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(Un)Civil Societies Report: January 10, 2006


10 January 2006, Volume 7, Number 1
CENTRAL ASIA: RFE/RL recently published a four-part series titled "Women & Power In Central Asia." This issue of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies" presents that series in its entirety.

PART ONE: THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUAL RIGHTS

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

An old Kyrgyz proverb claims that "a frog-headed [stupid] man is better than a golden-headed [intelligent] woman." It is tempting to suggest that the proverb reflects the overall attitude toward women in Central and South Asia. Gender stereotypes and discriminatory legislation continue to hinder women's ability to pursue careers in politics, business, and many other fields. Nonetheless, hope remains. For example, an unprecedented number of women have taken up seats in Afghanistan's new parliament. In the first of a four-part series on Women and Power in Central Asia, RFE/RL looks at the status of women in the region.

In the 1920s, when Bolshevik governments were set up throughout the region, Central Asian women experienced unprecedented changes.

Women threw off their "paranja" -- the Islamic dress that covers a woman from head to toe -- as the Soviet state introduced equal gender rights and formal equality under law, including quotas. Quotas were built into the school system, government, parliament -- and even the Soviet Army.

Many parents who received Soviet educations encouraged their daughters to study and pursue professional opportunities.

Yet all that changed in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Women began losing ground as traditional gender stereotypes returned in the newly independent Central Asian republics.

"One of the things that happened after Uzbekistan became independent is rediscovery and a rebuilding of Uzbek nationalism," says Alison Gill, who researches Uzbekistan for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But, unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of that has been that the government -- as it has pursued its policy of reviving Uzbek nationalism and Uzbek identity -- has reverted to some old-fashioned, or traditional, ideas about women, and encouraged traditional gender stereotypes."

Along with a strengthening of those stereotypes, more and more girls are dropping out of secondary schools, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The UNDP concluded in its 2005 report that Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are likely to maintain gender equality in primary and secondary education by 2015. But Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be unable to eliminate gender disparity between girls and boys in schools, the report asserted.

Many Central Asian families, meanwhile, have strong prescribed gender roles. Women are subservient and often fall victim to violence and abuse from husbands and in-laws.

Islam's Role

Rebuilding nationalism in post-Soviet Central Asia also meant a revival of Islam.

Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, based in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, say Islam grants equal rights to women and men.

"One of the longest surah [chapter] of the Koran is called 'Women,'" Yusuf says. "In this and some other surah, Allah stated that women are equal to men as human beings. In some aspects, they are even greater than men; and women are holders of all human rights. As Hadith [the second major source of Islamic rules after the Koran] say, our Prophet, may peace be upon Him, also stated women's greatness and demonstrated in practice how to respect women."

Nonetheless, many women find it difficult to find support among their male relatives or religious scholars themselves.

Gender stereotypes are rooted not only in religious traditions, of course, but also in lifestyles. Sedentary Uzbek and Tajik women had to cover themselves in "paranja" as they stepped out of the women's portion of the house, whereas nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz women were free of veils, as they had to ride horses and work in activities, like herding, alongside men.

Financial Burdens

Burdened with stereotypes, Central Asian women have also had to cope with economic hardship, including unemployment and poverty. Many have had to become their family's main breadwinner.

In some cases, this has opened up opportunities to pursue careers in business -- a field that so far has proven more welcoming to women than politics.

Kyrgyzstan, where women have historically been politically active, is illustrative. Not a single woman took up a parliamentary seat or senior government post after the February 2005 parliamentary elections and the subsequent revolution that ousted former President Askar Akaev.

Kerez Japakbaeva, a Kyrgyz human rights activist, notes that under Akaev, three of 16 cabinet ministers were women. But she says the new, all-male parliament has since "voted them all out."

Karamat Ismanova, a member of Kyrgyzstan's Erkindik (Freedom) Party, says women should continue their efforts at representation in the country's political establishment, as their involvement in decision-making is crucial to guaranteeing sustainability and peace in Kyrgyzstan.

"We need to support our women, our daughters and mothers, to become candidates to the parliament and other branches of power, too," Ismanova says. "Only then will we be able to ensure Kyrgyzstan's territorial integrity and peace."

Are Quotas The Answer?

Many Kyrgyz women argue that a gender quota should be implemented in order to help them advance in politics.

That has been the case in neighboring Afghanistan, where the country's fledgling legislature held its first session on 19 December.

Islam dominates many spheres of Afghan society, and gender stereotypes have arguably thrived there more robustly than among the post-Soviet countries -- particularly during hard- line Taliban rule.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has vowed equal gender rights and encouraged women to run for office. And with the introduction of a 25-percent gender quota in September elections for parliament and provincial councils, women candidates ran in unprecedented numbers.

Sixty-eight of 249 seats in the People's Council, the lower house of the national legislature, were set aside for female candidates. Their candidacies -- and record voter participation among women -- came despite challenges in the form of social mores, a lack of resources, and intimidation by local militia commanders.

Uzbekistan also introduced a 30-percent gender quota ahead of its December 2004 parliamentary elections. But some independent observers regard that move as a "formality" designed to placate the international community without granting women a corresponding level of participation in policy- or decision-making.

"A quota was introduced because the Uzbek government signed an international convention on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women," says Marfua Tokhtahojaeva, a women's rights campaigner from Uzbekistan. "This document requires the political participation of women. But in the case [of Uzbekistan], I am afraid it is just a formality. [The government] wants to say to the international community, 'Yes, we respect women and their rights. Look how many women we have in the parliament.' But most voters do not trust women or the parliament itself."

Women's rights activists -- who comprise more than 55 percent of human rights campaigners in Central Asia -- say advancing women's rights in any sphere requires a broad change in mindset. They say greater equality can be achieved by ensuring that there is no discrimination in legislation and that women are protected from abuse.

They also say the job should not be left solely to the government and the international community. Central Asian women themselves must demand an end to discrimination, they argue, and men in the region must recognize the need for equal rights.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)

PART TWO: WOMEN INCREASE PRESENCE IN KAZAKHSTAN'S BUSINESS SECTOR.

By Saida Kalkulova

In 1998, Kazakhstan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Since then, some powerful Kazakh women have emerged in various fields, including the traditionally male-dominated business sector. In this second of a four-part series, RFE/RL examines the situation of women in Kazakhstan through the prism of three Kazakh businesswomen.

Following its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan moved toward a market economy, and it has been developing rapidly ever since, due in large part to considerable foreign investment.

Official statistics also suggest that the negative balance for women -- who represent 51 percent of the country's 15 million people -- might be evening out. Forty percent of all women are registered managers of private businesses, according to those figures.

Forty-year-old Saltanat Rakhymbekova is the head of the Business and Industry Department for Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region. She credits the Kazakh government with implementing a proper "gender policy."

"For example, in the Karaganda region alone, there are lots of women who hold managerial posts," Rakhymbekova says. "This is the result of the Kazakh government, which is carrying out a proper gender policy. Women's skills and initiatives are being taken into consideration. I think that if women are eager to do their best to succeed, all the necessary conditions are created for them in the country."

Rakhymbekova spends much of her time at work but says that, like other women, she likes to spend every spare minute with her family, including her husband, a technical scientist, and their two daughters. She is herself from what she describes as an ordinary Kazakh family, albeit one with 10 children.

"First of all, I am lucky that I was born in Kazakhstan," Rakhymbekova says. "I appreciate my parents, who educated me. I studied at a university where 90 percent of students were men. My husband always understands me and supports all my efforts."

Starting A Trend?

Sabyrkul Asanova, 50, is a successful Kazakh businesswoman. She is president of the Symbat Fashion Academy, which is a leader in the country's fashion industry. Asanova is highly respected for her business acumen -- and pleased with what she has achieved so far.

"I always worked hard, and now I am successful," she explains simply.

Asanova says she is satisfied with what she has built. And while some are tempted to parlay such entrepreneurial success into political influence, she insists she is not eager to become involved in politics.

"If we, women, have something to do, we try to work tirelessly," Asanova says. "While men spend 10 minutes smoking, women use that time to work. I think it is impossible to have lots of women in power, however, because, in principle, women were created for a family or to give birth to babies."

Flower Power

Forty-five-year-old Gozel Kulzhanova -- who has a daughter, two sons, and a grandchild -- works in a completely different sphere. She owns a floral-decoration company called Gulistan that works on buildings, offices, and private homes. The partnership appears to be the only company in Kazakhstan that is focused specifically on the service.

Kulzhanova has sought to leverage that expertise, recently founding a magazine titled "Gulistan" that is about the planting of flowers and other plants:

"My job is very interesting," she says. "I'm happy when I see the results of my work. I think that if a person finds his favorite job, he is happy."

Kulzhanova says she wants Kazakhstan to be among the most beautiful countries in the world.

Still Struggling

The lives of many women in Kazakhstan remain bleak, however.

A Kazakh economist, Aytqali Nurseyit, notes that women still face obstacles in the country, and he says many women lost their jobs during the transition to a market economy. But he points out that Kazakhstan's economy has grown strongly in recent years and argues that the situation of Kazakh women is changing, too:

"What is unique about Kazakhstan, or Kazakh women, is that about 40 percent of Kazakh women have their own businesses. This is very good," Nurseyit says. "Kazakh women also play a key role in the fields of education, science, and health care."

According to the United Nations Development Program's "Human Development Report," at present, female economic activity is 81-86 percent of that of men in the five Central Asian countries. It is equal to the rate in Russia, whereas in Pakistan the rate is 44 percent.

PART THREE: AFGHAN WOMEN RISE TO THE TOP AFTER TALIBAN REPRESSION.

By Safia Hassas

Since the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of the government of President Hamid Karzai, Afghan women have become a significant presence on the country's political and social stages. That was made evident in December, when 68 women took their seats as deputies in the lower house of Afghanistan's new parliament. Seventeen women will also sit in the upper house. Women still have trouble participating as equals in all spheres of the country's social and political life, but progress is being made. RFE/RL spoke with a number of Afghan women in positions of influence.

Habiba Sorabi was the minister of women's affairs in Afghanistan before becoming the first-ever female governor of Bamiyan Province. She says her political activities started when she was a university student, and that it has been a struggle.

"In a traditional and patriarchal society like Afghanistan, where men have always had the first word, made the decisions, given orders, and treated women as second-rate citizens who should obey them 100 percent like slaves, it is not easy for women to be in politics," Sorabi says.

Decades Of Obstacles

Afghan women have experienced various forms of oppression throughout the country's history, but it was especially intense during the Taliban era. The Taliban regime denied women all rights to education and employment and severely restricted their activities in public, including making them wear the all-covering burqa.

Some Afghan women continued their political activities in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan and occasionally returned to Afghanistan under the cover of the burqa to meet with people.

Sima Samar was the first minister of the newly established Ministry of Women's Affairs in the transitional government of Hamid Karzai after the fall of Taliban. She is now the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and a UN special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan.

In a recent interview, Samar shared with RFE/RL's Afghan Service one of her experiences during the time of communist rule.

"I think if I talk about all the problems I would feel the pressure now," Samar says. "During Khalq Party rule, they arrested my husband, along with his three brothers, who I never saw after that. Sixty-four people from my family were arrested. I spent Fridays, when I should have been studying, behind Pol-e Charkhi [prison] doors [visiting my relatives]."

Perseverance Pays

Afghan women say cultural and social constraints could not prevent them from assuming leadership positions.

"Afghan women proved in a short time that, not only on a national level but internationally, too, that they can take part in political activities," says Zahida Ansari, who is Afghanistan's new ambassador to Bulgaria. "In diplomacy, too, there is no problem [for women to handle the jobs]. You know that an ambassador's job, as the representative of the president, is to defend government policy and the rights of citizens in a foreign country within international law. It is a very important job and a big responsibility."

Mas'uda Jalal, Afghanistan's first female presidential candidate, says she persevered and didn't let cultural restrictions get in her way.

"My work, and what I did for the presidential campaign, didn't seem very difficult to me," Jalal says. "Other than long hours of work -- and I have worked more than 18 hours a day for several years -- there was no problem."

There are many Afghan women who say they would like to work in the social and political spheres but who believe they cannot do so because of family and social concerns. The Afghan women who are already involved in the nation's political activities say their families fully support them.

"Fortunately, I have not faced problems from my family," Bamiyan Governor Sorabi says. "They have been supportive. But in some cases, other relatives other than my husband have spread gossip and passed along negative remarks. But in Afghan society, there will be such talk."

Jalal, who is currently Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, also says she has the full support of her family.

"My husband is optimistic about my goals. He has confidence in me," Jalal says. "Inside, at home, I never feel that I am a minister. I am a mother and wife for my husband. And at work, I work in that position."

PART FOUR: ROUNDTABLE ON THE TAJIK, AFGHAN, AND IRANIAN EXPERIENCES. RFE/RL's Tajik Service hosted a roundtable discussion in December about "women and power" in Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Participants included Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi; prominent Afghan women's rights activist and parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai; and Oynihol Bobanazarova, a veteran Tajik rights advocate and director of the Open Society Institute in Tajikistan. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari reports on the roundtable in the fourth and final part of our series on "Women & Power In Central Asia."

Shirin Ebadi, Shukria Barakzai, and Oynihol Bobanazarova all live in patriarchal societies where men enjoy more rights and women face limitations. But despite battling discrimination, conservative traditions and intimidation, all three women have managed to push for their rights -- and achieve success.

Iranian Nobel Laureate

In 2004, Ebadi became the first Iranian or Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The lawyer and rights activist says that despite threats, she refuses to be silenced.

"Fear is an instinct like hunger, whether you want it or not, it will come to you," Ebadi says. "I have twice escaped attacks miraculously and have always been threatened and have been imprisoned, so it's natural that I'm worried about this dangerous situation. But my years of experience has taught me not to let fear overwhelm my work."

Ebadi says that as a result of the struggle of freedom-loving Iranian women and men, Iranian society is gradually changing.

"In the beginning of the revolution, when they wanted to insult me they would call me 'feminist, liberal, defender of human rights,'" Ebadi says. "In Iran, 23 or 24 years ago, these words were used as insults. Fortunately, now as a result of the struggle of Iranian women -- but also men -- human rights protection has become valued."

Mirroring Afghan Society

Shukria Barakzai is a member of Afghanistan's newly elected parliament and the founder of "Aina-e Zan" (Women's Mirror), a weekly publication that focuses on women's issues. During the rule of the hard-line Taliban, Barakzai helped run underground schools for women in Afghanistan.

Barakzai says she has tried hard to give a public voice to the concerns of Afghan women.

"Our patriarchal society does not like to hear this voice, it's a voice that even Afghan politicians want to silence," Barakzai says. "But despite these problems, I and millions of other Afghan women have been successful through our tireless efforts to open a small glimpse of hope, for the future generations and for the children of Afghanistan."

Barakzai says discriminatory, pre-Islamic traditions are the worst problems facing women in Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, these traditions are so deeply rooted among people that in some cases they are placed before the religion," Barakzai says. "People believe and practice traditions that [destroy] women; they consider women as elements whose only duty is to give birth to children. And the other problem is the patriarchal view that is prevalent in the society."

Obstacles In Tajikistan

Oynihol Bobanazarova, an outspoken rights defender, has played a key role in helping to reform the legal system in Tajikistan and in spurring the country to sign international covenants on human rights. This, in turn, has led to the complete abolition of the death penalty in Tajikistan.

In 1992, Bobanazarova was a founding member of the Democrat Party of Tajikistan. But she was later forced to leave the party when she was accused of "antigovernment activity" and criminal proceedings were started against her.

Bobanazarova says discriminatory traditions are among the main factors that prevent women from having an active role in Tajik society.

"In Tajikistan, for example in the families, they educate girls and tell them that before anything else they are women. For example, they keep girls away from discussions at home," Bobanazarova says. "To a certain degree there is also the people's mentality; we women also sometimes don't speak as experts and we consider ourselves helpless. I think if we do not start to talk as experts, as qualified individuals, as humans -- until that day, men will not take us seriously."

Areas Of Agreement

All three roundtable participants agreed that women activists and women in power should coordinate their efforts to tackle ignorance, discrimination, and economic hardship.

"The lines through which they separate secular women from Muslim women or elite and intellectual women from traditional ones, these dividing lines are harming us," Ebadi says. "The day that we forget these lines and focus only on equal rights for women like men, is the day of victory for the women of Iran and the world."

Bobanazarova says that for many Tajik women who live in poverty, economic empowerment is very important. She says women in power can play a key role.

"Women who consider themselves intelligent or women in the parliament should do their best to defend the right of Tajik women, because for 70 percent of the population, particularly women in villages, there are no possibilities for them to increase their knowledge," Bobanazarova says. "And I think one issue that is today very important for the women of Tajikistan is that their financial situation needs to be improved."

Like Ebadi, Barakzai emphasizes the importance of unity among women. But she says men also have a role to play.

"I think on the one hand, women should believe in their own rights as being equal under law to men, but men should also commit themselves to accepting women as equal partners in society," Barakzai says. "It's going to take time, but it can be done through long-term educational programs in Afghanistan and positive campaign by the press and also with the help of clerics. It requires a long-term struggle with the support of the international community. We women can overcome our problems and the [negative] view of society."

(This teleconference roundtable was hosted by RFE/RL's Tajik Service and held on 6 December 2005.)

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