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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek singer Lola Yoldosheva wearing the red dress that Uzbeknavo said "conflicts with the national mentality."

Some people say you can tell a lot about a person by the way they dress. You can “dress for success” or believe “clothes make the man.”

In March, the subject of dress came up in three Central Asian countries, in one case because the clothing was “foreign” Islamic, in another too risque/Western, and in a third as a suggestion to honor the past.

We begin in Tajikistan, site of the most recent intrusion by the “fashion police,” literally.

During a celebration to mark Mother’s Day (formally International Women’s Day), it seems President Emomali Rahmon was upset by the appearance of several women dressed in long black robes traditionally worn by women in Islamic countries further south and west of Tajikistan. Some of the women reportedly wore veils, a piece of clothing that has caused a huge uproar in Central Asia for many years.

Rahmon expressed his displeasure, saying it was not “in keeping with Tajik culture and traditions.” He explained, “Our people have never worn black clothing. It’s not acceptable to wear black at traditional ceremonies,” adding, “Even clothing for mourning is not monotone black.”

The president’s disapproval spurred officials into action. On March 28, First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahmon Alamshozoda chaired a meeting in Dushanbe with chiefs of police and other top law- enforcement officials from around the country. Alamshozoda told them to be on the lookout for women wearing “foreign clothes” and to engage in “explanatory work among the population.”

That seems to mean telling young women not to dress like Muslim women in other countries do.

Rajabboy Ahmadzoda, the mayor of Khujand, Tajikistan’s second-largest city, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that he had given the instructions to local law enforcement and suggested “every Tajik girl should honor national traditions in their clothing.”

The Khujand city administration gave orders to raid stores and stalls selling “clothes made in Iranian or Afghan style.”

In Uzbekistan, the problem was “immodest” garb. Singer Lola Yuldasheva gave a performance at the end of February and her choice of attire caught the attention of Uzbeknavo. Uzbeknavo is the state agency in charge of giving licenses to performers -- or banning them from performing.

Uzbeknavo summoned Yuldasheva and explained the dress she wore during the February 24 concert “conflicts with the national mentality.” She was given a warning not to wear such an outfit during future performances.

Uzbek singer Lola Yoldosheva (left)
Uzbek singer Lola Yoldosheva (left)

On the eve of Norouz, March 21, Uzbeknavo issued a directive that female performers were no longer to wear clothing that exposed their shoulders or legs, that they were not to appear “half-naked” at public events, and that they were not to include any sexually suggestive moves on stage.

In order to avoid a repetition of the “scandalous” incident with Yuldasheva, “all female singers are to be seriously warned ahead of concerts” about their attire and “manner.”

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, contacted the maker of Yuldasheva’s dress, 31-year-old Zulfiya Sulton. She said the dress was inspired by the “spirit of the song.” Sulton told Ozodlik, “I don’t see anything excessive and consider the criticism to be misplaced.”

Designer Zulfiya Sulton
Designer Zulfiya Sulton

Sulton said she designs clothes for stage performers, “not librarians or students at the Islamic college.”

Uzbek state television, the only television in Uzbekistan, has been regularly running programs about “foreign” or “alien” clothing for many years now and criticizes both “Western” styles of dress and Islamic clothing from other Muslims regions.

There is also a movement now in Kyrgyzstan, small so far, against revealing Western clothing being worn by young women. Those who criticize such apparel advise a return to the more traditional clothing of Kyrgyz women.

And the subject of traditional garb brings us to Kazakhstan, where “historian, writer, and propagandist of the great steppe,” Arman Nurmukhanbetov, told Tengrinews.kz that Kazakhstan needs to introduce a Day of Kazakh Dress. Nurmukhanbetov “together with a group of enthusiasts” has launched a social-network campaign to gain support for the idea.

Nurmukhanbetov wishes that the style of clothing Kazakhstan’s “ancestors wore over the course of thousands of years” should be honored and publicly displayed one day a year, which he proposed be “the last Friday of April, May, or September.”

The authorities’ attention to fashion is part of the search for -- or quest to invent -- a national identity. The governments of all five Central Asian states have been working on their national identities since the first days of independence in late 1991.

Many of the officials in Central Asia say that wearing the veil, or hijab, is not a custom of the region. Among some of Central Asia’s people it might not be -- the traditionally nomadic cultures, for example -- but those familiar with Central Asian history during the Soviet era will know about “hujum,” the forced unveiling of women in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan.

The Communist Party looked on the veil as a sign of the “backward and primitive”* people of Central Asia and, on International Women’s Day -- March 8, 1927 -- publicly banned women from wearing them.

The communist government forced women to take off their veil, on some occasions at gunpoint, and some of the women who did were killed by local men.

But most assuredly, some women in Central Asia did wear the veil prior to the arrival of the Russians.

Last, and certainly not least, almost every example above concerns how women dress. And the people articulating this “traditional” fashion sense are all men wearing Western suits to the office.

The traditional patriarchal system of Central Asia seems to be in no danger.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributoins from Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Shukrat Babajanov of the Uzbek Service

*From Douglas Northrop’s book Veiled Empire: Gender And Power In Stalinist Central Asia. I also recommend Marianne Kamp’s The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, And Unveiling Under Communism
The Kyrgyz Of Jerge-Tal
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None of the titular nationalities of Central Asia can trace their history back as far as the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks. These two peoples measure their presence in Inner Asia in terms of millennia.

Inevitably they had to meet, and the Jerge-Tal district in what is now northern Tajikistan near the border with Kyrgyzstan is one such place.

Thousands of Kyrgyz live there, as their ancestors no doubt did for hundreds of years. And for most and maybe all that time they lived alongside the Tajiks, both peoples being subgroups of larger multiethnic empires or khanates.

For the first time in all that history together the two peoples now have what increasingly more of them regard as “their own country.” The same process is being seen along all the borders in the region now and it’s causing a gradual resettlement process, something that has never been seen in Central Asia.

My colleague Janyl Jusupjan of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service has recently been to film in Jerge-Tal. Janyl also filmed the documentary “Uluu Pamir,” which was featured in an earlier Qishloq Ovozi report

Uluu Pamir dealt with the Kyrgyz, who in an age-old migration story fled from the Soviets to China, then from the Chinese Communists to Afghanistan, and after the war started in Afghanistan, made the journey to Turkey.

The tale of Jerge-Tal is more localized but still part of the same migration story. And while it is just one chapter of this ancient tale, it is at the same time a microcosm of the contemporary problems in Central Asia, in terms of ethnic relations and socio-economic challenges.

In her documentary series “People of Two Lands: The Kyrgyz Of Jerge-Tal,” Janyl introduces us to some of the Kyrgyz who still live in Jerge-Tal and some of those who finally decided to leave.

We meet for example Khamid Boronov, an elderly man who still teaches at the local elementary school and emphasizes the importance of knowing the “history of Tajik people.” He devotes his free time to curating a museum filled with artifacts, some dating back several centuries, so that the Kyrgyz and Tajik people of Jerge-Tal can see and understand their common history.

We also meet Latofat, the only female singer in her village, whose mother was Kyrgyz and father was Tajik. Her first husband left for work in Russia and they agreed to divorce. She is now the second wife of a man from another village and has two daughters.

We meet Gulnaz, mother of three young boys whose husband also left to find work in Russia. Gulnaz is a trained nurse but she is currently unemployed and hints that she thinks this is at least partially because ethnic Tajiks are now in charge of the district and are the first to get work. She wants to move to Kyrgyzstan.

There is Nooruz, who I must admit I took for an ethnic Tajik the first time I saw him in Janyl’s film. Nooruz is a perfect example of how closely knit the two people are in Jerge-Tal, a product of a place where the two peoples meet and mix, although he clearly considers himself to be Kyrgyz and expresses the desire to move to Kyrgyzstan.

And there is Saifaridin, elderly and settled in Kyrgyzstan. Saifaridin left Tajikistan to save his life, he says, recalling the days of the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war, when Jerge-Tal was controlled by opposition groups fighting the government and he, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was beaten for essentially trying to stay out of a fight that did not concern him or the Kyrgyz people in Tajikistan.

This blog is called “Qishloq Ovozi” because I worked and lived in the Qishloqlar, or villages of Central Asia, whether they were called aul, ayil, or oba. Jerge-Tal is larger and has more “creature comforts” (electricity for one thing) than the places where I spent most of my time.

For those, like me, who found themselves conducting research in rural Central Asia, Janyl’s films will bring back many memories. And for those who have never been to the villages of Central Asia, these films are a window into the region's daily life.

And for everyone, Janyl’s films are an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what happens when a line drawn on a map becomes a reality on the ground.

We will be posting the five short films separately over the course of the coming weeks.

The first part is about Nooruz.

-- Bruce Pannier

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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