The New Uzbeki Woman

by Dave Potter

uzbeki woman 1
Oygul as student and model of the New Soviet Uzbeki Woman


Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website

Oygul sits in her courtyard and listens to the water tinkling in the fountain. She never thought that it would end up like this, no, not in a million years. Things were so different now from when she was young.

Now she lived in Uzbekistan but she was born in another country, the grandly-titled Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not that she’d moved of course, well, not far. Still the same city; the country itself had changed… and its values.

She’d hated the USSR of course. As a student in Tashkent university, she realised just what terrible damage the Russians had done to her homeland. She knew that the elections were meaningless, that people disappeared into gulags, that the environment was being raped…. Most of all she knew that the Uzbeks were not in control of their own destiny. That’s why she’d gone on all those marches and protests and seen her friends thrown into gaol. She’d equated being Uzbek with being a Muslim. “For Islam and Uzbekistan!” they’d cried, backed by Iranian money. Their leader had been a man named Muhammad Saliq Muhammad Yusuf. His doctrine was “In Uzbekistan the Muslim community is a single party of Allah, and the state has no need for other parties.” Not even she had thought that he’d ever win power.

But he did! One day his party were swept in by a people’s revolution. That day when they all poured onto the streets of Tashkent in their thousands, arms aloft roaring “Allah Akhbar!”, storming the presidential palace, hauling out the beleaguered Islam Karimov who had been so sure in his personal bodyguard and Western friends. But the latter didn’t lift a finger to help and the former just switched sides and there he was, hanged on a lamppost in Amir Temur Maydoni as she, Oygul, watched with tears of joy filling her eyes. She’d played her part too; as a member of a revolutionary cell that had seized the national broadcasting centre along with thirty other students, following the maxim of Lenin himself: ‘Infiltrate and take control of mass communication media’. They had used Soviet tactics to overturn the Soviets themselves and she had spoken on that very first broadcast!

The West of course, had hated it but what could they do? Their neighbours to the south in Afghanistan and Iran supported them and more importantly, so did the people. It soon became clear that the change was not a reversible one. She, as one of the premier female agitators of the Soviet Era was invited into the government as a member of parliament, voted in on a landslide in an election not accepted by the UN because of allegations of vote-rigging. That however, was when it all started to impact upon her life.

The first pronouncement came within a week of the revolution and it was regarding the paranja. Inspired by the Taliban and their burqas, Yusuf had declared that the paranja is the symbol of Uzbeki womanhood and that all women should wear one with pride. Oygul had only ever seen one in a museum before, never actually put one on. Instead she wore an embroidered skullcap to show her faith. “That will only do for indoors now,” her political masters had told her, and she’d gone out to buy a paranja.

It was a strange garment, in essence a heavy cloak of embroidered material. It was much more than just that though, it was made of embroidered material and rested on her head with a skullcap. The one she chose – the details approved by the Party - was brightly coloured and elaborately embroidered with traditional, stylised floral and geometric designs which are ancient and had symbolic meanings. A stylised form of the popular tree-of-life motif was used on the front, the tree-of-life motif being one of the oldest symbols known, supporting the sky and providing a path from earth to heaven. It symbolised Islam and the new Uzbekistan, both built on tradition millennia old. As well as this it was heavily decorated with tassels and stitching and had two false sleeves which were attached to the main body of the cloak but totally useless.

During the debate in parliament about accepting the paranja as the new accepted form of modest female dress for a new and more modest Uzbekistan, one of her fellow female MPs had raised the question as to what was quite the purpose of these sleeves as it was almost impossible to put one’s arms into them and if one did, they would be rendered quite useless. Several opinions had been given, one MP quoting Russian sources that they were purely decorational and that the paranja was in fact a copy of Russian dress adapted by local women after the Russians arrived. This ensured a very heated argument between those – including the female MP who first brought it up – who opposed the paranja saying that it wasn’t Uzbeki in character at all, citing that it had never been in common usage before the 18th century and those in the other camp who shouted that such talk was slander to the national glory of the Uzbeki people and the religion of Islam and that the paranja was Uzbeki and indeed, rather than Uzbekis adopting Russian dress, the Russians came to Uzbekistan, saw the paranja and modelled their uniforms on the superior cultural expressions of the Uzbeki people. Despite the lack of historical evidence to back up this argument, it easily won the day over the liberals and so it was that the paranja was decreed mandatory for all females after puberty at all times outside of their homes.

As she put it on she felt proud to be Uzbeki but these new clothes were difficult to wear. She began to realise why the first thing that the Soviets had down when they’d come into the region was ban the paranja. She began to understand why the women had happily discarded them for the moment that she stepped out of the shop she realised that her life would never be the same again. Although wearing her normal Uzbeki dress underneath, complimented by locked Turkish trousers – something the Party encouraged but did not enforce – the coat was heavy indeed and weighed her down, particularly her head. Now only her face was on view to the world and the weight and extra layers caused her to move more slowly and required her to turn her whole body to see behind or to the side. Furthermore, using her arms was now more difficult as it required either lifting or opening of the cloak and the latter was not permitted in public places. It was as she walked out of her house and towards the parliament on the first of mandatory paranja wearing, (for she’d chosen just to wear her normal clothes after she’d bought it from the shop), that Oygul began to have her first doubts about the new order that she’d so enthusiastically fought for.

uzbeki woman 2
Oygul about to enter parliament on the first day of the Paranja Laws

Her next doubt came pretty soon afterwards. Two days later, during the period known as the ‘Purifying’ where women were being forced to wear the paranja and arrested in the street if they did not, she found herself called into the office of no less a personage than Muhammad Saliq Muhammad Yusuf, the new President of Uzbekistan.

“Assalam aleikum, Sister.”

“Wa’leikum salam, Brother.”

“Sister Arislanova, I have invited you here to thank you for the glorious contribution that you personally have made to the Great Islamic Revolution of Uzbekistan. It is highly valued.”

“Thank you, Brother.”

“And may I also say how wonderful you look in the paranja, the very epitome of modest Uzbeki womanhood!”

Oygul didn’t feel wonderful. It was mid-summer and so unbearably hot and the paranja’s skull-cap pressed down on her head causing it to ache. On top of that, she’d witnessed the beating of a woman on the way to work and had been feeling sick about it ever since. Nonetheless, a compliment from the President is a compliment indeed, so she thanked him for it.

“Yes indeed, these are glorious times for both our nation and the faith of Islam! And you have your part to play and play it well you have done. I was most satisfied to see that you did not vote along with your rebellious sisters several days ago in the Modest Clothing for Females Vote.”

It was true, despite being unsure in her heart, it had been clear to Oygul that the pro-paranja party had won the day and so voted with them.

“You are a good and loyal servant of the Party Sister Arislanova but there is just one problem and I am afraid it is quite a serious one…”

“What is that, Brother?”

“How old are you, Sister?”

“I am twenty-four, Brother.”

“And married?”

“No, not yet.”

“And here, Sister, we come to the problem. You see, as with the Modest Clothing for Females Bill, we are seeking to revolutionise our society to make it more pious and acceptable in the eyes of Allah the Almighty and to eradicate ourselves of poisonous imperialist influences. And I am afraid that the idea of women staying single for so long is an imperialist poison in our land. Now of course, I do not blame you; you have been busy forwarding the revolution, the highest ideal of all, but the revolution is won now and so you are able to concentrate on attaining the highest female ideals which of course can only be done in the context of a married relationship. Do you have a boyfriend, Sister?”

“No Brother, I have always regarded extra-marital relationships between men and women as immoral.”

“What a beacon of piety you are for our nation! No matter, I have found a suitable husband for you; Brother Abdul Najimov, the newly-elected MP for Shakhimardan. You shall marry next month in a ceremony that will have significance for the entire country. We are about to introduce a ‘Marriage Drive’ for the entire populace, but particularly focussing on unmarried women over twenty in the cities and a return to their true and holy role within the home and I wish to use you and Brother Abdul as a potent symbol of the change for you are both established revolutionaries, both MPs, but more than that you are city-born and highly-educated whilst he hails from the countryside and you are also, if you don’t mind me saying, exceptionally pretty, and so fit ideally as the face of the new Uzbeki Woman.”

Well, what could she say? She hadn’t even considered marriage before, let alone to someone like Najimov who was well below her in both education and standing, but when the President of the nation and the man in whose hands your career rests suggests it, then how can you refuse. And so she didn’t and the President of Uzbekistan thanked her warmly for her further contributions to the Great Islamic Revolution of Uzbekistan.

A month later, a day after the Marriage Drive had been announced by the head mufti in the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, she was wedded to Abdul Najimov in the brand-new mosque by the Shrine of the Fourth Caliph Ali in Shakhimardan with all the nation’s – and indeed the Islamic World’s – media in attendance as she stood there in a glorious traditional gown next to her new husband and declared to the world that even though she had attended university, a woman’s true Islamic place was in the home and her heart was ‘overflowing with joy’ at being wedded to such a pious and courageous man as Abdul Najimov only metres away from where one of the greatest figures in Islamic history was laid to rest.

uzbeki woman 3
Oygul and Abdul Najimovi at their wedding reception in Shakhimardan

After that day, Oygul’s life really did change. Within a day she realised that her new husband expected her to live very differently to how she had done in the past. He came from a traditional, religious family in a small, traditional and religious town and there the general expectation was for women to stay inside the house, something that the new regime obviously agreed with.

That house itself was indeed very different to what she had been living in before. As a member of the Soviet urban educated classes she had always lived in apartments before, three or four rooms in a large communal block near to a trolleybus line or the metro station. But her husband’s home was traditional in design and layout. From the street it appeared only as a plain door in a large blank wall, but through that door one found oneself in a large courtyard with a tinkling fountain and shaded terraces on three sides. All the windows in the house looked inwards, over this courtyard which became the centre of her life. On the left-hand side were the quarters of her parents-in-law whilst on the right, those of the children, her husband included. He had three sisters and one brother who all lived at home, with only the men married, the sisters being in their teens. Living like this, she often did not leave the house or see anything save for her room, the bathroom, kitchen and courtyard for days at a time and the only company was that of her female in-laws. Naturally, for a young lady used to socialising and intellectual debate, this soon became quite wearing although Oygul’s job as an MP meant that it was not possible all the time to stay at home as she had to attend parliamentary sessions and meetings of the local Party branch, but now that the revolution was secure, she’d noticed that parliamentary sessions were becoming fewer in number and shorter in length, with the President instead decreeing things, the mufti agreeing to them and the parliament merely meeting to rubber-stamp them.

uzbeki woman 4
Oygul’s home dress

And with such a secure regime and less power for the MPs, there was less need for branch meetings so these were cut from weekly to monthly.

And so, as the months slowly passed, for the vast majority of her time, Oygul found herself stuck within Shakhimardan which was not good news for it was a provincial place indeed with very little to see or do and certainly far away from all the important decision-making in Tashkent. At first she amused herself by taking trips out to the homes of other prominent families or to schools and hospitals as an ambassador of the new regime, but she soon found her husband expressing his displeasure at this, backed up by advise from the Party which was now hinting that women should stay at home more.

One plus point of staying at home is that she did not have to wear the awful hot and heavy paranja as it was considered bad luck to wear such a thing in the house, but her new clothes became more voluminous in style and fuller in length. One day she stepped out in a thigh-length skirt – back in Tashkent that had been normal attire if not a trifle modest – and her husband went ballistic and all her clothing was inspected and only floor-length dresses remained, with baggy underwear and undershirts so that at any one time her whole body was covered by several layers so that its shape could not be discerned. Oygul found wearing this material – and her Uzbeki skullcap which was now mandatory within the house – irksome but nowhere near as annoying as what came next. One day her husband handed her a bag which contained a plastic ball on a strap. It was a gag! When she asked what it was for, she was told that in line with Party thinking, she should now gag herself to prevent unnecessary and immodest speech and thus set a good example for other Uzbeki women. Oygul questioned why this was necessary within the home, to which he replied that she was poisoned with Soviet imperialist thinking and that setting a good example to all the women of Uzbekistan should start with setting a good example to his sisters. Faced with such an argument, she could hardly argue and so from that day on she, and all the other females in the house, were gagged outside their rooms and had to communicate with each other through written notes and gestures. In some ways it was not a big loss because both her husband’s family and visiting neighbours were all quite uneducated and simple in their conversation and so she missed little of interest, and as such she often listened more to the tinkling fountain and contemplated her fate and that of all Uzbek women.

uzbeki woman 5
Oygul relaxing in the courtyard

The only relief from all this came when once or twice a month when they’d take the government helicopter to the capital to rubber-stamp some law or other before flying straight back to Shakhimardan. Even this though became a chore for the next decree her husband introduced, was that in addition to her paranja, the traditional chachvan was now mandatory whenever she left the house. The chachvan was a heavy horsehair veil that covers the entire face and was the standard wear for upper class women in Uzbekistan until the fateful 1927 hujum of the Soviets. Like the paranja it was extremely heavy, a large rectangle of woven horsehair with embroidered edges that rested on her head under the paranja. It covered the entire face and was difficult to see through, her view of the world being reduced to a dark blur. She longed to lift it but when her paranja was fastened on top it sealed it in. She was reduced to a half-blind, shuffling mound of heavy cloth, steadily heating up inside. When she walked out of the house, she had to look really carefully to check that she did not trip and her peripheral vision was gone. Life beyond the courtyard with the tinkling fountain became a muffled, blurred place for the New Uzbeki Woman who could not even use her voice to greet her colleagues. Consequently, Oygul became depressed and unhappy, a condition worsened by the fact that she had no affection for her new spouse whatsoever, but she could not complain as she was the face of the New Uzbeki Woman, a woman that she had fought hard to create. Inside though, she longed for change. Little did she know how soon it would come about.

uzbeki woman 6
Oygul outside her home in her new traditional attire

Oygul had only been married for three months when she was unexpectedly called to the capital by the President. When she arrived, she was shown into a large chamber of the palace which was full of women, the only male present being the leader of the country. Looking around she recognised many of the faces, (she could see nothing more), for they were all important females in the new regime, most of whom had been students with her and married off during the Great Marriage Drive. None of them however, was anticipating what came next.

“Sisters!” declared the President, “Precious pearls of Uzbekistan! I have called you here to remember an infamous day in our history. On the 8th March, 1927, International Women’s Day, the imperialist Russian Soviets announced a hujum, a campaign to assault the mouldy old ways of female seclusion and inequality. On that terrible day activists took to the streets and tore the veils off pious sisters, forcing them to expose their skin to males, causing them to sin in the eyes of Allah. For years they mocked us, taunted us by calling this sinful act a ‘liberation’ but Allah is great and merciful and so it is that their order has been vanquished and His restored. And so this year, on International Women’s Day, exactly seventy years after the evil hujum was launched, we shall launch our own, pious and Islamic hujum and you, blessed Sisters of the Nation, shall lead it!

Tomorrow I shall decree the establishment of an Association of the usul ul-Jadid, an organisation of females dedicated to the creation of the New Uzbeki Woman. Previously the term Jadidi has symbolised lying and dishonour, now it shall be lauded throughout Islam as a truly Uzbeki contribution to the Faith! You Sisters, are to be the Association of the usul ul-Jadid and I have decreed that Sister Oygul Najmova shall be your head!”

The Jadids were Muslim modernist reformers within the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. They normally referred to themselves by the Turkic terms Taraqqiparvarlar (progressives), Ziyalilar (intellectuals), or simply Yäşlär/Yoshlar (youth).[1] Jadids maintained that Muslims in the Russian Empire had entered a period of decay that could only be rectified by the acquisition of new kind of knowledge and modernist, European-modelled cultural reform. Although there were substantial ideological differences within the movement, Jadids were marked by their widespread use of print media in promoting their messages and advocacy of the usul ul-jadid or "new method" of teaching in the maktabs of the empire, from which the term Jadidism is derived.

All around the hall applause rang in her ears and Oygul felt her heart swell with pride. She had an important role to play, a chance to forge the destiny of her nation and improve the lot of women! Plus, this change meant she had to be in Tashkent all the time.

The next day she was called to a meeting with the President again. In that meeting he spelled out what she would implement and as he spoke her heart fell.

“Sister Najmova, in our great city of Samarkand, the ruins of the Great Mosque are all that’s left of what was once the tallest building in all of Islam. Legend has it that the veil Muslim women are required to wear dates back to its construction; the architect allegedly fell in love with Tamerlane’s Chinese-born wife, Bibi-Khanym, who was building the mosque to surprise her husband while he was away on another conquest. Upon his return, Tamerlane discovered evidence of an illicit kiss, ordered the lovelorn architect’s execution, and allegedly decreed that women cover their features so that no man would ever be tempted again by their wicked beauty. Sister, as this story clearly shows, Uzbekistan at one time influenced all of Islam. We did it then and we shall do it again and we shall start with your Association of the usul ul-Jadid announcing on International Women’s Day the true liberation of Uzbeki women, a reversal of the evil of the Soviet imperialists. On that day, you shall announce the imposition of the chachvan as mandatory for all Uzbeki females when outside of the home and there in the Registan, only a few hundred metres from the precincts of the mosque dedicated to the temptress who caused all Muslim sisters around the globe to don face veils, you too shall show to the world the wisdom of the chachvan, thus hiding your incredible beauty from the world forever. That will be your first task, the first step on the road to truly liberating the New Uzbeki Woman!”

The next day when she announced the imposition of the chachvan at the forum of the Association of the usul ul-Jadida, there was pandemonium. Women started shouting that such a thing should never happen, that the clock was being turned back to mediaeval times, that the face veil was a foreign imposition on Uzbeki culture and that this was not what they’d fought for. Oygul inwardly agreed but in her position of trust, she could not argue and so instead a majority of the members rallied behind Sister Dilshoda Sayfiddinova, the female MP who had argued against the paranja several months before.

That evening Sister Sayfiddinova was tragically killed in a car accident on a highway just outside of Tashkent. Although Oygul had nothing to do with it, she had been aware that security operatives had been monitoring the meeting earlier that day.

In her hotel room in Samarkand, she shuddered as a maid dressed her. The paranja chosen for the great event was extremely heavy in dull grey whilst her chatvan was thicker than usual and rendered her almost blind. Worst still, after a lengthy and heated (male-only) debate in the parliament, it had been decided that the fake sleeves on the paranja were in fact not decorative but intended that way so that the arms could be fed into them and rendered useless. So it was that Oygul had had all her paranjas altered and was to demonstrate the new style today. With a large inflatable gag filling her mouth, her arms ensconced within the paranja strait-jacket, her sight virtually nothing and her body aching from the weight of her new costume she was led to her husband

Abdul Najimov took his silent, covered and pious wife and guided her out of the room, into the lift, out of the hotel and into the waiting car. Then they were whisked straight to the Registan where a large crowd of hand-picked agitators were waiting. Slowly she got out of the car and was guided into that grand old square where a platform with the mufti and president on it were waiting.

It took an age to reach that platform in her restrictive attire but eventually she did and after climbing the steps a hush fell.

“Citizens of Uzbekistan!” announced the President, “Behold the New Uzbeki Woman! She is pious, she is silent, she is married and she has vowed to retire from politics and the world and conceal herself in purdah within the walls of her husband’s house until her dying day! This is what we fought for! This is your destiny! Allah Akhbar!”

And as the crowds roared their approval, the full meaning of the revolution sank in for Oygul.

uzbeki woman 7
The New Uzbeki Woman, Oygul, and her husband

Copyright © 2012, Dave Potter


validator logo