Dec 06

What does a female presidential candidate in Tajikistan tell us about gender equality?

The choice of Oinhol Bobonazarova, a lawyer and long-standing human rights campaigner, as the principal candidate of the opposition in the Tajik presidential elections is worthy of some reflection.    Often female candidacies for the ultimate office are said to be symbolically important – a great example to the younger members of the under-represented half of the population which may now aspire to greater involvement in political life.  However, in this case it may in fact symbolise the very opposite:  increasing patriarchy in the post-Soviet era.

Tajikistan has had prominent female politicians before including a female Vice-President.  However, it is important to recognise the context of the Soviet era when the prominence of women in public life was at first imposed on Central Asia and was then naturalised.  Few women reached the higher positions across the Union whilst patriarchy continued informally.  Nevertheless, many reach the middle-ranking positions and were heavily represented in the intelligentsiya and the non-technical professions.   Women such as Bobonazarova were formed as cadres during the Soviet system and their extant status is, in part, an artefact of that system.

Oinhol Bobonazarova is part of the last Soviet generation.  But where is the next generation of women lawyers and campaigners in Tajikistan?  What place is there for such people in a regime which idealizes the role of the mother and a society with is structured around female submission and subordination?  These questions are beloved by NGOs but will not be solved by another donor-sponsored programme.  They require a fundamental change of course in society which is more likely to be driven by patterns of migration – the single biggest cause of social change in Tajikistan.

Whilst Bobonazarova’s candidacy might be a complex tale of gender politics it is a no less problematic story of electoral and party politics.  That the Islamic Revival (IRPT) and Social Democratic (SDPT) parties have together formed the Union of Reformist Forces of Tajikistan to support her candidacy indicates that presidential elections present threats to opposition parties.

A female candidate without a record of party politics is the least likely to face intimidation and violence from authorities during and after the elections.  Not coincidentally, Bobonazarova has the added virtue of being even less of a threat to the incumbent, President Rahmon, than either Muhiddin Kabiri (of the IRPT) or Rahmatullo Zoirov (of the SDPT).  She is not a viable alternative and will not be treated as such.  She has even declared that, if elected, she would not serve out her term and would merely govern for a transitional period of reform.

Whilst Bobonazarova’s candidacy was reported as a surprise to many observers, it is in keeping with the IRP’s very public platform of compromise with secularism and liberal modernity.   This has characterized the party since the peace agreement and especially under Muhiddin Kabiri who has been leader since Said Abdullo Nuri’s death in 2006.  The purported rise in ‘radical’ or Salafi groups in Tajikistan and the apparent growth in more conservative voices within the party indicated to some that the IRP would make a strong stance with its own candidate speaking out stridently against the President.

Yet Kabiri is nothing if not a pragmatist.  When I met him in June he was resisting moves within the party for himself to stand.  Given the intimidation of and violence against opposition politicians and the fact that Tajik elections are not about real competition between policy alternatives who can blame Kabiri for not standing?