Reviews

The research implemented by C. Harris comes within the framework of a development programme in the southern regions of Tajikistan.  The present book aims at deciphering the social logics that can be observable in marriage.  According to a procedure widely used by Anglo-Saxon authors, C. Harris gives a large room to life stories of men and women, and admix the individual and the collective dimensions.  The sample of persons introduced here is probably quite oriented since in most cases it concerns women who have tried to escape from their condition as wives.  Though following these women’s unconventional itinerary is indeed quite instructive, however it remains legitimate to question oneself on the singularity or representativeness of these itineraries if compared with those of other Tajik women.  The book is nevertheless interesting by the fact that it focuses not on the condition of women, but on genre relations, and on the interactions between men and women, and between their respective families.  If it is rather obvious that Tajik women endure a number of constraints linked with their status as women, the author also sheds light on the fact that men are submitted to specific virile constraints.  First, matrimonial choices are not theirs, but those of their family, such as that consisting of marrying a cousin—it seems that preferential marriage is that with a matrilineal cousin, though this question, the object of numerous anthropological debates, has not been discussed here.  Men can also suffer from pressure exerted on them during the rite of defloration, when his family circle, then on the watch, expects him to demonstrate his virility.  Still, in the last chapter on love and sexuality, very intimate narratives reveal how some men suffer from their wives’ lack of love toward them.  This same chapter also displays women’s poor knowledge of their own body, given that they are educated in the taboo of sexuality.

One can be surprised that in such a study on the role of men and women in marriage, the influence of Islam and of Islamic law in this matter is almost eluded.  The author quotes a text of the early twentieth century that shows that a woman could then divorce in several cases: when her husband did not nourish her; when he was taking a second wife without her consent; when he was beating her without reason.  This is perfectly in accordance with Islamic law, which authorises female divorce for prejudice.  However, the author never refers to Islamic law as the possible source of social practices.  C. Harris mentions indeed interesting texts, from the viewpoint of compared social anthropology, showing that in Tajikistan there existed young marriages as soon as the age of nine, and that among the most fortunate men divorce and polygamy were frequent.  Nothing is said, however, of the permanence of such practices nowadays.  The author remembers that the Soviet administration tried hard to struggle against Islam seen as an intrinsically obscurantist religion, as well as against everything linked with local custom, seen as intrinsically harmful as is shown by the official expression of “crimes based on custom.”  The Soviet press did largely echo the cases of women liberated from their condition by the new possibilities offered to them, such as those of travelling, studying, working and becoming more autonomous.

Through secondary sources C. Harris takes us right back to the feminist revolution of March 8, 1928—a celebration of the Women’s International Day—, when the Communist administration asked Uzbek women to burn their veil.  These texts cast light on the existence of a strong female as well as male resistance against this unveiling, and show that the women who dared to unveil became the targets of numerous attacks.  Through other modern studies, C. Harris reconstructs the way Uzbek women lived this event, the difficulties as well as the liberation it represented for them.  It seems important to recall the social progress made of the unveiling of women in Central Asia from the viewpoint of their mobility and of their access to the labour market in the current world, where the veil is making a come back in the world of Islam and in Western Europe.  The Soviet administration was going very far in its struggle against sexism, since insulting or ill-treating a woman was considered a criminal offence.  It seems however that, despite such unquestionable benefits, numerous traditional representations on women still persist in Tajikistan—for instance the fact that a woman is condemned to remain single if she does not marry before twenty-three, which implies that she chose marriage instead of studies.  Divorcing for a women remains difficult even if her husband ill-treats her, is alcoholic or addicted to drugs, since most women fear from the rumours that will focus not on their husbands, but on them as wives and as mothers.  A number of pages are devoted to the issues of honour, of shame, and to the dominance of mothers-in-law over daughters-in-law.  One can only be surprised by the development of this theme out of any comparative perspective, whence such classical subjects have been extensively treated in numerous studies on Mediterranean societies.  On these issues, C. Harris transcribes long life stories with allusions to significant questions of gender relations, without synthesising them in her analysis. (See, for instance, the factual data provided on the consequence for a woman of the birth of an illegitimate child.)  The author also evokes the impossibility to abort in Tajikistan: one would like to know on what relies such a ban, and whether this practice is actually inexistent.  Another theme that appears in the quoted testimonies, but not developed in the analysis is female sterility and its consequences for the couple.

Corinne Fortier, Collège de France, Paris
CER: I-7.4.E-646