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Turkmenistan: For Women, Mostly Traditional And Difficult Lives

In Turkmenistan, one of the world's most isolated nations, the roles open to most women are only the traditional ones of mother and homemaker. So cut off is the country that few Turkmen women are aware of the rapidly changing status of women elsewhere. Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen service reports on the views of some of her countrywomen.

Prague, 22 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The life of most women in Turkmenistan today is difficult -- at best. Little is left of the legacy of Turkmen feminist Ene Kuliyeva, whose ideas helped form a movement for the liberation of Muslim women after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Central Asian country's Islamic roots stretch back several centuries, and its current reclusive nature serves to keep ideas of emancipation and equal rights from taking hold.

There is also very little other contact with the outside world. The Turkmen government censors the few Russian television programs that are re-broadcast in Turkmenistan, and the only other foreign programming is a few carefully selected foreign films dubbed into Russian. All the print media are state-owned, and customs officials often seize newspapers and magazines at the country's borders.

Recently, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service conducted some random interviews on the streets of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat to see what women there think of their role in society. Most of the respondents recalled the days of Turkmenia as a Soviet republic. According to official ideology at the time, men and women were considered equal, and were being treated equally. And nearly nine years after independence, one woman's comments reflect that she believes what she was taught in Soviet times.

"I see men and women as equal. We do not cover our faces and bodies like women in some Muslim countries. We are not confronted with the restrictions they face. I cannot recall a single incident where women were ill-treated in our country. Women feel free in our society. If they have the necessary talent and education, women can even reach leadership positions."

Of course, this woman lives in the capital. There are villages near Turkmenistan's borders with Afghanistan and Iran where women do wear the veil required by strict Islamists. In any case, her comment suggesting that Turkmen women are seldom ill-treated does not necessarily mean they are well-treated.

Take the important example of the country's health-care system, controlled -- as are all its institutions -- by the government. For one thing, it is impossible for non-governmental health-care organizations, or NGOs of any kind, to work in Turkmenistan because of the government suspicions of foreigners' activities. For another, while medical care is available to all Turkmen citizens, the idea of counseling or crisis centers is totally unknown in the country. One woman said she had heard of such centers in the U.S., but did not know of any in Turkmenistan.

The key question, however, is: Are women really treated as equal to men in Turkmenistan?

One woman who talked with our correspondent said Turkish companies doing business in Turkmenistan are far more sensitive to women's needs than are Turkmen employers. Another woman complained it is difficult for Turkmen women to find work at all:

"Especially for younger women, finding a job has now become more difficult --although, if one has any higher education, it is a bit easier. These days, one has to know foreign languages, has to know technical skills.

Selling goods in the markets and bazaars is often women's work. In Central Asia in general, markets usually open early in the morning. Often merchants -- and those who work for them -- begin preparing their displays well before the sun rises and go home after the sun sets.

One 80-year-old woman said such long hours are bad not only for working mothers, but for their children as well. She also expressed her own -- somewhat ironic -- view of gender equality in Turkmenistan:

"One could say that women are now ahead of men -- because they work harder than men do. They work outside the home for the government, and at home for the family. The men have no such burden. Women have to care for everything. They have to work, shop, cook, and look after the children. Poor women take their children to work in the marketplace. That means they can't provide them with a good education, and the children learn how to steal. The marketplace is no working place for a woman. It is very hard work."

A younger woman expressed a similar view.

"I want to use this opportunity to say it will be better when there are more real jobs for women. It is not always possible for women to sell things in the market place. Mostly women are responsible for bringing up their children. If you go to the market at dawn, then come home late, it is difficult to do household work."

The status of women in Turkmenistan is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In an era of globalization, Turkmenistan remains largely cut off from the rest of the world. State-run media promote the acceptable image of a woman, which often emphasizes the role of housewife and homemaker. On more than one occasion legislation has been introduced -- unsuccessfully -- to legalize polygamy. But with little knowledge of the outside world, most Turkmen women still feel the traditional role they play in society is the correct one.