MARY, Turkmenistan -- Dozens of couples have been detained in the Turkmen city of Mary and taken away in handcuffs for violating "social norms" by holding hands in public as the government tightens control over women’s everyday lives.
“I was out with my wife when a police car stopped in front of us and the officers said they were going to take us in for questioning,” a Mary resident said. “They interrogated us in separate rooms.”
The man said he had to call relatives and ask them to bring the couple’s marriage certificate and passports to prove they’re legally married. Despite that, police ordered the husband and wife to listen to a lecture on traditional Turkmen values.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were several other people at the police station who were rounded up from Mary streets for the same “offense.”
RFE/RL spoke to several other Mary residents who were forced to listen to the police lecture in May.
One woman said the lecture on morality was “mainly directed at women.”
She said the lecturers -- a policeman and an unknown female official -- accused the women in the audience of “being shamelessly covered in make-up” and “breaching decorum by holding hands” with men.
“They told us that in the past Turkmen women covered their heads," the woman said. "They told us that married women must wear a head scarf.”
“They said the first sign of etiquette for Turkmen women in the past was to cover their faces. Women would cover their faces not only in front of male strangers but also in front of their father-in-law and brothers-in-law, and would not be allowed to talk to them directly but rather had to communicate with them using their children as conduits,” she claimed.
RFE/RL received no comment from officials in Mary or the capital, Ashgabat, as Turkmen officials refrain from speaking to independent media outlets.
The woman said detained couples were released after signing a statement saying they would not engage in public displays of affection again. Police warned them that repeat offenders would face legal problems, but didn’t explain exactly what charges and punishment were possible, she told RFE/RL.
Fired For Having Breast Implants
Holding hands in public is not officially banned in Turkmenistan, a predominantly Muslim state where the authoritarian government has long been accused of clamping down on people’s rights and civil liberties.
It wasn’t uncommon in the past for police to approach young couples sitting close together on park benches and to check their documents.
The Turkmen government has increased control over women’s rights since President Serdar Berdymukhammedov came to power in March, succeeding his father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in a managed vote.
Since April, police have detained dozens of women on the streets for wearing certain beauty accessories, such as false nails and eyelashes. Police also stop women to check if their lips have been enhanced by cosmetic fillers.
Dozens of stewardesses and female employees at the national railway company have been fired for allegedly having breast implants and lip fillers, sources told RFE/RL.
Working women were ordered not to wear tight-fitting clothes or face losing their jobs. Heavy make-up, hair dye, manicures, and pedicures are also frowned upon.
Traffic police have ordered private vehicle owners not to drive a woman who is not a family member. Women are also banned from sitting in the front seat of a vehicle.
No Official Announcement
But there has been no official announcement of any new laws, even though the new restrictions are being enforced by law enforcement officers and managers and directors at state companies.
Many employers have held special meetings to discuss the new rules about women's clothes, beauty routines, and a woman's physical appearance, but always decline to explain the reason for the draconian rules or present a copy of the document ordering such bans, workers say.
Earlier this month, sources close to the government in Ashgabat told RFE/RL that authorities are also mulling a ban on Turkmen women traveling abroad unless they get special permission from authorities.
Women seeking medical treatment abroad could be exempt from the ban, the sources said.
But any Turkmen traveling abroad for medical reasons must first get permission from the Health Ministry and prove that the treatment they need does not exist in Turkmenistan.