The bazaars in Uzbekistan seem to be dominated by female sellers with their own trades, methods and styles. Women of all ages are driven by the need to generate decent income for their families while men continue their search for any employment inside or outside the country. Women seem to be taking on many responsibilities and the most apparent is their dominance in bazaars.
On my visits to Uzbekistan over the last few years, I noticed less male bazaar sellers with more stands taken over by women. There are still a formidable number of male sellers; sometimes concentrating on certain trades like butchery and carpentry, but overall the majority are still women.
Women sell everything from warm stuffed sheep intestines ready to eat to fruits that were collected, washed and dried then carefully selected and presented. Although many sell fruit and vegetables, there are various other kinds of trades that women are very much taking under their wings. There are clothes sellers, cheap Chinese goods sellers, biscuits sellers, cheese and yogurt sellers, spice and nut sellers to name a few.
Bread sellers are also seen on the streets. They push home-made buggies filled with all types of freshly baked bread. They walk under the sun, sometimes accompanied by their children taking their goods to their clients. In the Yunous Abad bazaar in Tashkent, those with a flare for baking have a special covered hall where they bring their magnificent looking cakes and pastries. Not seeing any customers I asked “who is going to buy all these?” the answer I got was that it will disappear quickly before the Eid since Uzbek families take deep pride in decorating their tables with them.
Hot cooked food sellers are ready to serve you their Plov, warm meat or pumpkin somsas to eat in or take out. They will accommodate your requests and happily offer you the option to taste their specialities.
The majority of the traders occupy allocated stands but many seem to simply find good spots in corners, doorways or even stairs but mostly in shaded areas. There are occasions where you find a lonely woman with a simple basket in front of her, but often they gather in groups where you see at least two helping each other. Unfortunately, they are not allowed to sit wherever they like. In doing so they anger officials and sometimes policemen who make them shift to allocated (paid) areas.
Many of the female market sellers seem to have introduced their own styles to presentation and selling practices. New trends and inventive approaches improve their selling chances. Many selling methods get copied by other sellers if not evolved further. For example garlic cloves are now optionally sold without the skin as clean fresh pieces ready for immediate use. Corn on the cob is mostly sold clean, boiled and ready to eat. Walnuts are sold with shell, without shell as small pieces or as whole.
The women sit or stand proudly behind the stalls and often drag customers in to sample and hopefully buy from them. They understand that there is a lot of competition and still they find their edge to help sell their merchandise. Sometimes they would describe the health aspects of some items on their stall. They would attempt to describe the biological benefits in reducing cholesterol, thinning blood or keeping the colds away. You get to hear scientific data that you are not necessarily expecting when trying to buy a simple vegetable.
After being encouraged in the former Soviet Union to pursue further education and to obtain higher degrees in science and agriculture, many have found themselves jobless after its collapse, especially those with high qualification in what are now redundant industries. The women are not sitting at home or begging in the streets, instead they find their own paths and if it means selling in the bazaars, so be it.
They support their families and get their children into schools. The hard working, resilient ones manage to turn their humble market stands into popular family businesses. Some have their husbands to do the hard physical labour, but the women are definitely in charge. Children come after school to help their mothers. Many don’t sit behind the stalls expecting to be looked after; instead they stand in front and deal confidently with customers under the watchful eyes of their mothers. You can see the pride in the mother’s eye as sometimes they would say “deal with my daughter; she is much better in maths.”
I was surprised by the level of friendliness in the markets. I was trying to be discrete when taking photographs of women sellers but some would spot what I was doing and the most they would do is to give me a strange stare as if to say “why are you doing this?” Others like one young smiling woman in a Khiva market saw me with my camera and shouted “come take our picture too”. As I did, I saw her and her whole family around her.
There is a wonderful array of colours inside the bazaars. Undoubtedly, the women sellers add a lot of colour and radiance. Many look after themselves as well as their goods. They wear humble, decent, yet elegantly colourful dresses.
Some traders have little to do but to sit and wait. They spend time wondering and contemplating their own problems. Some were sitting reading books and magazines, or chatting and giggling on their mobile phones. Many seem to ease their long tiring days by talking to each other, often observing and analysing their customers, especially the foreign ones. You often hear deep conversations and laughter even while being served. We can’t be sure of everyone’s life history. I am sure each woman in the bazaar has her own special story to tell, some may be sad and others may be joyful. This alone makes me wish I could speak Uzbek.