There are many common paradoxes and anomalies regarding the position of women in the former Soviet Muslim republics of Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These arise from the Soviet legacy of gender equality on the one hand, and patriarchal traditions on the other. The resurgence of Islam as an identity marker in the new independent era is another. However, there are also significant differences. Whereas radical Islam has established a foothold in southern Kyrgyzstan, the governments of both Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have taken robust actions to stamp it out. There are also marked differences between Azerbaijan and the other two republics. The proximity of Azerbaijan to Europe and its ambition to join European institutions has influenced the government’s attempts to enhance the welfare and legal situation of women in the country. Also significant is Azerbaijan’s oil wealth, which though far from equally distributed, nevertheless, in comparison with very poorly resourced Kyrgyzstan, has an effect on the lives of women. In Kyrgyzstan, in particular, poverty and a poorly functioning legal system have led to an increase in violence against women that includes the common practice of bride kidnapping. In my books, Azeri Women in Transition: women in Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Land of Forty Tribes, I point out and explain all of these issues.

Author’s bio- Farideh Heyat is an anthropologist and writer, born in Iran and based in London. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. She has extensive experience of research and publications on women and gender in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. Her book, Azeri women in transition: women in Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan was published in London, in 2002, second edition in Baku, 2005. She taught at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, from 2002-2003.  During this time, and later in 2008, she travelled frequently across Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, conducting ethnographic and historical research on the lives of women, and the resurgence of Islam and its effect on women. This led to the publication of her current book in 2015, Land of Forty Tribes, a semi-fictional story of love, adventure and cultural discoveries set in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In October 2016, she presented talks on the subject of women in Central Asia and Azerbaijan at Boston University, Harvard’s Davis Centre and George Washington University’s Eliot School.      

Women in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Re-Islamisation and Modernity

In my talk I explored the situation of women in Central Asia, focusing on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the countries where I have worked, travelled and conducted ethnographic and historical research. My lecture emphasised some of the paradoxes and anomalies in women’s position and gender relations arising from the Soviet legacy of gender equality on the one hand and patriarchal traditions on the other.

My talk highlighted the following issues:

Violence against women in Kyrgyzstan; manifesting itself in the custom of bride kidnapping, this practice is on the increase since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The search for authenticity in the independent era, leading to the revival of traditions. This includes celebrating Nowruz as the major national festival across the region and the post-Soviet adherence to Islamic beliefs and practices.  

The intrusion of radical Islam into the region and its impact on women, in particular in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

The search for identity among the youth and the modernising influences related to contact with the West through the media, NGOs, foreign universities established in the capital cities, and travel abroad.

The historic links between Central Asia and Iran.

Finally, I pointed out that all these subjects and more are covered in my book, Land of Forty Tribes.