I am a scholar-activist from the Caucasus residing in the US. I am a mother and a scholar of Anthropology, Islam, and Gender; my work does not fit easily within established disciplinary boundaries. I was not born and raised in Central Asia, and I do not claim Central Asian identity. My personal history was forged by the Soviet Union’s disintegration, war in Chechnya, and the experience of subsequent immigration to the US. My long-term research, writing, and activism is inspired by an ongoing collaboration with Central Asian artists, scholars, and feminist and queer activists. This positionality and situatedness informs my essay.
University of New Hampshire
Associate Professor of Anthropology, Islam, and Gender
The concept of “gender” refers to socio-cultural assemblages of ideas, practices, and artifacts used to differentiate between individuals in a society based on whether and how one is female, male, or any other culturally acceptable category. This concept has been critically interrogated in a variety of ways for different reasons in different locations and disciplines.
In Central Asia, the term “gender” was largely introduced by international agencies to local activists and scholars during the last decade of the 20th century. At the time, scholarly research and writing about gender was mainly limited to discussion of Central Asian women’s social roles and patriarchy. In the 21st century, international and Central Asian scholars have become more attuned to using gender as an analytical lens on the diversity of human experiences, including various models of and for masculinity and femininity (as well as other gender identities) and gendered relations and discourses in view of colonialism, nationalism, capitalism, and neoliberalism. The wealth of research material amassed over more than a century makes it evident that the Central Asian gender order, just like any other, is dynamic and changes over time, and hence requires serious scholarly attention
My Journey into Gender Studies
My journey into Gender Studies started with an interest in Muslim women’s leadership in Uzbekistan. As I amassed knowledge and experience in this area, I began to decouple women’s socio-political activism from religion and address the question of gender variance in the region. My book, Women, Islam, And Identity: Public Life in Private Spaces in Uzbekistan (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014), represents the culmination of the first stage of my journey. This book is based on ethnographic research conducted during the first decade of the 21st century, when the many historical examples of Muslim women leaders were obscured and questions about women’s ability to lead and the kinds of leadership roles women could assume were still part of scholarly and public debate among Muslims. Among other things, the book shows how a desire for leadership is not intrinsic to women (or humans in general) but is rather socio-historically specific. In the manuscript, while taking a critical approach to some existing assumptions about women’s leadership, I identified and provided examples of different, equally important, forms of leadership that the specific socio-historical context has engendered. Otinlar (plural of the term otin, which means teacher) in the Ferghana Valley are one example.
Various terms are used to refer to these women, including otonoy, otin-oy, otincha, or/and otinchalar (plural of otincha). I use the term otinlar not only to signal a plural form of the term “otin,” but also to expand its definition. These women felt themselves to be Muslim; desired to be better Muslims; and rationalized and acted on these feelings and desires in various ways, including by facilitating religious ceremonies among local women, by reciting and interpreting religious texts, and by teaching women (and occasionally children, but rarely men) about Islam’s history, principles, and sacred texts. Years of research in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley led me to an important realization: otinlar served as leaders among other women and within their local communities without necessarily being recognized as such by formal religious and secular authorities. They did not accept the formal religious leadership’s understanding and interpretation of Islamic principles as normative but inhabited this normative discourse and actively participated in the production of their variegated orthodoxy of ways of being “right and good” Muslims. By teaching religion classes in their own homes, conducting ritual ceremonies at local women’s homes, and providing advice on social and individual matters, these otinlar brought about incremental social changes, both as intended and unintended outcomes of social reproduction. As leaders, they cultivated a gradual moral renewal in their own lives and in their communities.
As this example shows, leading men in a congregational prayer at the mosque is only one form of leadership. There are other forms that do not seek formal political authority or leadership and do not pursue or advocate radical social restructuring. Rather, they produce socio-political criticism and leadership in a self-reflexive manner at a local level: one must change oneself, and eventually a collectivity of morally transformed individuals will constitute a morally sound Islamic community and perhaps even a polity.
During the second decade of the 21st century I engaged with the concept of feminism (including Islamic feminism) as a highly variegated map of discourses on and practices of gender justice. I came to conclude that the contextual nature of Central Asian dynamic socio-political activism remains the only viable analytical generalization we can make at this time. This activism always emerges in a particular existential and relational context, presenting a range of problems local activists aim to address through the means available to them (note that these are not limited to discourses on Islam, gender, and justice). At this time, I would sketch a regional grassroots gender justice activism—that is, one that exists outside state institutions—in the following way:
First, contemporary socio-cultural expectations of women in Central Asia, by and large, put them in charge of and make them responsible for the domestic space and the everyday well-being of their families through their roles as mothers, wives, daughters-in-law, and caretakers. To these women, family values continue to be paramount, notwithstanding divorces, economic hardship, and gendered violence. As a result, their activism may not reflect a liberal progressive agenda: their desire for (more) rights does not have to challenge male dominance, while their understandings of liberal equality do not have to clash with the existing gendered hierarchy. Additionally, while some local women desire and struggle for the right to work, as well as equal political recognition and participation, others want to be liberated from wage labor and direct engagement with the state in order to fully enjoy their wifehood and motherhood.
Second, socio-political activism is pragmatic. It is informed by personal experiences, feelings of moral responsibility vis-à-vis others, economic necessity, consumerist desires, and local and global discourses on rights. This activism is purposeful and often intended to satisfy the immediate needs (including the spiritual needs) of local families and individuals.
Third, women’s activism can be both non-violent and violent, including picketing and protests, acts of civil disobedience, artistic performances, direct political action, and/or the direct provision of social services to their communities.
Fourth, this activism takes different forms, happens in different places, and can be both collective and individual. Collective activism—as “women,” “elderly women,” or “mothers”—helps to ensure that no one individual is singled out for retribution by government agents, while individual political activism (e.g., a hunger strike or self-immolation) makes the protesting individual identifiable and their personal grievance recognizable.
Fifth, local women’s activism is not limited to any one class (e.g., “the poor”), ethnicity (e.g., “Uzbek”), age, sexual orientation, occupation, or religious affiliation, and includes human rights activists, businesswomen, and housewives. One can find youth, artists, sex-workers, teachers, women religious leaders, those professing a secular orientation, and members of local LGBTQ communities among the activists.
Sixth, local women’s socio-political activism takes place inside and outside their countries and in solidarity with others. It can be both physical (e.g., individual participation in local protests) and virtual (e.g., online activism) and often has a transnational dimension, as the dominant discourses on rights and racism elsewhere in the world are familiar to many local activists.
Seventh, even if local women’s activism is inspired by international solidarity, this does not come at the expense of local existential needs and priorities. On 16 January 2017, a plane crash destroyed buildings and killed dozens of people near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Instead of going on the solidarity stroll with Women’s March in the US (a reaction to the legislative decisions made by then President Trump in January 2017), activists from the Bishkek Feminist Initiatives decided to focus on their communities’ needs by offering emotional support to local people affected by the recent tragedy.
Eighth, this activism can have adverse consequences. Even if successful in their efforts, women-activists in Central Asia can face character assassination, police intimidation, detention, physical assaults, and death.
Finally, when it comes to local gender-justice activism in Central Asia, there are several groups that support the existing gender binary; their activism also needs to be acknowledged.
Let me elaborate. There are Muslim female activists at different levels of Uzbek society—including the individual, communal, and societal levels—who, inspired by their interpretations of Islamic duties and responsibilities, argue in favor of the gender binary as decreed by the Divine. Some of them argue for hierarchical superiority of males over females, while others point out a requirement of complementarity between spouses. Their interpretations of the Islamic gender order, an Islamic state, and the concept of Divine justice are some of the resources on which these activists draw. Inspired by their religious sensibilities, these activists engage in politics through piety.
For instance, inspired by their religious education in the 1990s, some Muslim women in Kazakhstan—a dynamic political force working outside the government structures and global NGOs—formed religious fellowships and engaged in socio-political activism by mediating interpersonal relationships in their local communities, including by providing advice on marital problems, offering therapy sessions, engaging in matchmaking, negotiating intra-family quarrels, and shielding women from gendered domestic violence. In Kyrgyzstan in the 2010s, personal piety and religious education informed some Muslim women’s activism in their local communities along similar lines, while several female members of Hizb ut-Tahrir actively engaged in recruitment and teaching others about Islam and a “Just Society.” These women’s personal moral transformation became a point of departure for broader socio-political engagement with their communities and sometimes governments.
While it is important to acknowledge personal religiosity as a resource, to fully understand gender justice activism, it is important to delink religious sensibilities and socio-political activism. Even though some women draw on religious resources for inspiration and articulation of their grievances and possible solutions when it comes to gender justice within a binary gender order, religious knowledge per se does not have to materialize in women’s socio-political activism and is not the only driver of this activism; nor is gender justice these women’s only or primary priority. For instance, in the 2010s, revoliutsioner katyndar (revolutionary women) in Kyrgyzstan engaged in contextual political activism (some of it violent) in pursuit of financial stability for their families, not gender justice. In the process, they might have critiqued existing gender norms by transforming some of their feelings of shame and humiliation about economic distress into ideas of entitlements and rights. At the same time, however, they continued to operate within the paradigm of “traditional” gender roles. Like those activists who struggle against the binary gender order, women-activists motivated by other goals sometimes face character assassination, police intimidation, detention, physical assaults, and death.
The local binary gender order is also supported by various nationalist groups, the participants in which self-identify as masculine men and feminine women. Their vigilante strategies and violent techniques are meant to curtail (perceived) offenses against the binary gender order and/or the hierarchy that makes females and femininity subservient to males and masculinity. Such activism—often expressed though violence (whether physical, verbal, or psychological, and some of which can be delivered online)—is not homogeneous and does not have a unitary motivation and/or cause. Members of such nationalist groups as Kyrk Choro (“forty knights”) in Kyrgyzstan often express their support for the hierarchical binary gender order using violence because in their view, the state leadership has come to symbolize the state’s weakness. Such activism can also reflect ongoing challenges to the normative gender roles and a crisis of “traditional” masculinity in the contemporary not-quite-neoliberal but already-not-socialist economic system, where it has become challenging to play the most “masculine” role: that of family breadwinner. Such gendered activism extends beyond the region to diaspora and migrant communities outside Central Asia.
Finally, socio-political activism in support of the binary gender order seeks not only to uphold proper (in activists’ view) gender roles and police individual behavior within the binary, but also to eradicate gender variance perceived as a foreign import. The targets of this activism are not only women and sexual minorities, but also foreigners—anyone and anything that challenges their status quo and understanding of the traditionalist/nationalist binary gender order. The historical and geographical persistence of gender variance despite such efforts has informed my current research, writing, and activism.
I currently focus on how local understandings of gender norms and roles continue to be informed by colonial (both Imperial Russian and Soviet) idea(l)s of modernity and social conformity. Despite local scholars’ criticism of the Russian Imperial and Soviet colonial past, local nationalist efforts and nationalizing regimes fail to critically interrogate their own colonial biases when it comes to policy and gender justice. While existing regimes and some activists produce dominant images of feminine and masculine behavior and generate stereotypes that seek to fix identities and prevent changes, there are numerous examples of past and present gender variance. The local gender order reflects the Russian colonial regime’s imposition of judicial, political, socio-cultural, religious, and gender structures that reflected the values of European modernity (e.g., a female spouse as her husband’s companion). Just as it does today, the colonial geography of imagination portrayed local women as oppressed and men as oppressive.
Such images and stereotypes might have created an impression of a binary, uncomplicated gender order in the region. My research, however, shows that the early Russian colonial gender order was markedly non-binary and different from the Russian imperial and later the Soviet one. A critical historiography of several sources (from the 1870s to the 2020s) demonstrates that a rigid gender dichotomy and the binary logic behind it—for which nationalists currently advocate—is not a default gender structure but an option. Indeed, there is empirical evidence of historical gender variance.
Gender Studies of Today
The second decade of the 21st century offers several examples of gender studies as a growing and promising area of meaningful research and theorization in Central Asia. Despite the concept’s non-indigenous history, a gender lens allows scholars and activists to develop more nuanced analyses of human diversity in the region and its history, and/or to speculate about or envision their societies’ future. Thinking about Central Asia with gender transcends a focus on women alone; instead, it helps to offer thicker descriptions, bend existing assumptions about gender orders, and challenge some (mis)conceptions about Russian and Soviet modernity’s emancipatory goals, as well as current nationalisms. The forthcoming double issue of Central Asian Affairs sheds light on some existing epistemic blind spots when it comes to gender studies, including the systematic screening-out of historical and contemporary gender diversity; male and female sex work; varieties of local masculinities; female virginity tests; the in-bodiment (as in corporeality)—and not just embodiment (as in performance)—of social norms; racializing; queer activism; and the use and abuse of the discourse on traditions. I highly recommend the Special Issue.
It is exciting to think with gender in and about Central Asia. This approach takes knowledge production pertaining to the region (e.g., research, publications, film, artistic performances) beyond politicized and reductionist approaches that would see it as a “women’s question” and/or “Islamic revival.” Rather, this approach prevents from an analytical scaling-down of complex local human relations to a dominance/submission model (as in, for example, “men” over “women” and/or “Islam” over “its regional subjects”). As the lens, gender clarifies the gendered nature of local nationalisms and re-traditionalizing projects in each of the region’s countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Furthermore, “thinking with gender” is an important analytical move: any analytical work is always partial and should invite further conversations, not postulate universal truths and/or (simply) offer generalizations. Such an approach contributes directly to deconstructing the ideology of the binary gender order and re-thinking gender not as a category per se, but as a site of intersections of sexuality, ethnicity, racialization, ability, class, religion, history, law, economy, politics, history, and art.
I am honored to learn from Central Asian scholars (and/or those of Central Asian descent) about gender dynamics in the region. Their research, activism, and theorization undo the “subject/object” and “researcher/researched” dichotomy, which contributes to decolonizing history and knowledge production. Much of their work is an example of publicly engaged scholarship, which we can all be better at. Current works that exemplify thinking with gender demonstrate that even though the dynamics of gender differences and inequalities in Central Asia must be contextualized vis-à-vis the specific modalities of local postcolonial and post-Socialist modernity/modernities, this region is not exceptional when it comes to efforts to normalize a local, currently binary gender order that is continuously being challenged by lived experiences. On the other hand, precisely because of the region’s historical and epistemic location and constitution, Central Asian gender studies stand to make a significant contribution to the study and theorization of gender at large.
There are several areas that deserve further research when it comes to gender. These include (1) the role of enslavement in the precolonial gender order; (2) women’s queer history; (3) historical and contemporary gendered ableism and disability; (4) the intersection between human sexuality and living systems of spirituality (e.g., Islam or Baháʼí faith); (5) digital gender order; and (6) gender order and labor migration. Labor migration is an informative element of the existing gender order in the region: it does not determine changes to the existing binary gender order, yet it certainly informs them. The experience of migration is not axiomatically positive for the emancipation of local women and the empowerment of local men, nor for improving the economic well-being of Central Asian countries.
We need more dialogue and collaboration among scholars, artists, and activists. Blurring the artificial divisions between art, theory, and activism is a productive move toward generating meaningful theory: theory that works and matters. It is important not to lose a site of praxis, since epistemology not only reflects, but also informs our daily lives. Finally, thinking with and moving beyond gender requires a wider dissemination of the knowledge produced by us and about us in different languages to different audiences. We should all strive to do this better.