If a number of publications can be found on the condition of women in the Muslim societies of the Maghreb, of the Near and Middle East, books on their situation in Central Asia remain rather rare. From this viewpoint the collection of paper published by H. Fathi, a researcher in the French Institute of Central Asian Studies (IFEAC, Tashkent), with the participation of scholars from several Central Asian countries, contributes to a better appraisal of gender issues in this region of the world of Islam. In the present volume, these issues have been dealt with through the approaches of sociology, anthropology, history and development studies. One can notice the uneven representation of different Central Asian countries, and the uneven distribution of different disciplinary approaches: Kyrgyzstan has been tackled by several anthropological studies whence Uzbekistan is studied by several historical articles.
The recent political context linked with the independence in 1991 of Central Asian republics has modified the status of women if compared with the Soviet period. The goal of this book consists of showing how, in this new context, women’s identities have been redefined. According to H. Fathi’s introduction, it is “to shed light on the paradoxical attitudes of Central Asian independent states which, on the one hand, have introduced modernity, for instance on the ideological ground, but on the other hand have reactivated traditional values of still patriarchal societies, based on a code of honour sacralised by Islam and maintaining women in a situation of inferiority.” This research perspective seem to echo to the Soviet emancipation ideology that used to see Islam as “an obstacle to progress” and these peoples’ customs as “survivals of the past,” an archaism to be overcome, in particular as far as the status of woman was concerned. This postulate appears very clearly in H. Fathi’s paper on “the role of religion in the degradation of the status of the Uzbek woman.”
The advance of women’s condition during the Soviet period, from a juridical viewpoint, is unquestionable. As it is demonstrated by several papers, the Soviet constitutions have considerably delayed the age of marriage for young girls, from nine to eighteen years of age. In order to struggle against forced marriages, the Soviet administration instituted the primacy of mutual consent in marriage and civil divorce. Besides, polygamy, levirate, payment of dowry were forbidden, as well as the abduction of the bride among the nomads. One can ask oneself whether these prohibitions were always immediately followed by real effects, especially in the rural world. Otherwise one must notice that a lot of these customs—the levirate, the payment of dowries, the abduction of the bride—did not have their origin in Islam, contrary to what is often suggested by the uncritical reading of this book. Conversely, in one can call the domain of women’s access to the public sphere the soviet administration was more efficient than in matter of personal status, bringing about a genuinely feminist revolution through the struggle against the reclusion of women in the domestic space, bringing them to unveil and giving them access to the sphere of labour. Generally speaking, the Soviet administration itself was not exempt from classical ideological representations of the role of women, as is shown for instance by the constant glorification of woman as the mother of a numerous family.
Even if it is probably an uneasy task, the reader would have liked to know more about the work of a lot of NGOs in Central Asian countries—on prostitution, conjugal violence, or abandonment of illegitimate children—, many of those working beside women being condemned to work clandestinely (p. 40). H. Fathi compares the respective demands of the Islamists of the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, of the Gharm region in Tajikistan, and of Kazakhstan with those of the Taliban as to the quasi-forbidding to women of going out of their house, of working, or being looked after. One can question the validity of such a comparison, though it would have been even more interesting to know more on the impact of such respective demands on the everyday life of women living in these regions. The paper by Tcholpon Tourdalieva on the image of Kyrgyz women in travelogue literature raises several questions. The reader would have liked to know more on the mythical rather than documentary character of the female leader of a Kyrgyz tribe, and receive more ethnographical evidence on the possibility for Kyrgyz woman of the Alai region to refuse a groom (59). If such a custom is documented, it would qualify the book’s underlying postulate as to the necessarily harmful character of tradition for women. Moreover, it would be interesting to question this author’s assertion on the specifically Shamanic origin and character of the practice of beating women for expelling the jinns from inside her—whilst beating women (or men) for expelling jinns is a practice that one can observe in other parts of the world of Islam, many of which have no shamanic past. Another article on Kyrgyzstan, by Anara Tabyshalieva and Dina Choukourova, insists on the significance of polygamy, and of marriage by abduction. A last one by Bermet G. Touguelbaeva, introduces the condition of married women, through stories showing the impossibility for these women to divorce, even when they are said that they are not anymore their husband’s unique spouse. This example reveals the necessity to take into account the social practices and representations on women’s rights, since the juridical reforms, essential as they are, do not suffice to solve all the problems.
Table of content: Fathi Habiba, “Après l’URSS, qu’en est-il de la place des femmes en Asie Centrale? [After the USSR: What about the Place of Women in Central Asia?]” 27-50; Tourdalieva Tcholpon, “L’image de la femme kirghize à travers les récits de voyages (fin du xixe siècle – début du xxe) [The image of the Kyrgyz Woman through Travelogues (Late Nineteenth – Early Twentieth Centuries)],” 51-74; Chadmanova Sanobar, “Femme et islam au Turkestan à travers la presse coloniale russe (fin du xixe siècle – début du xxe) [Women and Islam in Turkistan through the Russian Colonial Press (Late Nineteenth – Early Twentieth Centuries)],” 75-87; Radjabov Qahramon, “Le rôle des femmes chefs de troupes dans la lutte contre l’installation du pouvoir soviétique en Asie Centrale [The Role of Female Military Leaders in the Struggle against the Installation of the Soviet Power in Central Asia],” 87-104; Tourdiev Cherali, “Femme et répression dans l’Ouzbékistan soviétique [Women and Repression in Soviet Uzbekistan],” 105-28; Alimova Diloram A., “L’évolution du statut de la femme dans l’Asie Centrale: des djadids aux indépendances [The Evolution of the Status of Woman in Central Asia: From the Jadids to Independences],” 129-50; Tokhtakhojaeva Marfoua, “Le modèle soviétique d’émancipation féminine et ses conséquences sur le statut des femmes dans l’Asie Centrale postsoviétique [The Soviet Model for the Emancipation of Women and Its Impact on the Status of Woman in Post-Soviet Central Asia],” 151-68; Djoumaev Alexandr, “Genre, culture et identité en Ouzbékistan [Gender, Culture and Identity in Uzbekistan],” 169-88; Tabychalieva Anara & Choukourova Dina, “Femmes du Kirghizistan independent [Women of Independent Kyrgyzstan],” 189-206; Fathi Habiba, “Musulmanes d’Asie Centrale: un exemple de recomposition de la religion en islam [Central Asian Muslim Women: A Case of Reconstitution of Religion in Islam?],” 207-24; Chakirova Svetlana, “Quelle identité pour les femmes kazakhes? [What Kind of Identity for Kazakh Women?],” 225-58; Touguelbaeva Bermet G., “La violence au sein du couple au Kirghizistan [Violence inside Couples in Kyrgyzstan],” 259-80; Kouvatova Alla A., “Les conséquences de la guerre civile sur le travail et l'emploi des femmes rurales du Tadjikistan [The Consequences of the Civil War upon the Labour and Employment of Rural Women [sic] of Tajikistan],” 281-312; Babaeva Klara, “Être femme au pays de Turkmenbachi [To Be a Woman in Turkmenbashi’s Country],” 313-32; Touguelbaeva Bermet G. & Hamzaeva Saulé D., “L'émergence des ONG féminines en Asie Centrale,” 333-50.