Dec 06

Contesting Patriarchy in Rural Tajikistan: Hidden Transcripts and Sharm

During another life, famed Financial Times journalist and author of Fools Gold Gillian Tett wrote her PhD on gender relations in Tajikistan. As part of her research she spent a year living in a Tajik village during the late Soviet period.  In a fascinating paper entitled “Guardians of the Faith? Gender and Religion in an (ex) Soviet Tajik Village,” Tett argues that rural women were more pious than men due to their fear of the “shame” (Taj.: sharm) associated with “atheistic” behaviour.  Villagers juxtaposed the ideal Tajik woman: demure, religious, veiled, with the Russified “other:” sexually free, shameless and unveiled.

Recently I read Tett’s article for the first time and many of her observations still ring true in rural Tajikistan.  During the summer I spent a month living in Vanj, a district some three hundred miles from Dushanbe. Living with a local family, I made many similar observations to those of Tett. The concept of sharm still regulates the behaviour of rural women in Tajikistan. Tajik society expects that women dress traditionally, marry early and serve men.

Informal community leaders, including religious ones, play a key role in this process of normalisation of patriarchy. In early September I was driving to the Rasht Valley, an area which the government and media have framed as one of the most religious in Tajikistan. The taxi driver played a taped sermon from the imam of Kulob. The imam spoke in melodic, adabi or literary Tajik. He told a story about a man who worked in a bazaar. One day he had to run an errand and left his wife to look after his stall. When he came back he could see his wife talking with another man. He was touching her. He challenged her and she denied any wrong doing. He could see, however, that she was lying and divorced her with the seta talaq (three talaqs: the Arabic for repudiation).

The moral of the story, according to the imam, was that women should sit at home. This was their natural place and accommodated their natural role of housekeeping and child-rearing.  In the narrative, the imam framed women as naturally tempted into sexual deviance and thus in need of regulation.  It is every man’s duty therefore to ensure that his wife maintains her sharm by obediently sitting at home and obeying his command. The taxi driver told me that the imam was correct and scornfully spoke of the “westernised” (Rus: zapadnii) women of Dushanbe who had deviated from Tajik traditions.

During my time in the village I spent the majority of time with the women. Although most women do not openly contest patriarchal domination, I observed what anthropologist James C. Scott described as “hidden transcripts,” secret discourses that represents a critique of power spoken behind the backs of the dominant. Despite initially helping the men in building a new house, my ineptitude led to my being labelled a batchai shahr (a city boy). As such I was “relegated” to domestic duties, much to the amusement of my hosts. Soon I was preparing food with the women, picking fruit and washing clothes. Although the men ridiculed me for being “feminine” (zandona), the women said that they were impressed by my hard work, contrasting me with the “lazy” (tanbal) Tajik men. It was in these private conversations in feminised and domestic spaces, away from the prying ears of Tajik men, that women contest patriarchy.