In July & August 2018, two British women Catherine & Hannah, undertook the 2500km drive, unaided, along the Pamir Highway, famously the 2nd highest road on Earth, reaching altitudes of 4500m and coursing through the heart of Central Asia. Their mission: to reach, live with and film the women living along it. During their time on the road, they managed to interview more than 45 women from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – hearing stories that have reached few Westerner’s ears. Their documentary, which will be released in Summer 2019, celebrates crossing cultural boundaries, encourages us to challenge stereotypes and emphasises that common bonds can be formed between people from diverse backgrounds if only we step up and create new dialogues.
Their trailer can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/302153525
Our endeavour to document and share the experiences of women living in Central Asia – an entirely unfamiliar continent – was, at its core, a cultural exchange. We wanted to draw attention to the myriad of cultures that have received minimal attention in Western media to date, specifically focusing in on the female communities. In England, where Hannah and I were born and raised, knowledge of the social culture in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is largely based on generalisations that merge all countries ending in ‘stan’ under the same brush, forgetting or perhaps unwilling to accept that each may have a unique identity; not to mention the fear of terrorism and violence that mean relatively few Westerners are willing to cross these borders – assumptions we are determined to challenge in our documentary.
The three countries we drove through have been formed, and often divided, by complex histories producing richly diverse communities across the region. From the epic network of the Silk Road in the 1st century AD, through which ideas and goods were exchanged, to the divisive results of seven years Communist rule which proclaimed the nations of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the 1920s, this part of Central Asia concentrates a staggering variety of religious, cultural and political groups. The Pamir Highway runs through the heart of these often remote societies, transcending geographical, political and ethnic boundaries. The women we met along our route were representative of the region’s remarkable diversity. It was crucial to our documentary that we talked to individuals and organisations from all walks of life to capture the variety of cultures & micro-cultures at play: from urban and rural; the highly educated to those living in poverty; women from devoutly Islamic communities and those who are staunchly Atheist; from different tribes and with local languages; young and old; feminist and traditional; political and apolitical. High levels of female poverty, mass migration of men to Russia, and widespread domestic violence mean that women’s rights are still somewhat behind in these countries, particularly in rural Tajikistan. There are high rates of teenage pregnancy and maternity-related causes are the biggest killer of girls aged 15 to 19. Women face legal barriers to buying property, and are still poorly represented in parliament and government institutions.
But the history of women’s rights in the region is far from linear – when Bolshevik governments were set up in the 1920s Central Asian women were declared equal to their male counterparts, quotas were built into the social infrastructure, and gendered dress codes were significantly relaxed. Following the withdrawal of Soviet control in 1991, however, traditions and gender stereotypes have re-risen, many in conjunction with the re-growth of Islam – this dynamic was interesting to explore. Contrary to what we expected, in some of the cities, women reported increasingly oppressive Islamic mentalities and restricted freedom; while in some rural areas women often expressed enthusiasm at the new opportunities afforded to them. As a result of both Soviet & Islamic influences, there is huge variation in attitudes to women within and across the three countries and we were curious to see how more feminist organisations interacted with the traditional female values in parts of the countries. Few at home, and indeed in US or European audiences, will be aware of the subtle and stark differences in women’s experiences within and across these cultures. Without global awareness of these issues, the organisations campaigning for change in Central Asia lack the visibility and financial support they need to carry on their work.
Although we were always happy to share our experiences of British culture with ever-curious locals (and this often served as a conversation starting point), throughout the trip we intentionally abstained from imposing our own values or identities on any of those we encountered, our aim was simply to provide a platform for the wide cross-section of women whose voices are rarely represented on “western” screens. This is a region is all too frequently homogenised or misrepresented by audiences and media outlets, blurring the region under ‘The Stans’. By offering an intimate insight into the experiences of the women we meet, we aim to foster a more nuanced and personal understanding of the region and its plethora of peoples & cultures.
We feel our documentary is more relevant now than ever before. At a time when the media industry seems rife with misogyny (the growing evidence of gender pay-gaps and the horrifying prevalence of sexual misconduct within film and television is evidence enough of this), there’s a critical need for female-led filmmaking. It is still a frustrating rarity to have women both behind the wheel and behind the camera: only one woman has ever won a Best Director Oscar, and it was only last year when we had the first female nominee for a cinematography Oscar. Similarly, travel documentaries and car TV shows are almost unanimously presented by men, with the latter generally appealing to a male audience despite the fact that 50% of Britain’s drivers are women. These are all trends we set out to challenge. Stories from the press frequently remind us that in Britain, America and much of the Western world, xenophobia is on the rise. In the wake of Brexit, for instance, racialised hate crime spiked by 5% in Britain, and has remained at that higher level since. In stark contrast, Pamiri women, living in an extremely harsh environment, were overwhelmingly open, hospitable and generous to us, despite having little to offer.
In addition, we’ve come across few film or TV depictions of life in Central Asia, and those that do exist tend to take an orientalist attitude to the region, focusing on its Silk Road history. We wanted to take a more contemporary and nuanced approach, looking at the here-and-now of women’s lives across these countries. It is a particularly opportune time to be spotlighting women’s rights in Central Asia, which are at something of a transition point: In 2017 Kyrgyzstan’s youngest female MP, Aida Kasymalieva, headed a campaign to address domestic violence leading to the formation of new laws later that year; in 2016 the #НемолчиKZ (“Don’t Be Silent”) campaign was launched in Kazakhstan to highlight the issue of sexual violence in the country; in Tajikistan the 2014 UN Women’s project ‘Empowering Abandoned Women from Migrants’ Families’ has significantly improved women’s access to job and business skills. Yet today, communities surviving in the Pamiri ‘Bam-i-Dunya’ (‘roof of the world’) are some of the most isolated on our planet with 75% living below the poverty line, and women being disproportionately affected. It’s clear that we aren’t the only women challenging gender stereotypes: with 1.5 million Tajik citizens working abroad, many women are left as single mothers with little financial support, forced to occupy traditionally masculine roles in the community. Yet those who do have husbands in the country might not always be better off – domestic violence is prevalent in the region, with 20% of married women victim to abuse. Of course these women do need support and global attention, but they are by no means weak – they’re unflinching in the face of often immense oppression and unimaginably harsh living conditions. Our own efforts to defy gender stereotypes by undertaking this drive paled into insignificance in the face of the strength and resilience these women displayed – and we hope this comes across in the full film.
CREATING NEW DIALOGUES
Although the central narrative of our documentary is linear – following our route along the M41 from start to finish – it is populated with numerous, changing dialogues as we take detours (figuratively & literally) to converse with women and pursue their stories. It’s fair to say that our experiences along this spectacular road were sculpted almost entirely by our interactions with local women and what we learnt from them. The nature of our dialogues with local women changed thematically as we travelled along the road – themes which we hope to draw a passage through in our film and will outline in the following section. Tashkent, for instance, was one of our first stops – a sparklingly clean city of high-rise buildings and cosmopolitan society. It was here that we met the phenomenally impressive Aziza, a highly successful business woman who articulately discussed the pressures of young marriage that resulted in her having to bring up a baby whilst at university abroad, aged just 22. She also gave us an insight into the recent political history of the country, which was essentially a dictatorship until the death of prime minister Islam Karimov in 2016. Aziza herself was affected by the overbearing state when the government issued her with a crippling fine for hosting an unregistered women’s support group which prompted her to leave the country for some years. Aziza’s account provides a helpful overview of the country’s politics, and she represents one end of the spectrum of female empowerment we came across on our trip. The next stop (the historical city Samarkand) reveals the other end of that spectrum: the city’s ancient yet mesmerizingly beautiful mosaic-tiled mosques are reflective of the religious and social conservatism that still exists in the city. Here we stayed for several days with Sitora, a charismatic but traditional teenager who was the primary carer for her 7 year-old brother suffering from cerebral palsy. Her dreams of being a medic were put under significant strain as she missed classes to look after him, as she struggles under the enormous weight of her familial responsibility. Other girls emphasised their desires to be ‘modern’ and independent, yet told us about the pressure to marry young and the stigma associated with females learning to drive. From Samarkand the road and landscape became increasingly dry as we travelled south to the dusty town of Termez, where the Pamir Highway (M41) officially begins.
The themes of dialogue continue to change as the journey draws on with the middle section of our route, in the Pamir Mountain range, became emotionally and physically. A stretch in the early stages of the Pamir route – the Tavildara Pass – is notorious for its steep, rocky road that climbs crumbling cliff edges flanked by perilous drops. It took us a good 10 hours driving in one day to complete this section, including a wrong turn and a severely punctured tyre. Yet it was amongst these days that we met some of the most resilient women living at the foot of some of Central Asia’s highest peaks, and who have carved lives for themselves in this unforgiving environment. The Wakhan Valley, running alongside the Afghan border, offers yet more challenges – it’s incredibly remote, hard to find food, clean water and shelter, and the sandy tracks proved tricky terrain for the car wheels which continually skidded. From the Wakhan, the road climbed higher still, reaching its 4600m peak along the Ak-Baital pass, leaving our car choked of oxygen and struggling to make it up even small hills. At the road’s highest points, we’d drive a whole day without seeing a single person and the landscape felt almost extra-terrestrial, with open plains of red-sand stretched before a background of looming snowy peaks.
The road and landscape are key context to our dialogue with women in this region. This is an area where food is scarce and supplies expensive – the Pamir Highway is the only road. Jobs are few and far between, huge populations of men have migrated elsewhere in search of work and women are left with the near-impossible task of sustaining families and communities with the absence of males between teenage years and old age. As a result, women often operate machinery in the farms themselves. The interviews we carried out in the Pamir mountains were by no means the most emotional (perhaps a testament to the stoic nature of Pamiri women), but they were some of the most inspiring. Women seemed to be igniting their own micro-revolutions within the confines of their small rural communities. In Gharm, for instance, we met with Dilbar, who took us to a collection of bee houses which she had allocated to local women who use them as a source of income. Many of these women had husbands who had left for Russia but never returned, and the hives were their lifeline, enabling them to support the families their husbands had abandoned.
Women in Central Asia get little media attention at home and internationally, but it is the women living in the isolated villages of the Pamir mountain range that are by far the most poorly represented. Since they are physically so difficult to reach, their experiences have never before been documented and shared to the extent that we plan to do so. The access we had to women and their stories was frankly unprecedented, and we see this part of the narrative as the crux of the film. Encouragingly, the women were willing & supportive when we told them how their footage would be used. Further along the road, in Eastern Tajikistan, Murghab was home to one of our favourite interviews – the ever-charming Ahmedsharipova, a 76 year-old gynaecologist, her career had spanned from Soviet-occupied Tajikistan, through to the civil war and the chaos that ensued. With electricity only available for 5 hours a day in Murghab, she’d delivered countless numbers of babies with the most basic of facilities and nothing but a kerosene lamp to provide light.
The dialogues step-changed in the final leg of our journey, following a loose trajectory of growing female emancipation, culminating in our most “radical” interviews in our final destination – Bishkek. This reflects the trend we noticed from Osh as pockets of women started telling stories about social and sexual liberation. Osh provided a kind of turning point in this sense: in the space of just a few hours we went from chatting with women at an Islamic school for girls about their duties to their husbands, to a discussion of female sexual pleasure with a feminist group based just down the road. Bishkek was the first place the vocabulary of homosexuality was even recognised, and the stories in relation to LGBTQ+ rights were by no means wholly positive. We spoke with a lesbian woman (whose face we didn’t film in order to protect her identity), who had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child and had suffered domestic abuse in her former marriage. She told us we were among just three other people to whom she had disclosed her sexuality. Although she is now engaged to a Kyrgyz woman in the US, there is little legal chance she’ll have the right to migrate there, let alone gain the custody rights for her son to accompany her. To support women like her is Labrys, still the only recognised LGBTQ+ group in Central Asia. Aizhan and the rest of her team at the office do critical work in spearheading the movement for queer rights, despite the threats that work poses in their own lives – Aizhan was kicked out of her university when they found out she was a member of Labrys. Our conversations in Bishkek ranged from tattoos, to female travel, to women in government. It’s on this celebratory dialogue that we plan to conclude our documentary.
The creation of new dialogues with the women we met opened our eyes to new cultures and ways of thinking. More importantly, it enabled common bonds to form between individuals from remarkably different backgrounds: our interviewees ceased to be strangers, but became friends, many of whom we keep in contact with today and are eager to watch the documentary once it’s finished. Growing trust and building a rapport were paramount to ensuring they felt comfortable to open up to us and relaxed in front of the camera. Through chance encounters with local women, picking up local hitchhikers, fitness sessions with locals, cooking, drinking together and homestays, we explored how our experiences diverge but, crucially, we celebrated the shared values among female communities from vastly different cultures. In our documentary we want to combat attitudes of insularity growing within European countries. We want to stress how common bonds can overcome differences in both culture and language, rather than highlighting disparities, ultimately demonstrating that cultural exchange is as powerful as it is enjoyable.
We are currently raising funds for our post-production (primarily editing) costs. If you’re interested in financially sponsoring or sharing our project, please get in touch at email@example.com. We hope to raise the necessary amount to begin the final edit in June 2019.
Text & Photos by Catherine Haigh