Reviews

For those who have carefully read C. Harris’ previous book ‘Control and Subversion’ (2004: see the review by Corinne Fortier in Central Eurasian Reader 1 [2008]: No. 646 pp. 522-4), the work presented here will bring little new. Gender relations remain the central argument throughout the book. In the present work, the author concentrates on two types of social relation, namely between girls and boys on their path to marriage, and between a child and his mother or mother-in law. C. Harris underlines her arguments through numerous narratives that display the various strategies of women to cope with a tight system of social control. The narratives are allowed a lot of space providing an interesting primary source. The book is less about Muslim youth, since Islam is denied any relevance in shaping young peoples’ decision making, than about gender relations in between Tajik youth. In the theoretical discussion C. Harris contributes to the tradition-modernity debate.

She has organised her material around the binary poles of collectivist/individualist and traditionalist/modernist. Yet she claims that “My use of these terms moves beyond a simplistic set of oppositional pairs. [. . .] I see them not as occupying fixed points but as being represented by a set of continua that have at one end the traditional, collectivists lifestyles of Central Asia prior to the Russian conquest of the late nineteenth century and at the other the modern individualism displayed in Western television shows broadcasted in Tajikistan (p.13-14).” Although she refers to Hobsbawm to mention that traditions are anti-colonial strategies to preserve local culture and structure, she does not come back to this constructive character of traditions and instead seems to be inline with Soviet discourses on cultural ‘survival’ that mark a traditional society against a modern one, using her own concept of continua between two extremist forms. Within this discourse, anything ‘Tajik’ is traditional whereas adaptation to western lifestyle is related to modernity. According to C. Harris, “Tajikistan, in fact, remains a long way from modernity (p.61),” the main reason being gender norms. The core of her analysis is based on the changing gender relations as a main marker of classification for a modern or traditional society.

After a historical introduction to the area, C. Harris presents briefly her concepts of traditionalism, modernism, collectivism, and individualism as well as social control, identity, and tension and transition that are extended in each chapter (Chapter 1). In the second chapter, she discusses the Soviet influence on women’s life and the first attempts to modernise Tajik society, which failed due to the people’s resistance to absorb Soviet (or rather Russian) culture. Traditional gender relations however start to be shaken and many enter a stage of transition between modernism and traditionalism. The tension which arises from this lies in gender relations as women appear more willing to live a modern life because they have little to loose if compared to men who may loose power and control in a modern relationship.

Chapter 3 engages with the family as a collective or individual enterprise on the same continua. Here the author seeks to understand the way the collective (community) monitors its members, especially girls. The dreams of many girls are seen in the light of a modern mind which is blocked by the traditional settings. Like in the other chapters, her primary concern is about gender relations within the family which although being very interesting stops her from considering the various other relations within the web of kin, neighbours, and friends. From an economic point of view, C. Harris sees collectivism as a response to economic decline since the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Hence, the reason why young people do not rebel, according to C. Harris, is due to their material dependency which contradicts somehow the fact that many migrant men are the main breadwinners of their family today.

Chapter 4 takes a look at educational and employment matters. Even if girls manage to follow higher education, this does not guarantee them a ‘modern’ husband and a life thereafter, they still run the risk that their education might become rather an obstacle to their relation than a benefit. Often enough young women end up working for their in-laws who hold all the rights over their kelins (daughter-in-law). This, C. Harris explains, is related to masculine constructions that depend on feminine agreement to display submission.

Chapter 5, which deals with romantic friendships developed within a European historical context, shows the authors strong gender bias in approaching youth. In romantic friendships, C. Harris sees the greatest challenge for traditionalism and collectivism and a measurement for modernist minds. The discussion with students shows that, in fact, boys and girls have different ideas about marital life. However, the rich narratives also demonstrate that both girls and boys reflect their positions consciously and redefine roles and duties in different settings, which appears to be more a post-modern behaviour than a traditional one. C. Harris denies the male students a masculine view of modernity because they link modernity to clothing and leisure culture, not to gender relations. On the contrary, female students claim more equal rights and intellectual exchange between marriage partners which the author values as modern thoughts. Romantic friendships being considered a non-Tajik form of relationship (the proof being that Russian terms are used for this friendship against all the other types, which bear Tajik denominations), it is a pity that C. Harris has focused solely on this kind of friendship, leaving out the various other friendship ties which link young people together.

With the last chapter (Chapter 6), the author brings the two poles of the continuum on to a model. Based on Kağıtçıbaşı’s dynamic model of the family synthesis context, she develops her own static model of family types (p.137). Although she has repeatedly claimed that most families are somewhere in between, this model suggests two types that can be distinguished by certain characteristics. Families however do not only move forward (in this point, C. Harris’ approach sharply differs from Russian evolutionary discourses), they may go in either direction which hints at conscious choices rather than mechanical developments. The short conclusion enforces once again the irrelevance of religion in the development of Tajikistan whether in a traditional or modern way. Whereas the tension in the previous chapters arose from the conflict between more traditionalist or more modernist lifestyles, here tension is suggested to come out of intergenerational relations. With its various narratives the book provides firsthand material that uncovers various aspects of women’s life in Tajikistan as well as strategies to deal with the restricting structure. At some points the author however admits that young people in fact find ways to surround roles and norms and to influence the decisions that rhetorically appear rigid, authoritative and traditional. The book may best be positioned as an addition to the author’s fist book contributing to gender discussions.

Sophie Roche, Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Salle
CER: II-6.4.E-528