By: Mio Katagi
It is unsurprising that Western media would criticise the lack of gender equality in Turkmenistan. Seeing as the government has absolute control over the media and broadcasting in the country and is famously isolated from external influences.
The country has little to no foreign media outlets, with very limited internet access. Though much of the reality of women’s lives in Turkmenistan is full of uncertainties, this article will attempt to explore the status of women in Turkmenistan, Turkmen culture and history.
Turkmenistan is a country located in Central Asia. It has a population of approximately 5.7 million people and gained independence in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The majority of the population, approximately 89 percent of the nation, are Muslims.
However, Turkmen muslims do not parallel Western notions or ideas of Islam traditions. They deviate from other Muslim countries in their practices and roles within the family and in society.
Women in Turkmen Culture
While the roles of women in Turkmenistan are conformed mainly to household duties and are not visible actors in political affairs outside of the home, Turkmen women rarely wear veils or practice strict seclusion. They do not cover their faces and bodies, or have the same religious practices as other Muslim countries.
Turkmenistan was traditionally organised in a segmentary system of ‘tribes’ based on geographical regions, with sharp social stratification within and among these tribes. Due to this cultural phenomenon, customs among women can vary across the nation.
For example, women living in the capital Ashgabat, or in cosmopolitan areas enjoy more freedom, whereas women in villages near Turkmenistan's borders with Afghanistan and Iran. Women in these areas are more inclined to wear veils, and may abstain from consuming alcohol.
However, there are also generational differences in these practices, between women brought up in the Soviet period and young Turkmen women today - born after the independent of the State. The older generation tends to be less religious and freely consume alcohol, eat pork and dress in less ‘traditional’ Turkmen attire.
When Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty conducted a street interview asking women about their thoughts on their roles in society, the responses were surprisingly positive.
Many women maintained the ideologies of equality that were taught in the Soviet Union. Women and men were considered equal, and were to be treated equally under the State.
Many of the women who were interviewed seemed satisfied with the treatment of women in Turkmenistan, stating they felt free in society and are given equal opportunities. They claimed that they can even reach leadership positions if they work hard enough.
To achieve this, a woman needs to get higher education and on top of that learn languages and technical skills. However, because of the social norm of women as primary caretakers, some women are unable to fulfil their professional goals due to these responsibilities.
Women are expected to raise children and maintain the house, as well as work if their husband cannot support the family financially. Men have no such responsibility or obligation to care for children from society, and this discrimination lays a heavy burden, especially on women from a lower socio-economic status.
According to local culture, women are supposed to work, shop, cook, and look after the children. Furthermore, there are some jobs that are solely obligated to women, such as selling goods in the markets and bazaars.
Ethnic Minorities in Turkmenistan
Inequalities between women are not only limited to class, but also in terms of ethnicity. Ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan include; Kazakh, Russian, Uzbeks and Azeri populations.
According to the national consensus in 2012, the Kazakh’s population in Turkmenistan is about 5.8 percent, the Russian - about 5.1%, the Uzbek - 5.8%, and the Azeri - 1.2% of the population.
Ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan have more difficulty finding employment, and in some cases, adequate education because of their inefficiency of the Turkmen language. Education is provided mainly in Turkmen and Russian.
Currently, there are more than 1,850 schools in the country but only 70 of those institutions provide education in joint Turkmen-Russian and joint Turkmen-Turkish schools. This creates a barrier for children who do not speak Turkmen or Russian from entering the schools, and have a much harder time keeping up with their studies.
Students in Turkmenistan
When attending school, Turkmen women abide by the national uniform - a traditional Turkmen dress. The fabric, colour, length and style of the dress each year is outlined and women must follow this strict dress code. Both students and faculty are not allowed in, or even to appear in the institution if they are not dressed as such.
The adoption of the Turkmen Constitutional in 1992 guaranteed the principle of non-discrimination and fundamental rights and freedoms to all ethnicities and genders. But the absence of opposing political parties, restricted space for free speech, access to social media networks and created a lack of information for research purposes. NGFNB
A Women in Turkmenistan
I was able to have a conversation with a thirty-year-old woman, “Jeren” (not real name) from Turkmenistan. She provided valuable insight into her personal experience, and what it says about the lives of women in Turkmenistan.
It should be noted that these accounts are only from her personal experience, and Jeren emphasises that women’s experiences differ in accordance with the region, generation, social class and experience.
Jeren is from a city in the southern part of Turkmenistan. Her experience growing up there, she says is very different to the lives of people in the Capital, or women living in the city. She comes from a family of highly educated women, her grandmother holds a PhD, and her mother is a teacher with a Master’s degree.
She first explained to me the traditional and cultural family structure in Turkmenistan. “I think gender discrimination starts in the family. The son and daughter have completely different roles within their family. Girls would be responsible for cooking, cleaning the house, taking care of younger siblings, while the son having no such responsibilities at all.”
The son would go to school, play outside and “be a boy”, while the daughter is bound to her responsibilities as a caretaker from an early age. “I remember when I was young, my father did not let me ride a bicycle. I wasn’t allowed.
And where I grew up, if a girl was seen riding a bicycle, she would be made fun of, ridiculed for blemishing her reputation, and her family’s reputation.” If a boy was seen riding a bicycle? “Oh, completely okay. Boys are allowed.”
But the issue of gender discrimination extends larger than a matter of bike-riding; Jeren offers some context for these differences.
In Turkmenistan, there is a social responsibility placed on the youngest son in the family, to stay with his parents and take care of them in their old age. His wife will come into his family and live together with them. If a family only has one son, it is his responsibility to stay with his parents.
Meanwhile, when the daughter gets married, she will join her husband’s family, and leave her own. “Though it differs for each family, especially in terms of class, sometimes a family will choose to invest in a son’s education, skill-building, etc, because they believe that investment will stay in their family. If they finance their daughter’s education, all that information, education and value will go to her husband’s family, which is obviously less ideal. Often times, the poorer the family, the less investment the girl receives in comparison to the boy.”
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of Turkmenistan as a sovereign State, Turkmen nationalism has been on the rise. Over the years, many Russian and Turkish schools have closed down and most schools in Turkmenistan today are taught only in Turkmen.
Jeren recalls the difficulties that her mother faced as a Russian-speaking woman who is ethnically Turkmen in the post-Soviet state. “My mother, who only spoke Russian and didn’t speak Turkmen at all, faced a lot of difficulties in the new Turkmen State.
At twenty-three years old, she had to learn Turkmen, and people around her would make fun of her broken Turkmen. Even today, her Turkmen is about sixty, maybe seventy percent. Her students even sometimes call her out when she speaks Turkmen, and tell her that she is not speaking it correctly.”
In her mother’s workplace, she recalls a time when her mother found out she was being paid significantly less than her male colleague who was doing the exact same job.
“She went straight to the principal and asked him why she wasn’t being paid the same amount as him. She demanded if it was because she was a woman. And the principal looked at her in amazement, as if something had just clicked.”
She says the principal did not even realise the pay gap between the two teachers, and it had not even occurred to him how gender discriminatory it was.
“I think it’s a huge problem, that gender roles and discrimination is so ingrained in the culture and traditions of the country, that people do not recognize it at all.”
In cases of violence against women, Jeren says most women do not speak up about it. “It’s such a taboo. Many women feel so much shame surrounding physical or sexual abuse, especially if they are unmarried, and choose not to speak up.
This brings into an interesting cultural element of Turkmenistan that Jeren highlighted -- that like in many Muslim cultures, it is the woman who carries the honour of the family, rather than the man.
A family’s reputation or honour is directly reliant on the reputation of the daughter or daughter-in-law, and the women carry the burden of maintaining and raising the honour of the family.
This tradition is a pillar of pride for many women in Turkmenistan, but it also contributed negatively towards women in society.
According to many foreigners, Turkmenistan is a country of many mysteries with a rich and complicated history, but it is evident that it functions in its own unique capacity through its country’s independent traditions and culture.
Jeren believes that times are changing and that Turkmenistan is changing along with it. But the complex cultural notions and political structure today ground the nation in its traditional ideas of gender roles.
It is difficult to say outright whether women are being treated fairly or not, seeing as women have their own ideas and definitions of contentment for their lives.
However, it should be underlined that there are successful, independent women in Turkmenistan today who address women’s issues.
Like any other society, Turkmenistan is changing and adapting its culture in the new world, and Turkmen women are by no means passive bystanders in the fight for equality.
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International Women’s Rights Action Watch. (2006, May). Turkmenistan: Prepared for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Retrieved from http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/iwraw/publications/countries/turkmenistan.htm
Minority Rights Group International. (2018, March). Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Turkmenistan. Retrieved from https://minorityrights.org/country/turkmenistan/
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Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens / Turkmen Yurt TV. (2018 / 2019). Gender Discrimination in Turkmenistan. Retrieved from https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/TKM/INT_CEDAW_NGO_TKM_31299_E.pdf
United Nations Human Rights. (2016, December 1). Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews the report of Turkmenistan. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20968&LangID=E