One can criticize Central Asian governments for many things -- from corruption to their intractably undemocratic ways. But perhaps due more than anything to the Soviet legacy, women in that predominantly Muslim region participate in politics, business, and other spheres of public life.
That said, while some of the following 10 picks for most influential women in Central Asia have risen to the top solely on their merits, there are more than a few whose family ties have paved the way to success.
Roza Otunbaeva: president of Kyrgyzstan
Roza Otunbaeva stepped into the breach to become interim president after the whirlwind exit of Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010. She then led the country through a turbulent three months -- including deadly ethnic violence in the ousted president's southern stronghold, as well as a pivotal referendum on Kyrgyzstan's interim leadership and constitutional changes to dilute the presidency -- before being sworn in on July 3 for a one-and-done term that ends in December 2011. The Moscow-educated former diplomat is Central Asia's first and only female president. A mother of two who played a major role in the 2005 Tulip Revolution that provided a beacon of hope in the region, she has served as her country's ambassador to Britain and the United States, as well as foreign minister.
Dinara Kulibaeva: Kazakh president's second daughter
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's second-born daughter, Dinara Kulibaeva, is the only Central Asian woman to have appeared on the "Forbes" list of world billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion. She is thought to be the fourth-richest individual in the country. "Forbes" lists "banking" as the source of Kulibaeva's wealth, with reports that she owns shares in HalykBank, but little is publicly known about her business activities. She is married to Timur Kulibaev, the head of Samruk-Kazyna, a state holding that controls major sectors of the Kazakh economy, including in the energy, gold, and uranium sectors. A graduate of the Institute of Theater Arts in Moscow, Kulibaeva is the head of the president's Education Foundation, which among other things, provides financial support to students from impoverished homes.
Svetlana Ortikova: chairwoman of Uzbek Senate's Committee for Legislative and Judiciary Issues
A lawyer by profession, the Uzbek Senate's Committee for Legislative and Judiciary Issues chairwoman, Svetlana Ortikova, formerly served as a senior prosecutor and headed the information and communication division of the Uzbekistan Prosecutor-General's Office, in addition to other senior posts. She is one of a small handful of high-ranking officials in Tashkent who grant interviews to international media. Ortikova reportedly belongs to what's sometimes dubbed a "siloviki" grouping that enjoys considerable influence in policymaking and brings together top officials from the security, customs, and tax services.
Akja Nurberdyeva: speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament
Since taking over the leadership of the parliament in February 2007, Akja Nurberdyeva has taken steps to open up her isolationist, energy-rich country to the rest of the world, including organizing exchange trips by Turkmen lawmakers to the European Union. Nurberdyeva made her way to the top through Komsomol, the communist youth organization, and a range of government posts. People who know Nurberdyeva well suggest she is one of very few people in positions of power in Turkmenistan who understand the need for change but are prevented from action by loyalty to the regime.
Lola Karimova: presidential daughter, Uzbek ambassador to UNESCO
The Uzbek president's youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, controls a business empire that is said to include several major consumer-goods markets in Uzbekistan, the Abu Sahiy Nur market with a daily turnover of at least $250,000 among them. She is currently Tashkent's ambassador to UNESCO. Karimova-Tillyaeva is rumored to be much closer to her father than her older sister Gulnara. The loyal daughter unsuccessfully sued a French publication for calling her father a "dictator."
Gaukhar 'Goga' Ashkenazi: London-based Kazakh oligarch
The Oxford-educated, London-based Goga Ashkenazi has attributed her success to hard work and being in the right place at the right time. She is founder and CEO of private Kazakh oil and gas company MunaiGaz Engineering Group, and is director of the MMG Global Consulting Group, which deals with investment into Kazakhstan. In an interview last year, Ashkenazi said that gold mining in Kazakhstan was her latest venture. She claims she made her first business deals in Kazakhstan in 2003, using her family contacts with people in "positions of power." Ashkenazi has never publicly disclosed how much she is worth. Her reported affair with Timur Kulibaev, the Kazakh president's son-in-law and a powerful businessman in his own right, led to the birth of a son. She's also a fixture on the British social scene
, spurred in part by her friendship with Prince Andrew.
Gulnara Karimova: Uzbek diplomat, businesswoman, and presidential daughter
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is known for her passion for entrepreneurship, jewelry-making, fashion, and music. She currently serves as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and its permanent representative to the UN office and other international organizations in Geneva. Karimova has in the past been tipped as her father's possible successor. She has also been linked to the Swiss-based company Zeromax
, with holdings in Uzbekistan's energy, agriculture, and construction sectors that made it the country's largest private-sector employer until 2010, when assets were said to have been seized; but she has never publicly acknowledged any ties to the company.
Tahmina Rahmonova: Tajik entrepreneur, presidential daughter
The business empire of Tajik presidential daughter Tahmina Rahmonova (left in photo) reportedly includes a string of trade centers, restaurants, and real estate. But unlike first daughters in neighboring Uzbekistan, Tahmina keeps a low profile and rarely appears at public functions. Unlike the Karimova daughters, she has no website, doesn't take part in charity events, and doesn't give interviews. Rahmonova's critics, including the bas.tj website, claim the president's daughter strikes fear in Tajik businessmen, who've heard reports that she appropriates successful businesses or land parcels that strike her fancy.
Mutabar Tojiboeva: Uzbek human rights activist
The government in Tashkent has long been wary of Mutabar Tojiboeva (right in photo), an outspoken critic of the regime. The human rights activist has been imprisoned for "slandering government bodies," but the punishment failed to silence her. She has been honored with the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in Geneva and the International Women of Courage Award in Washington. According to a purported U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has expressed his discontent with the U.S. decision to honor Tojiboeva. Karimov, the cable suggested, "seemed especially angry that Tojiboeva might be seen as a political figure in her own right being cultivated to challenge him."
Ozoda Rahmonova: deputy Tajik foreign minister, presidential daughter
President Rahmon appointed his Georgetown-educated daughter, Ozoda, as deputy foreign minister in 2009, but she is rumored to wield far more power than the minister because of her familial connection to his boss. One of nine siblings, Rahmonova is the only one of the president's children currently to hold public office. She is married to Deputy Finance Minister Jamollidin Nuraliev, who has denied reports linking him to a private company that controls Tajikistan's only toll road.
-- Farangis Najibullah