikistan believe that women are “obliged to tolerate domestic violence.”
This belief was highlighted in a disturbing video released by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which interviewed locals in Dushanbe about gender-based violence. While a number of the respondents reported they had never been involved in a domestic violence incident, one man openly admitted to beating his wife, stating that he doesn’t want her to get “spoiled.” In another interview, a woman laughed and said “many times,” when asked if her husband beat her. Many female activists have cited this fear of “spoiled women” as a reason for domestic abuse, including Rasulova.
Despite this prevailing culture of silence, some women do come forward to report abuse. Many of them do not have another choice, considering that the abuse can be life-threatening. In their recent report on gender-based violence in Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch documented cases of women being stabbed, tortured, and raped across the country. When these women come forward, they are often met with indifference by the police, who do little to support victims. In some cases, the police might even call the husband and send the women back home. In the face of this dismissive attitude, many women commit suicide.
However, even if they do come forward, many women in Tajikistan do not see divorce as an option. For one, divorced women receive intense scrutiny in Tajik society. They are often labelled “beva,” which loosely translates to “divorced,” a term that denotes that they should be targeted for shame and humiliation. These women are often ill-treated and abused by both their families and the wider public. This is a result of a combination of cultural norms and Islamic tradition. Another factor is the continued practice of polygamy in the country. While polygamous marriage is not legally recognized and punishable by up to two years in prison, many religious marriage ceremonies are still performed, particularly in rural areas. As these polygamous marriages are unregistered, women seeking to leave their husbands have no legal precedent to request alimony or child support.
Even for women who are in legally registered marriages there are many issues when trying to receive support from their ex-husbands. In many cases, women are left without housing and with the sole responsibility for caring for their children. According to expert Shokhsanam Karaboeva, “in 90 cases out of 100, women don’t get paid spousal support. However, the statistics of those who do not pay child support are usually understated for a number of reasons. For example, it has been said that when fathers don’t pay spousal support, it indicates that city and district bailiffs don’t work well.” A lack of education and limited access to high-paying work leaves many women fearful of braving the risk of losing support from their husbands. The majority of women in Tajikistan do not pursue higher education and many do not even receive secondary education. This pushes women into primarily low-paying work, forcing many to take on multiple jobs.
The government of Tajikistan has taken several measures to address gender-based violence in the country, however they have had little impact. In 2013, the Law on the Prevention of Violence in the Family was passed, which provides measures to curtail the prevalence of domestic violence while not explicitly criminalising it. While women can bring other charges against their abusers, such as assault, the likelihood of prosecution is slim. Despite this being a big step in Tajikistan, legislation has little impact until it is actually implemented.
Until the government takes steps to ensure that officials are complying with the law, nothing will truly change in Tajikistan. There also needs to be a more concerted effort to combat prevailing gender norms in the country. The work of activists on the ground, such as Rasulova, is vital to changing minds and perceptions around gender based violence. The government should create space for more women to come together and advocate for change in a more meaningful way as a first step to implementing the reform they claim to aim for in the legislation.