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HERALD (Annual), January 1997


Central Issues

Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam
By Marfua Tokhtakhadjaeva
Translated from the Russian by Sufian Aslam 
Edited by Cassandra Balchin
Published by Shirkatgah, Lahore
Price: not given

A leading historian of Pakistan claims that 62 per cent of the people living in this country have Central Asian blood in their veins. This, he claims, is a result of centuries of interaction and intermingling through wars, trade and the exchange of scholars and Sufis between the Central Asian states and the regions now constituting Pakistan. These affinities become clearer, however, after reading the two books that are being reviewed here.

Even though the Central Asians have undergone three-quarters of a century of Russian imperialism – an experiment that should have made them very much different from the Pakistanis – our readers would find the problems, the solutions, the anxieties and the points of view expressed in these books to be strikingly familiar. It would not be pure exaggeration to say that the only thing foreign about these books are the proper nouns (and not even all of these!).

The dilemma facing Uzbek society (as well as other societies of Central Asia), it seems, is related to choices about the future. Should they go back to the values of the pre-Soviet past, “when women’s horizons were limited to the family and children”? Or should they pursue “the equality of economic and political rights granted to women by Soviet power…?” The authors affirm the second point of view.

The situation is not altogether difficult for Pakistani readers to understand. We faced a similar dilemma fifty years ago (if not still), when the British colonialists left the country leaving behind a mixed legacy. Unfortunately, women’s movements in the Pakistani society of those days were perceived largely as social evenings for the elite, where well-to-do women could distribute sewing machines among the poorer ones. Hence, realization of the possible choices came much after those choices had been eliminated by the extremist religious movements – after the Ahmedis had been singled out for persecution, the Sunday holiday abolished, liquor and night clubs banned, women forced behind the chaddar and chardiwari as well as reduced to the legal status of a half-human species, and the liberals ousted from the echelons of power.

The shape of Pakistani society and the situation of women today might have been much different if movements like the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) had come into being to prevent people like Ziaul Haq from coming into power rather than just in order to defy his whims once he was there. Surely, there is a lot the Pakistani and the Central Asian feminists can learn from each other.

The first book is a documentary reflection on the state of Uzbek women. A reader might be tempted to compare it with its Pakistani counterparts: Fareeda Shaheed’s Women of Pakistan and Fareeha Zafar’s Finding Our Way. There is, however, no need to do so. The book is neither as strictly focused as Shaheed’s nor as diversified as Zafar’s. Marufa’s book attains a sort of multi-dimensional character, presenting the women of Uzbekistan through the diverse approaches of history, social sciences and live interviews.

This approach can be understood better, perhaps, by looking at the list of chapters. It reads thus: “Islam, Education and Women before 1917”; “The Sovietisation of Central Asian Society and the Emergence of Muslim Women out of Seclusion”; “Society and the Family”; “The Dictatorship of the Workers”; “Women at the Top”; “History through the Eyes of Women in my Family”; “One Hundred Answers to Five Questions”; and “On the Threshold of the Future – Or of the Past?”

The tendency of the author to become subjective does not get much in the way, thanks to this format. The first chapter, tracing the history of Uzbek women through the medieval ages, goes a long way to establish he fact that women generally enjoyed a better status in the secular kingdoms of Babur and his tribe. This opens up the possibilities of exploring the parallels in our own history, because Babur and his descendants also ruled here. Will anyone from our own side stand up to do the research? One always wonders why the feminists of Pakistan generally tend to bypass their own medieval history as compared to the feminists of other Asian countries.

The chapters on the Soviet and post-Soviet period depict Uzbek society as torn between its progressive and conservative sections – the drama is perhaps a bit more intense than what we have witnessed in Pakistan. There are case studies of women from one side of society getting married to a family from the other, and failing to adjust there. Running as a counterpoint to the theme of ideological conflict are the more familiar human weaknesses such as greed, vanity and frivolity.

The author has made some profound observations in this part of the book. The communist suppression of religion could not wipe it out altogether, it only managed to make it more dogmatic. Under threat from enemies, the followers of the faith could only retrieve its basic ritualistic essentials (plus a prejudice against foreign cultures), while wider implications of the faith – such as tolerance, mysticism, and religion as a vehicle of love for humanity – all evaporated. The Soviets left a truncated version of Islam that was far from the worthy heritage of such Central Asian figures as Imam Bukhari and Data Gunj Bakhsh.

There is one basic question, however, which the book, unfortunately, leaves out: would it not be a good thing to clear up people’s vision of Islam, and invite them to come back to the higher potentials of Islamic ideals? Somewhere between the lines we read the answer. ‘Going back’ is a phrase that is a reminder of the horrors of male chauvinism and the dark, confined world of parandja (an attire which sounds similar to our own well-known ‘shuttlecock’ burqa). Feminists like Marufa, therefore, seem prepared to by pass the debate over religion altogether, content with an assortment of private faith topped up with “the equality of economic and political rights granted to women by Soviet power” on a secular basis. They might well have heard Asma Jahangir, who pronounced sometime back that “we have failed to convince the fundamentalists that Islam is an egalitarian religion; the battle of human rights in Pakistan should therefore be fought on secular grounds now.”

Feminist theologians like Riffat Hassan, on the other hand, would try to point out that such an approach is actually a matter of seeking short-term relief at the cost of long-term solutions. A dialogue between the feminists of Pakistan, Central Asia and other Muslim countries would certainly be quite interesting.

Last, but not the least, it is quite irritating to find such an enlightening book as this one being written in sexist language! One cannot say whether this was a characteristic of the original Russian manuscript or something introduced in the translation. The editor, who otherwise seems to have done an adequate job, should have put a note on this aspect.

The second book can actually be seen as a sort of extension of the seventh chapter of the first. It is “the result of an unprecedented survey among women from five diverse Central Asian Republics…” Women from diverse social backgrounds have answered questions about the “historical, economic, political and social contexts” of the debate on the women’s movement in Central Asia.

The book goes a long way to prove that ignorance is not always related to one’s education or position in society. For instance, a head of a department in a national research institute who had benefited from an opportunity to study in Moscow, comes out with the statement: “I do not want to see any women politicians! Politics is an activity that corresponds better to the masculine nature, psychology and intellect.” Going through the responses of such women, one begins to understand better why the feminists are afraid to discuss religion.

Not all respondents have come out with similar opinions, however. There are, of course, the better-balanced, thought provoking and informative statements as well. On the whole, the book makes extremely interesting reading. But it might have been even more useful if the compliers had included an analysis of the responses. Surely, this is enough material for any linguistic, psychological or social research. For instance, the lady quoted above goes on to admit that given “the existing political power structures … neither I, nor any other woman, would be able to do much for the female half of the population.” Reflecting on the inherent contradictions (and consistencies) of these two statements, one could make valid inferences about the self-worth of the speaker, and also her perception of her own sex.

The quality of the printed text (especially with regards to typographical errors) is better than the average Pakistani publication, which does not mean that it is completely without its shortcomings. But by printing these books, Shirkatgah has made a useful addition to the body of literature on women’s movements available in Pakistan.

The dilemma facing Uzbek society (as well as other societies of Central Asia), it seems, is related to choices about the future.

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