Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Women Suffer in Silence

Declining opportunities for women mean many are confined to male-dominated lives at home.
By IWPR Central Asia

Women in Turkmenistan are finding it increasingly difficult to have an independent existence thanks to a return to traditional values and a lack of employment opportunities in the impoverished republic.


However, in spite of the establishment of a number of women’s resource centres, many of those affected are either unaware of their rights or, in extreme cases, feel that suffering is just part of life.


A series of decrees issued by President Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, have led to large cuts in education and health - the sectors where women commonly found employment. This has added to the problems facing women, who have suffered a series of reverses since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Before Turkmenistan became independent, the Soviet system brought women into manufacturing, agriculture and white-collar jobs, which boosted their skills and confidence levels and reduced dependence on husbands and fathers. Old-fashioned attitudes slowly began to change.


But after 1991, traditional values began to reassert themselves, even though equality is guaranteed under the constitution. In recent years, the loss of jobs in the education and health sectors – coupled with a deterioration in facilities such as affordable childcare – have led to increasing numbers of women being confined to their homes in the role of wives and mothers, completely dependent on male family members.


Aigul, a young woman from an Ashgabat suburb who has a degree from the capital’s Institute of Economics, told IWPR that she had hoped to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a working woman.


“I married just after my graduation, but my husband forbade me to look for a job. He said that as he was able to feed me, there was no need for me to work, and that I should be a homemaker and look after the children and livestock instead,” she said.


“That’s my place. I could make a fuss and stand up for my right to independence, but my husband and my relatives wouldn’t understand– they think the family and its well-being is more important than any woman.”


Some women in this situation have formed collectives to allow them to work, but Turkmen tradition is such that they still remain dependent on the male head of the family.


“Our families are usually large, with lots of children, and sometimes many groups live together in the same yard,” said Lachin, who lives just outside the capital.


“As it can be hard for the men to support such large numbers, the women produce handicrafts for sale. Many work as many as 18 hours a day to make carpets and rugs, sew national dress, embroider, and weave our national fabric.”


Religious and cultural traditions forbidding women from associating with men outside the home are now increasingly enforced. As a result, women are not involved in the sale of the goods they produce – men alone handle this side of the operation – and they remain financially dependent on the heads of their households.


Many Turkmen men believe the old ways are the best, and brush off any talk of equality.


“My elder daughter stays at home and helps her mother with the housework, and my younger daughter is in the fifth year at school,” said family head Batyr. “After she has finished her education she’ll stay at home as well, as there’s no need for girls to go to university. She should learn from her mother.


“Look at the other women who go to study at colleges - they put on make-up and meet up with men! That’s a form of disgrace my family does not need.”


The practise of wearing national costume – traditional dress and headscarf - is more widespread in Turkmenistan than elsewhere in Central Asia, so the fashion for western-style clothing sometimes meets with suspicion.


Maral, a young woman who lives in a village near Ashgabat, said, “Western fashions may be acceptable in the city, but in our village if you put on a sleeveless dress or one with a slight split, you would immediately be branded a prostitute.


“And your husband would also punish you at home,” she added, a reference to the republic’s domestic violence problem.


The authorities have taken steps to tackle the problem. One activist from a state-run women’s resource centre said, “We have been trying for many years to achieve equality with men – but they are not willing to allow us this. These centres have been set up so that every woman who needs help and support can come to us.”


However, the resource centres have less impact than they could, because so many women are ignorant of their rights.


“Women think that a certain amount of pain and endurance is part of their lot in life,” said one resource centre director, who did not want to give her name. “This mentality is mainly found in rural areas, where the level of education is lower and the number of social problems higher.”


A psychologist from a women’s resource centre, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “A husband might beat the wife until she is covered in bruises, and the next day he’ll bring her a small present. And the woman will forgive him.


“Often a woman cannot leave a husband like this, especially if she has small children and does not work. She will put up with this treatment until the very end.”