Uzbek Women Get Bad Press

Women are starting to believe in their patronising media image

Uzbek Women Get Bad Press

Women are starting to believe in their patronising media image

According to Uzbekistan's government-controlled media, women are affectionate, gentle, obedient creatures, destined only to serve as loyal wives and mothers.

Though Uzbek authorities have signed various international charters defending the rights of women, they are keen to shoehorn them into their traditional roles in Uzbek society - all part of the government's promotion of the idea of Uzbek national identity which it has been peddling since the country's independence in 1991.

Encouraging women away from education and the workplace and back into the home is also convenient in an environment of social instability and high unemployment.

The heavily censored media, which avoids any problematic issues such as the economy or human rights, is engaged in a relentless campaign to rewrite women's position in society.

Journalists say there's a need for a tighter rein on women's freedoms, arguing their problems can largely be traced to their own departure from the traditions of Uzbekistan's patriarchal society.

Oila Va Jamiat, Family and Society, is typical of this sort of mindset. The paper publishes a huge number of letters from women concerning domestic violence. Only, the word "violence" never appears in their descriptions of physical and psychological abuse. And replies to the letters invariably manage to lay the blame on the victims.

One woman wrote in to complain about her husband's mistreatment, saying his family had encouraged him to ridicule and beat her.

The paper picked up on the fact she already had a child before the marriage and that since the man had deigned to take the two of them in, she should therefore accept any treatment meted out to her.

Family and Society next featured a letter from a woman asking the paper about her rights as a mistress. The reply was written by a religious leader, describing in great detail the Islamic practice of taking a second wife, even though Uzbek law explicitly prohibits polygamy.

Daringly, it seemed, in one issue, the publication encouraged girls in rural areas to take their education seriously. But the article ended with a warning.

"While studying, young girls should not get carried away and forget about their real role in life and maintain their true human qualities. If a girl is educated but lacks upbringing and tenderness when she enters her new home as a daughter-in-law, things will end badly."

According to the head of the Women's Resource Centre in Tashkent, Marfua Tokhtakhojieva, the constant demeaning of women in the press " condones the discrimination of women in the eyes of society, demoting them to second place behind their husband and other members of their family."

Lawyer Munira Samarkhojaeva says the cumulative effect of this sort of press is a lowering of women's self-esteem and that, as a result, women have started to accept their subordinate position.

Many women are also very dubious about their worth on the job market, seeing employment as a measure forced on them by economic requirements and having little to do with their abilities.

The situation is markedly worse in rural areas and the problem is exaggerated by the fact 60 per cent of the Uzbek population live outside of towns. In a recent survey, the Women's Resource Centre discovered that women here invariably considered education a handicap and marriage a priority above all else.

Samarkhojaeva is not surprised by the results of the survey, saying that they are entirely in keeping with the generally held belief that it is somehow wrong for a woman to be single or divorced - an idea evidently backed up by the media.

"Society doesn't accept that women have a right to be single or divorced," said Samarkhojaeva. "As a result, many women will tolerate violence in order not to be seen as an outsider, since in society's opinion, violence does provide grounds for divorce."

According to Marfua Tokhtakhojieva, the government of Uzbekistan, which upholds the concept of a secular democratic society, may make a public show out of embracing policies of gender equality but, in reality, uses the media to promote precisely the opposite view.

And it's not just the state media that promotes the idea of women as mere home-makers, the independent press are often just as bad. "Women are liars by nature," wrote an editor in the independent newspaper Khurriat. "Men's natural quality is their strength while women's strength lies in their cunning. They are unable to command trust and people prefer to deal with men. It is precisely this natural cunning that bars them from becoming real leaders."

These attitudes are not helped by Uzbekistan's poor socio-economic position. Mass unemployment makes it convenient to exclude women from the workplace: especially from any position of authority.

Domestic abuse is also a major problem. An estimated six out of ten women have suffered violence in the home, not just at the hands of husbands, but also other male members of the household. The same number suffers from anaemia and other widespread health problems.

But all of these issues are avoided by the Uzbek press. Of course, to a great extent, this is due to censorship but it's also true that journalists themselves believe in the image which they are propagating, failing to understand that in doing so they are facilitating the gradual acceptance of some antiquated notion of the past.

Olga Romanova is an IWPR contributor

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