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Uzbekistan: Female Entrepreneur Blazes Trail Of Success

One of Uzbekistan's most prominent businesswomen might seem like an unlikely recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But Dildora Alimbekova is among those on a long list of women nominated for the prestigious award under an international project called "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize." She has so far made a successful career of beating the odds -- including pioneering the private business sector under Soviet-era perestroika. So who is to say the Nobel Prize is out of reach? As the world celebrates International Women's Day, RFE/RL profiles one of Uzbekistan's leading female voices.

Tashkent, 8 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Dildora Alimbekova says she is battling a culture in which women's options have been extremely limited.

In Uzbek society, women are far more likely to end up running a seamstress shop, a beauty parlor, or some other business engaged in what has traditionally been regarded as "women's work." Few are involved in heavy manufacturing or other large businesses.

Alimbekova says that she launched her women's advocacy group, the Businesswomen's Association, to promote women's efforts to break into less traditional fields. It has brought her recognition throughout the country, and the association is flourishing.
"I believe my straightforwardness [and] my ability to speak harshly but with humor at the same time have helped me to overcome many obstacles."

But it is a far cry from her modest beginnings transforming a garment-making operation into one of Uzbekistan's first private enterprises under the Soviet Union. "In 1987, as Gorbachev launched 'perestroika,' I set up a firm at the 'Qizil Tong' [Red Dawn] factory, which used to produce coats," Alimbekova said. "In the beginning, it was a cooperative, because during Gorbachev's time, cooperatives were the only thing you were allowed to establish. Then I turned it to a private firm. It was the first private firm in Uzbekistan. We used to sew clothing such as waistlines, skirts, and children's clothes from leftover fabric."

Alimbekova says she worked at a research institute after graduating from university, then took up a job with the Soviet Ministry of Light Industry.

She says that in the days of socialism when she became a businesswoman, even the word "business" met with a negative attitude in Uzbek society.

But perestroika offered a chance, and she says her direct manner made all the difference.

"How have I succeeded?" Alimbekova said. "I believe my straightforwardness [and] my ability to speak harshly but with humor at the same time have helped me to overcome many obstacles. We [Uzbeks] are oriental women, and we don't speak openly; usually we are polite and try to be sweet and delicate. But I have always been different -- too open and honest, which most Uzbek men couldn't stand. It was difficult for men to swallow what I said."

Alimbekova says she has had to overcome not only bureaucratic or legal obstacles, but also wrestled with how to behave in order to succeed in a field dominated by men.

Amid that atmosphere, Alimbekova launched her Businesswomen's Association in 1991 to assist female entrepreneurs. With some 5,000 members and 14 branches throughout Uzbekistan, the association is growing.

Its mission is to provide consulting and other assistance for women -- particularly in the small and medium-sized business sector -- and to help them find willing lenders and foreign partners. The association also serves as an advocacy group for its members, including lobbying the national legislature.

Alimbekova says her selection to be among the "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005" brought words of encouragement from colleagues and partners both male and female.

Nigora Gafforova is head of the Ikbol youth center in the Uzbek capital Tashkent: "As we see it, the Businesswomen's Association created an environment of real entrepreneurship," Gafforova said, "not just resale aimed at making a profit but entrepreneurial activity that helps women to become active members of society. That's why I think Alimbekova deserves to receive the Nobel Peace Prize."

The "1000 Women" project thinks so, too, even if it means as part of a list of women whom it thinks have offered what it describes as "their tireless, often dangerous daily commitment to peace and human security." Culled from some 2,000 proposed candidates from more than 150 countries, the project's list of all 1,000 nominees will be made public in June. After that, it's a question of waiting for the Nobel Committees awarding of the Peace Prize in October.

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