Quietly Resisting in Tajikistan

Idaho Pin
By Jillian Foster 

As a women’s rights activist, I have always felt strongly that sexual assault and rape, referred to collectively as sexual violence, are unforgivably wrong. I have spent the majority of my life in a comfortable cocoon of white, upper-middle class, suburban privilege. It was not until I ventured to Tajikistan for work that I realised sexual violence is beyond unforgivable. Sexual violence is suffocating, it is stunting to the point of personality change, and it is problematic to the core. The idea of sexual violence incites violent rage inside anyone that has not normalised such behaviour, particularly women’s rights activists.

When I came to Tajikistan I expected to be living in rough conditions with limited water, heating and electricity. I understood that, because 98 per cent of Tajiks are Muslim, I might have to cover my hair, and my arms and legs ought to remain concealed at all times. However, no matter how prepared I was for this change in living conditions, nothing could have prepared me for the steep learning curve that accompanied being a woman in Tajikistan. 

My every movement, my choice of dress, my interactions with the opposite sex are now all measured against a strict, yet unwritten, guideline that defines the supposed character of each woman. She is either defined as virtuous, and therefore inaccessible unless given by her father’s permission, or promiscuous, and therefore implicitly inviting sexual violence. 

“Good” women in Tajikistan walk around in long draping layers concealing the natural curves of their bodies; a skirt even a centimetre above the knee is too short. They do not often eat in restaurants unless in a group, and they all but disappear after dark in adherence to an informal curfew enforced by the threat of being labelled promiscuous. If in a mixed group, men speak first and will often address other men rather than women. 

In all, “good” women in Tajikistan are covered, largely hidden behind the doors of their homes, and forced into silent obedience to their male counterparts. Breaking free from this control is extremely scary and presents a genuine threat to personal safety. It is for this reason that Tajik women resist, but resist very quietly. And resisting very quietly can only lead to very slow progress.

Women in Tajikistan are not alone in their hushed struggle. In many parts of the world a version of this standard which allows men to label and control women (often caricatured in Christian contexts as the Madonna-Whore Complex) is enforced. Unfortunately, the absence of overt brutality in some places has led to the manipulation of feminist demands, positioning the call to end sexual violence as little more than whining. Many even like to placate the problem by saying that sexual violence is a thing of the past which no longer requires attention. These are grave misunderstandings that require a deeper look at the power structures that define the issues.

Consider the reality that women in Tajikistan live with each day. Consider, too, the reality women throughout the world live with each day. In Tajikistan, women are controlled by the fear of an attacker hiding in the dark waiting to grab them in very unwelcome ways if they stay out after 9 pm. They are controlled by the reality that a man may refuse to detach his hand from a woman’s rear end despite her objections and even after she has physically removed his hand several times. They are controlled by the countless hostile stares, stalking and demanding cat-calls that haunt them as they walk to work, to the market, or even to their homes.

In India, women are controlled by the standard that somehow allows a group of men to gang rape a woman for being out with her boyfriend, as discussed in a 27 March The New York Times article. In Bangladesh, women are controlled by the prospect of being not only raped, but then executed for being raped. As The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof explains, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Hena Begum, was first raped by a neighbour and then sentenced by the local imam to 100 lashes of public whipping, from which she later died. 

In Libya, women are controlled by a sense of nationalism that has excused sexual violence, relegating it to a cultural norm. Just last month, as Eman al-Obeidy, a Libyan woman who was repeatedly raped while in custody, tried to share her story with foreign reporters, another Libyan woman chastised her, shouting, “Why are you doing this? You are a traitor!”

Sexually violent interactions happen every day. Sadly, these experiences appear to be growing in number. Ranging along a spectrum of offences from unwelcome verbal attention to unsolicited touches, and from physical threats to forced sexual activity that may result in death, women are slowly being socialised into expecting sexual violence. 

Almost unthinkably, women sometimes help perpetuate the violence. Women and girls that experience brutality on a frequent basis start to internalise the behaviours and equate them with expressions of love and feelings of self-worth. When sexual violence becomes so common that it is the norm, as is the case with women in Tajikistan, they begin to believe the action is normal and, even further, acceptable. Such ingrained attitudes then promote the idea that women are responsible for encouraging men’s behaviour and violence toward them. 

A 2011 report by the Population Reference Bureau, a US-based think-tank that works to provide accurate and objective statistical population data, highlights this. It noted that 21 per cent of women in Ghana and 40 per cent of women in Uganda believe that wife beating is acceptable if a woman argues with her husband. Furthermore, 12 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively, believe that wife beating is an acceptable punishment for refusing sex with one’s husband.

I have endured numerous uncomfortable experiences during my stay in Tajikistan, like when a man came running after me one night at 9:30 pm demanding my personal information (name, flat number, occupation, and so forth). When I have shared these experiences with local Tajiks, their response has been an unsurprised look, followed by emotionally minimising comments such as “Oh that has happened to me too” or “Don’t worry, people are just nosey”. Or, perhaps most shockingly, they give a small laugh accompanied by a chiding remark such as “Don’t be scared”.

My discomfort with these experiences is more than a cultural clash. Men are allowed, and often expected, to use the threat of sexual violence to control women. The worst part of this sad story is that women have begun accepting sexual violence as a force in their lives. They resist, but only in a very hushed manner. 

Because I have been so fortunate as to have experienced only minimal sexual violence in my past, every fibre of my being rejects this type of control. I refuse to accept sexual violence as the norm. I refuse to be a woman controlled and silenced by fear. I refuse, but I will still disappear indoors after dark to the safety of my home. Why?  Because I am a woman in Tajikistan, of course.


Jillian Foster is a Gender and Economics Advisor for a non-governmental organisation in Tajikistan. She holds an MA in Gender Studies from University College London. She writes the blog Trying to Keep Up. This article is a personal reflection of the author about women's experiences with sexual violence worldwide, and does not represent the views of any organization she is affiliated with.


28 April 2011


Photo Credit: Jillian Foster