1: The Struggle For Equal Rights
An old Kyrgyz proverb claims
that "a frog-headed [stupid] man is better than a golden-headed [intelligent]
woman." It is tempting to suggest that the proverb reflects the overall attitude
toward women in Central and South Asia. Gender stereotypes and discriminatory
legislation continue to hinder women's ability to pursue careers in politics,
business, and many other fields. Nonetheless, hope remains. For example, an
unprecedented number of women have taken up seats in Afghanistan's new
parliament. In the first of a four-part series on Women and Power in Central
Asia, RFE/RL looks at the status of women in the region.
Prague, 29 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In
the 1920s, when Bolshevik governments were set up throughout the region, Central
Asian women experienced unprecedented changes.
Women threw off
their "paranja" -- the Islamic dress that covers a woman from head to toe -- as
the Soviet state introduced equal gender rights and formal equality under law,
including quotas. Quotas were built into the school system, government,
parliament -- and even the Soviet Army.
Many parents who received
Soviet educations encouraged their daughters to study and pursue professional
Yet all that changed in 1991 following the collapse
of the Soviet Union. Women began losing ground as traditional gender stereotypes
returned in the newly independent Central Asian republics.
the things that happened after Uzbekistan became independent is rediscovery and
a rebuilding of Uzbek nationalism," says Alison Gill, who researches Uzbekistan
for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But, unfortunately, one of the
negative consequences of that has been that the government -- as it has pursued
its policy of reviving Uzbek nationalism and Uzbek identity -- has reverted to
some old-fashioned, or traditional, ideas about women, and encouraged
traditional gender stereotypes."
Along with a strengthening of
those stereotypes, more and more girls are dropping out of secondary schools,
according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
UNDP concluded in its 2005 report that Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan
are likely to maintain gender equality in primary and secondary education by
2015. But Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be unable to eliminate gender disparity
between girls and boys in schools, the report asserted.
Central Asian families, meanwhile, have strong prescribed gender roles. Women
are subservient and often fall victim to violence and abuse from husbands and
nationalism in post-Soviet Central Asia also meant a revival of Islam.
Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, based in the
Uzbek capital Tashkent, say Islam grants equal rights to women and
"One of the longest surah [chapter] of the Koran is called
'Women,'" Yusuf says. "In this and some other surah, Allah stated that women are
equal to men as human beings. In some aspects, they are even greater than men;
and women are holders of all human rights. As Hadith [the second major source of
Islamic rules after the Koran] say, our Prophet, may peace be upon Him, also
stated women's greatness and demonstrated in practice how to respect
Nonetheless, many women find it difficult to find support
among their male relatives or religious scholars themselves.
Gender stereotypes are rooted not only in religious traditions, of course,
but also in lifestyles. Sedentary Uzbek and Tajik women had to cover themselves
in "paranja" as they stepped out of the women's portion of the house, whereas
nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz women were free of veils, as they had to ride horses
and work in activities, like herding, alongside men.
Burdened with stereotypes,
Central Asian women have also had to cope with economic hardship, including
unemployment and poverty. Many have had to become their family's main
In some cases, this has opened up opportunities to
pursue careers in business -- a field that so far has proven more welcoming to
women than politics.
Kyrgyzstan, where women have historically
been politically active, is illustrative. Not a single woman took up a
parliamentary seat or senior government post after the February 2005
parliamentary elections and the subsequent revolution that ousted former
President Askar Akaev.
Kerez Japakbaeva, a Kyrgyz human rights
activist, notes that under Akaev, three of 16 cabinet ministers were women. But
she says the new, all-male parliament has since "voted them all out."
Karamat Ismanova, a member of Kyrgyzstan's Erkindik (Freedom) Party, says
women should continue their efforts at representation in the country's political
establishment, as their involvement in decision-making is crucial to
guaranteeing sustainability and peace in Kyrgyzstan.
"We need to
support our women, our daughters and mothers, to become candidates to the
parliament and other branches of power, too," Ismanova says. "Only then will we
be able to ensure Kyrgyzstan's territorial integrity and peace."
Are Quotas The Answer?
Many Kyrgyz women
argue that a gender quota should be implemented in order to help them advance in
That has been the case in neighboring Afghanistan, where
the country's fledgling legislature held its first session on 19
Islam dominates many spheres of Afghan society, and
gender stereotypes have arguably thrived there more robustly than among the
post-Soviet countries -- particularly during hard- line Taliban rule.
But Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government has vowed equal gender rights
and encouraged women to run for office. And with the introduction of a
25-percent gender quota in September elections for parliament and provincial
councils, women candidates ran in unprecedented numbers.
Sixty-eight of 249 seats in the People's Council, the lower house of the
national legislature, were set aside for female candidates. Their candidacies --
and record voter participation among women -- came despite challenges in the
form of social mores, a lack of resources, and intimidation by local militia
Uzbekistan also introduced a 30-percent gender quota
ahead of its December 2004 parliamentary elections. But some independent
observers regard that move as a "formality" designed to placate the
international community without granting women a corresponding level of
participation in policy- or decision-making.
"A quota was
introduced because the Uzbek government signed an international convention on
eliminating all forms of discrimination against women," says Marfua
Tokhtahojaeva, a women's rights campaigner from Uzbekistan. "This document
requires the political participation of women. But in the case [of Uzbekistan],
I am afraid it is just a formality. [The government] wants to say to the
international community, 'Yes, we respect women and their rights. Look how many
women we have in the parliament.' But most voters do not trust women or the
Women's rights activists -- who comprise more
than 55 percent of human rights campaigners in Central Asia -- say advancing
women's rights in any sphere requires a broad change in mindset. They say
greater equality can be achieved by ensuring that there is no discrimination in
legislation and that women are protected from abuse.
They also say
the job should not be left solely to the government and the international
community. Central Asian women themselves must demand an end to discrimination,
they argue, and men in the region must recognize the need for equal
(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kyrgyz services contributed to
Part 2: Women Increase Presence In
Kazakhstan's Business Sector
In 1998, Kazakhstan ratified the UN
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Since then, some powerful Kazakh women have emerged in various fields, including
the traditionally male-dominated business sector. In this second of a four-part
series, RFE/RL examines the situation of women in Kazakhstan through the prism
of three Kazakh businesswomen.
Prague, 29 December 2005 (RFE/RL) --
Following its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan moved toward a market economy,
and it has been developing rapidly ever since, due in large part to considerable
Official statistics also suggest that the
negative balance for women -- who represent 51 percent of the country's 15
million people -- might be evening out. Forty percent of all women are
registered managers of private businesses, according to those figures.
Forty-year-old Saltanat Rakhymbekova is the head of the Business and
Industry Department for Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region. She credits the
Kazakh government with implementing a proper "gender policy."
example, in the Karaganda region alone, there are lots of women who hold
managerial posts," Rakhymbekova says. "This is the result of the Kazakh
government, which is carrying out a proper gender policy. Women's skills and
initiatives are being taken into consideration. I think that if women are eager
to do their best to succeed, all the necessary conditions are created for them
in the country."
Rakhymbekova spends much of her time at work but
says that, like other women, she likes to spend every spare minute with her
family, including her husband, a technical scientist, and their two daughters.
She is herself from what she describes as an ordinary Kazakh family, albeit one
with 10 children.
"First of all, I am lucky that I was born in
Kazakhstan," Rakhymbekova says. "I appreciate my parents, who educated me. I
studied at a university where 90 percent of students were men. My husband always
understands me and supports all my efforts."
Sabyrkul Asanova, 50, is a successful Kazakh
businesswoman. She is president of the Symbat Fashion Academy, which is a leader
in the country's fashion industry. Asanova is highly respected for her business
acumen -- and pleased with what she has achieved so far.
worked hard, and now I am successful," she explains simply.
Asanova says she is satisfied with what she has built. And while some are
tempted to parlay such entrepreneurial success into political influence, she
insists she is not eager to become involved in politics.
women, have something to do, we try to work tirelessly," Asanova says. "While
men spend 10 minutes smoking, women use that time to work. I think it is
impossible to have lots of women in power, however, because, in principle, women
were created for a family or to give birth to babies."
Kulzhanova -- who has a daughter, two sons, and a grandchild -- works in a
completely different sphere. She owns a floral-decoration company called
Gulistan that works on buildings, offices, and private homes. The partnership
appears to be the only company in Kazakhstan that is focused specifically on the
Kulzhanova has sought to leverage that expertise,
recently founding a magazine titled "Gulistan" that is about the planting of
flowers and other plants:
"My job is very interesting," she says.
"I'm happy when I see the results of my work. I think that if a person finds his
favorite job, he is happy."
Kulzhanova says she wants Kazakhstan
to be among the most beautiful countries in the world.
The lives of many women in
Kazakhstan remain bleak, however.
A Kazakh economist, Aytqali
Nurseyit, notes that women still face obstacles in the country, and he says many
women lost their jobs during the transition to a market economy. But he points
out that Kazakhstan's economy has grown strongly in recent years and argues that
the situation of Kazakh women is changing, too:
"What is unique
about Kazakhstan, or Kazakh women, is that about 40 percent of Kazakh women have
their own businesses. This is very good," Nurseyit says. "Kazakh women also play
a key role in the fields of education, science, and health care."
According to the United Nations Development Program's "Human Development
Report," at present, female economic activity is 81-86 percent of that of men in
the five Central Asian countries. It is equal to the rate in Russia, whereas in
Pakistan the rate is 44 percent.
Part 3: Afghan Women Rise To Top
After Taliban Repression
Since the fall of the Taliban
and the establishment of the government of President Hamid Karzai, Afghan women
have become a significant presence on the country's political and social stages.
That was made evident in December, when 68 women took their seats as deputies in
the lower house of Afghanistan's new parliament. Seventeen women will also sit
in the upper house. Women still have trouble participating as equals in all
spheres of the country's social and political life, but progress is being made.
RFE/RL spoke with a number of Afghan women in positions of
Kabul, 28 December 2005 (RFE/RL) --
Habiba Sorabi was the minister of women's affairs in Afghanistan before becoming
the first-ever female governor of Bamiyan Province. She says her political
activities started when she was a university student, and that it has been a
"In a traditional and patriarchal society like
Afghanistan, where men have always had the first word, made the decisions, given
orders, and treated women as second-rate citizens who should obey them 100
percent like slaves, it is not easy for women to be in politics," Sorabi
Decades Of Obstacles
women have experienced various forms of oppression throughout the country's
history, but it was especially intense during the Taliban era. The Taliban
regime denied women all rights to education and employment and severely
restricted their activities in public, including making them wear the
Some Afghan women continued their political
activities in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan and occasionally
returned to Afghanistan under the cover of the burqa to meet with
Sima Samar was the first minister of the newly established
Ministry of Women's Affairs in the transitional government of Hamid Karzai after
the fall of Taliban. She is now the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights
Commission and a UN special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan.
In a recent interview, Samar shared with RFE/RL's Afghan Service one of her
experiences during the time of communist rule.
"I think if I talk
about all the problems I would feel the pressure now," Samar says. "During Khalq
Party rule, they arrested my husband, along with his three brothers, who I never
saw after that. Sixty-four people from my family were arrested. I spent Fridays,
when I should have been studying, behind Pol-e Charkhi [prison] doors [visiting
Afghan women say cultural and social constraints could not prevent them from
assuming leadership positions.
women proved in a short time that, not only on a national level but
internationally, too, that they can take part in political activities," says
Zahida Ansari, who is Afghanistan's new ambassador to Bulgaria. "In diplomacy,
too, there is no problem [for women to handle the jobs]. You know that an
ambassador's job, as the representative of the president, is to defend
government policy and the rights of citizens in a foreign country within
international law. It is a very important job and a big
Mas'uda Jalal, Afghanistan's first female
presidential candidate, says she persevered and didn't let cultural restrictions
get in her way.
"My work, and what I did for the presidential
campaign, didn't seem very difficult to me," Jalal says. "Other than long hours
of work -- and I have worked more than 18 hours a day for several years -- there
was no problem."
There are many Afghan women who say they would
like to work in the social and political spheres but who believe they cannot do
so because of family and social concerns. The Afghan women who are already
involved in the nation's political activities say their families fully support
"Fortunately, I have not faced problems from my family,"
Bamiyan Governor Sorabi says. "They have been supportive. But in some cases,
other relatives other than my husband have spread gossip and passed along
negative remarks. But in Afghan society, there will be such talk."
Jalal, who is currently Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, also says
she has the full support of her family.
"My husband is optimistic
about my goals. He has confidence in me," Jalal says. "Inside, at home, I never
feel that I am a minister. I am a mother and wife for my husband. And at work, I
work in that position."
Part 4: Roundtable On The Tajik,
Afghan, and Iranian Experiences
RFE/RL's Tajik Service hosted a
roundtable discussion in December about "women and power" in Tajikistan, Iran,
and Afghanistan. Participants included Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi;
prominent Afghan women's rights activist and parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai;
and Oynihol Bobanazarova, a veteran Tajik rights advocate and director of the
Open Society Institute in Tajikistan. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari
reports on the roundtable in the fourth and final part of our series on "Women
& Power In Central Asia."
December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Shirin Ebadi, Shukria Barakzai, and Oynihol
Bobanazarova all live in patriarchal societies where men enjoy more rights and
women face limitations. But despite battling discrimination, conservative
traditions and intimidation, all three women have managed to push for their
rights -- and achieve success.
In 2004, Ebadi became the first Iranian or
Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The lawyer and rights activist
says that despite threats, she refuses to be silenced.
"Fear is an
instinct like hunger, whether you want it or not, it will come to you," Ebadi
says. "I have twice escaped attacks miraculously and have always been threatened
and have been imprisoned, so it's natural that I'm worried about this dangerous
situation. But my years of experience has taught me not to let fear overwhelm my
Ebadi says that as a result of the struggle of
freedom-loving Iranian women and men, Iranian society is gradually
"In the beginning of the revolution, when they wanted to
insult me they would call me 'feminist, liberal, defender of human rights,'"
Ebadi says. "In Iran, 23 or 24 years ago, these words were used as insults.
Fortunately, now as a result of the struggle of Iranian women -- but also men --
human rights protection has become valued."
Shukria Barakzai is a member of
Afghanistan's newly elected parliament and the founder of "Aina-e Zan" (Women's
Mirror), a weekly publication that focuses on women's issues. During the rule of
the hard-line Taliban, Barakzai helped run underground schools for women in
Barakzai says she has tried hard to give a public
voice to the concerns of Afghan women.
"Our patriarchal society
does not like to hear this voice, it's a voice that even Afghan politicians want
to silence," Barakzai says. "But despite these problems, I and millions of other
Afghan women have been successful through our tireless efforts to open a small
glimpse of hope, for the future generations and for the children of
Barakzai says discriminatory, pre-Islamic traditions
are the worst problems facing women in Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, these traditions are so deeply rooted among people that in
some cases they are placed before the religion," Barakzai says. "People believe
and practice traditions that [destroy] women; they consider women as elements
whose only duty is to give birth to children. And the other problem is the
patriarchal view that is prevalent in the society."
Obstacles In Tajikistan
an outspoken rights defender, has played a key role in helping to reform the
legal system in Tajikistan and in spurring the country to sign international
covenants on human rights. This, in turn, has led to the complete abolition of
the death penalty in Tajikistan.
In 1992, Bobanazarova was a
founding member of the Democrat Party of Tajikistan. But she was later forced to
leave the party when she was accused of "antigovernment activity" and criminal
proceedings were started against her.
discriminatory traditions are among the main factors that prevent women from
having an active role in Tajik society.
"In Tajikistan, for
example in the families, they educate girls and tell them that before anything
else they are women. For example, they keep girls away from discussions at
home," Bobanazarova says. "To a certain degree there is also the people's
mentality; we women also sometimes don't speak as experts and we consider
ourselves helpless. I think if we do not start to talk as experts, as qualified
individuals, as humans -- until that day, men will not take us
Areas Of Agreement
three roundtable participants agreed that women activists and women in power
should coordinate their efforts to tackle ignorance, discrimination, and
"The lines through which they separate secular
women from Muslim women or elite and intellectual women from traditional ones,
these dividing lines are harming us," Ebadi says. "The day that we forget these
lines and focus only on equal rights for women like men, is the day of victory
for the women of Iran and the world."
Bobanazarova says that for
many Tajik women who live in poverty, economic empowerment is very important.
She says women in power can play a key role.
"Women who consider
themselves intelligent or women in the parliament should do their best to defend
the right of Tajik women, because for 70 percent of the population, particularly
women in villages, there are no possibilities for them to increase their
knowledge," Bobanazarova says. "And I think one issue that is today very
important for the women of Tajikistan is that their financial situation needs to
Like Ebadi, Barakzai emphasizes the importance of
unity among women. But she says men also have a role to play.
think on the one hand, women should believe in their own rights as being equal
under law to men, but men should also commit themselves to accepting women as
equal partners in society," Barakzai says. "It's going to take time, but it can
be done through long-term educational programs in Afghanistan and positive
campaign by the press and also with the help of clerics. It requires a long-term
struggle with the support of the international community. We women can overcome
our problems and the [negative] view of society."
teleconference roundtable was hosted by RFE/RL's Tajik Service and held on 6