Gender and Modernity in Soviet Central Asia

Original Description: Sart woman. Samarkand. Woman in purdah, standing near wooden door. The garment worn appears to be a paranja, taken between 1905 and 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress) Wikipedia Commons
Original Description: Sart woman. Samarkand. Woman in purdah, standing near wooden door. The garment worn appears to be a paranja, taken between 1905 and 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress) Wikipedia Commons

The politics of gender in the Muslim world often seem to center on a conflict between Islam and modernity, but in the case of Soviet Central Asia, the conflict was instead between a post-colonial power that was in the process of defining itself and simultaneously trying to incorporate the diverse populations of former imperial territories.[1] In other words, the conflict in Central Asia was not about whether or not Islam was compatible with modernity, but was rather a conflict between the center and the periphery of a new state and methods of establishing control and homogenization. Gender and gender politics came to play an important role in this conflict, and revolved around two concepts: modernity and loyalty.[2] Because the Soviet government was competing with democratic nations on the world stage, officials wanted the state to be seen not only as effectively governing its citizens, but also as modern and progressive.[3] To accomplish this, modernizing Central Asian society became a primary goal of Bolshevik policy.[4] This modernization process came to focus on the social status of women, who, in the Soviet narrative, were oppressed and in need of liberation. Consequently, the role of Central Asian men, in terms of how they related to women, also became a point of contention, causing gender relations to become not only a marker of modernity, but of party loyalty.

This paper will focus on the conflict between Soviet Russian and Central Asian perceptions of gender and family relations and how these traditions became politicized in an attempt to affect social change that would, the Soviets hoped, lead to progress and modernity. This paper will explore different approaches by the Soviet government to revolutionize Central Asian society through regulating or banning customs, including polygyny, underage marriages, and seclusion, which culminated in the Hujum (a systematic, organized attack on all signs of perceived gender inequality in Central Asia by the Soviets) in 1927. The paper will address some of the reasons why the Soviets chose to focus on the role of women in society, why the veil became a marker of modernity and how the adoption of unveiling by the Soviets, as an official policy, affected the ability of women to become “modern” without facing severe repercussions. This paper will focus on the role of the veil and the Hujum in Uzbek society (and later the Uzbek republic), as well as attempts by Soviet authorities to “liberate” women in Turkmen society (and the Turkmen republic). The paper will focus on these two areas because events in those regions exemplify the struggle over the politicization of women in Central Asian society both when there was, and when there was not, a powerful symbol that activists could rally behind. That choice is not intended to diminish the role, importance, or experiences of women in Kazak, Kyrgyz or Tajik societies, but is rather for the sake of brevity. Also, this paper does not explain in detail the events of the Hujum itself, but rather engages with the arguments describing why the Hujum happened and what it meant.

The most prominent confrontation between Soviet ideals and Central Asian society, in terms of gender, was arguably the Hujum, a direct and large scale attack on the social customs of veiling and seclusion. The veil specifically became a symbol of backwardness that needed to be cured by Soviet modernity. Soviet officials hoped that newly liberated Central Asian women would feel indebted to the state, creating a loyal foundation of citizens. According to Douglas Northrop, the decision to substitute gender for class rested on an assumption that, “Despite obvious differences among them… Muslim women were… fundamentally united by a common experience: they were all victims of oppressive structures of patriarchal Islamic society.”[5] This argument, first proposed by Gregory J. Massell, presents Central Asian women as a “surrogate proletariat,” that could finally help the Soviets enact long desired social changes, simultaneously modernizing social customs and dealing a blow to Islam, which was portrayed as a bastion of patriarchy and the major obstacle to women’s liberation.[6]

In Soviet rhetoric, the use of the veil in Central Asia, known locally as the paranji, was due to the influence of Islam. However, the practice of veiling was a culturally specific, rather than religiously specific practice. Tradition in Central Asia attributed the beginning of the practice of veiling among women of the sedentary, agricultural and urban populations to Timur-i Lang, who, in a fit of anger, declared that his wife Bibi Xonum’s “charms” had to be hidden by a veil when he discovered that an architect had become enraptured by her beauty.[7] R.R. Rakhimov was critical of this interpretation of veiling as a uniquely Islamic practice that was inherently oppressive to women. He claimed that authors who were critical of Islam frequently used the “women’s question” as an argument and then cited the veil as irrefutable proof that women in Islam lead a joyless life, locked within the walls of their homes. Rakhimov felt that this notion created a false image of Islam as a religion.[8] Marianne Kamp would probably have agreed with him, writing that in early twentieth-century Islamic societies, veiling and modernity were not necessarily incompatible, and that veiling was in fact a form of liberation from a more repressive form of patriarchy: permanent seclusion within the household, which, ironically, later became a self-imposed punishment among some Central Asian women after the Soviet government forced unveiling.[9]

In his essay on veiling and seclusion of Central Asian women, Rakhimov presented compelling evidence that disproved the notion that seclusion and veiling were uniquely Islamic practices. The practice of seclusion was common to many religious-cultural traditions. It was practiced in aristocratic circles in India and Byzantium and, in Biblical times, in Palestine, Judea and Babylon. At one time, it was customary for Jewish women to only appear in public if their head was covered, sometimes to the extent that only their eyes showed. Customs of women’s seclusion and veiling were adopted by Islam from pre-Islamic traditions in Persia, Byzantium, and Assyria, and the Byzantines in turn inherited the tradition from the Greeks.[10]

According to a theory proposed by G.A. Pugachenkova, the paranji worn by Central Asian women at the beginning of the twentieth century was conceptually descended from a garment worn by a fertility goddess native to Central Asian religion in pre-Islamic times mixed with Islamic ideas later introduced to the region.[11] He also presented a theory of the paranji as being a form of dress designed with the protection of the individual in mind, protecting the wearer from the sun and hot breezes and having a face net that blocks the wearer (and an infant being carried under the veil) from being exposed to diseases, or imagined evils in the world around her.[12] Regardless of whether or not these theories are accurate, they show that the use of veils and seclusion were not specific to Islam or Islamic societies. In fact, Leila Ahmed argued that there is no justification for veiling in Islam, only instructions for women to guard their private parts and cover their “bosoms” with a scarf, though this view is contested.[13]

So, why were women chosen as a means of revolutionizing Central Asian society? And why was the veil such a powerful symbol? A framework that may help explain the discourse in Soviet Central Asia regarding women, and even the current discourse on women’s status in Muslim countries in general, is that the interest in the veil is based on “otherness” and colonial needs to subjugate populations, both literally and conceptually. Leila Ahmed wrote that interest in Muslim women grew proportionally as Western nations established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries. The focus on women was a fusion of several strands of thought that were developing in the Western world in the latter half of the 1800s. It was a:

“coalescence between the old narrative of Islam … which Edward Said’s Orientalism details… and the broad, all-purpose narrative of colonial domination regarding the inferiority, in relation to the European culture, of all Other cultures and societies… and finally… the language of feminism… [in which] Victorian womanhood and mores with respect to women, along with other aspects of society at the colonial center, were regarded as the ideal and measure of civilization.”[14]

The veil was a powerful symbol because it was highly visible and clearly differed from the norms established by Western, European society, the supposed peak of civilization. Attacking the veil was a means to an end, giving the Soviets the opportunity to point to something visible that they could remove from women’s lives, to give Central Asian women what they imagined was a gift of liberation that they would be eternally grateful for. Marianne Kamp might have called this a flawed understanding of Islamic societies. She wrote that unveiling movements were only successful when initiated by Muslim women, outside of and apart from government intervention, especially when that government was an outside or Western influence. Instances where outside influences were seen to be pushing for unveiling women were seen as attacks on Islamic values.[15]

An attack on values was just how the unveiling campaign was perceived, which is precisely why it has become known as the Hujum (“the attack”). Before the unveiling campaign in Uzbekistan, some women had already chosen to unveil and, while it was frowned on, the backlash wasn’t very violent. One example is Saodat Shamsieva, an Uzbek woman who was born in To’rtqo’l, Xorazm in 1908 and spent most of her life as a women’s activist and editor of women’s magazines. She told Marianne Kamp about her experiences growing up and living in Central Asia and described why she stopped wearing the paranji. She said she was able to unevil because she fled to another city with a man she had met and married. In her new setting she wasn’t under the supervision of any men that would have forced her to veil or seclude herself, so she decided to just wear a scarf instead. She related having hardships in her life, but not because she chose to be unveiled. [16]

According to Kamp’s research, the practice of veiling was not as widespread as one would be led to believe by Soviet attacks against the practice. Sedentary women working in the fields normally wore a chopan, a men’s or child’s robe, draped from her head, but did not cover her face. In other places, town-dwelling Tajik women (who were normally uncovered or only covered their mouths in the presence of men) would wear a paranji in crowded places and rural Uzbek women went unveiled and only covered themselves when confronted by the clergy or Russians. Some villagers could not even afford paranjis and in the 1910s and 1920s only women who did not work in the fields typically wore them.[17]

Why paranjis and their use became more prominent is not entirely clear. Marianne Kamp proposed that men may have felt the need to hide their women from outsiders. She also wrote that during that time there was growth in Islamic institutions and learning, as well as Hajj participation, so views on veiling and a renewed emphasis on the association of unveiled women with prostitution may have been imported from other Islamic areas. Combined with the increased affluence of Central Asians, paranjis became more affordable and developed into status symbols through the incorporation of expensive materials.[18]

By the time the Soviets decided to launch the Hujum, the use of paranjis had become a mainstream practice associated with traditional Central Asian culture and traditions, but it was still possible for women to unveil when they were outside of their kinship groups. However, after the Soviets adopted the unveiling campaign, the intervention of a foreign power was seen negatively and caused Central Asians to hold more tightly to tradition than they had before. Wearing the paranji came to symbolize upholding traditional Central Asian values, compared to unveiling, which symbolized acceptance of Soviet values. This shift in discourse took the power to choose out of the hands of women, who became passive objects in a battle for control over the future of traditions, values, social structures, and the division of labor. Women were told what being veiled and unveiled meant, and what they represented was essentially coopted by the state and the men around them.

This challenge to society was met with extreme violence in a way that previous decisions to unveil, characterized by Saodat’s experience, did not. Unveiled women were harassed, insulted, sometimes beaten, and sometimes raped or murdered. This behavior was not limited to non-Communist party Central Asians; party officials and even their wives often took part in the abuse.[19] The Hujum was as big an issue for men as it was for women. Besides the obvious potential unveiling had to disrupt the patriarchal social structure, men were measured by their wives’ behavior. Loyalty to the Communist party and Soviet ideals were judged by the status of ones’ wife. Was she veiled or unveiled? Was she actively participating in the party, education, and social life? If it was decided that a Communist party man’s wife was not living according to Soviet ideals, the husband could lose his party membership.

The veil proved to be a powerful symbol to rally behind during the Hujum, but the use of the paranji was mostly limited to urban and sedentary populations in what is modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.[20] In other parts of Central Asia, like the Turkmen republic, women did not wear the paranji or chachvon (the heavy horsehair veil that covered the face) so it was necessary to find other ways to liberate them from the patriarchal constraints of Central Asian society. Without a potent visual symbol that people could rally behind, however, this proved to be a much more complicated process than the theatrical and public displays of burning paranjis.

The Communist party Women’s Department, or Zhenotdel, instead concentrated on legal reforms to draw Turkmen women into public life. Like the other Central Asian republics, laws were passed that outlawed certain “crimes of custom,” but unlike in the Uzbek republic, where Soviet officials shifted from legislating against crimes of custom to engaging in direct actions (the Hujum and burning paranjis), legislating against female subordination never gave way to direct action in the Turkmen republic.[21] The most significant reason for this was that Turkmen women were traditionally unveiled. Because the paranji had so strongly been associated with female subordination, the Turkmen women were imagined to already be liberated, simply because their faces were showing. Adrienne Lynn Edgar quoted a Russian traveler in Transcaspia in the 1880s as saying:

“The Teke woman does not resemble other Muslim women, who do not have the right to show themselves to a male stranger and who know no life but that of the harem. Nor does she resemble the European woman. She has equal rights. The Teke does not regard his wife as a slave or solely as a source of household labor, but sees in her a friend, a person equal to himself.”[22]

This fairly romanticized vision of nomadic Turkmen and their women helps to demonstrate the strength of the association between veiling and subordination among Muslim women that was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Central Asia. Because Turkmen women were unveiled, they were automatically assumed to have full and equal rights. The lack of a veil did not mean that women were automatically equal, however. The veil was just the most visible sign of a male-dominated society. In Turkmen society, like other Central Asian societies, women were still seen as representative of family honor; they were expected to obey their parents and husbands; they were subject to being part of polygamous marriages; and men had sole authority to initiate a divorce.[23]

By the second half of the 1920s, Zhenotdel activists came to believe that Turkmen women were not as liberated as they had once believed and began looking for new ways to initiate social change. Unlike Soviet officials in the Uzbek republic, who were hoping to use the liberation of women from the veil to delegitimize Islam, officials in Turkmenistan attempted to separate the issues of Islam and women’s oppression, instead emphasizing the ways in which Turkmen customary law denigrated women.[24] By 1927, the year the Hujum started, “official propaganda on Turkmen women could hardly be distinguished from the more general propaganda literature on Muslim female oppression.” A Muslim woman was depicted as a piece of property or a slave that was bought and sold.[25]

But, how do you liberate a woman who is not visibly oppressed? This assault on local culture was something that was looked on with suspicion and hostility by Central Asian men and women. Even some members of the Communist Party disapproved of efforts to liberate women. In the Uzbek republic, the mark of a man’s loyalty came to be defined by whether or not his spouse was veiled, but in the Turkmen republic there was no outward sign of loyalty that could be readily observed. A new symbol had to be found that people could rally behind and use as a marker of modernity and loyalty.

Zhenotdel activists tried to substitute yashmak for the paranji, since the practice is structurally similar to veiling, requiring the covering of the face. In fact, some officials argued that yashmak was even more oppressive, because it required a woman to remain subordinated even in her own home, unable to speak whenever someone older than herself was present. Attempts to make yashmak a rallying symbol for female emancipation failed. Adrienne Lynn Edgar wrote that this was probably because the practice was much more subtle and flexible than veiling.[26] Also, where veiling was a public affair, yashmak took place within the home, where it was probably harder to detect by Zhenotdel activists and Soviet officials.

Because no substitute for the veil could be found, efforts to liberate Turkmen women relied on passing legislation against customs that were detrimental to women’s autonomy. Legislation against crimes of custom began before the period of national delimitation, beginning with decrees against the practice of bride-wealth in January 1923. An October 1924 addendum to the 1918 Russian Federations criminal code banned polygamy. These and additional measures were brought before peasant conferences for open discussion and while not much attention was given to land reform or elections processes, the people “came alive as if shot from a cannon as soon as the woman question came up.” [27] The ban on bride-wealth was extremely controversial. The arguments used against the ban, however, proved the necessity of its enforcement. Peasants argued that raising a daughter was a large time and money investment and that bride-wealth was their due compensation. Other peasants argued that they relied on the windfall of cash that resulted from marrying off a daughter.[28] Both of these arguments reduce a woman to the status of property to be bought and sold, with no individual will or agency.

Despite the obvious necessity of the ban, the practice continued. Even when the Turkmen Central Executive Committee banned polygamy and set the marriage age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, the practice of bride-wealth was merely declared to be “not sanctioned by law.”[29] Steps were made to equalize women and men’s rights, but some issues could not be touched. The practice of bride-wealth was widely condemned by all levels of society, but because it lacked the visual flair of burning paranjis, it was hard to gain enough support to ban the practice completely. Like the Soviet attempt to force the issue of unveiling in the Uzbek republic, attempts to outlaw bridewealth became the focal point for Turkmen men who saw it as government overreaching and an attack on traditional values and social structures. True to Marianne Kamp’s theory, the moment outside influence focused on changing an aspect of local culture, the locals pushed back all the harder.

Similarly, attempts to give women the right to initiate a divorce met with strong resistance from men, because, according to Edgar, it was perceived as a direct assault on the Turkmen family.[30] Zhenotdel officials had come to believe that Muslim marriages were by definition oppressive to women, so they attempted to make it as easy as possible for women to initiate divorces, a right which had previously been granted by the 1918 Russian Federation family code. To combat this perceived threat to Turkmen values, men engaged with the state in the language of class warfare. Poor peasants claimed that the right of women to initiate divorces was an unfair imposition on them, because women were leaving marriages with poor men in droves so they could become second, third, or fourth wives to rich men. This wasn’t true, but by using the rhetoric of the state, men were able to justify applying stipulations on a woman’s right to initiate a divorce that effectively blocked their access.[31]

As much as the Soviets wanted to liberate women and gain their loyalty and labor, they had to retain the proletariat they already possessed: the male Turkmen. So, throughout this process, the Soviets had to engage in a balancing act between female interests and maintaining favor with the male proletariat. Edgar argued that this constant need to please men at the expense of women’s rights showed the limitations of Massell’s “surrogate proletariat” argument and said that women should instead be thought of as a “supplementary proletariat.”[32] Edgar sums up her argument by noting that through the use of the veil as the “consummate symbol of female oppression, Zhenotdel activists had undermined their ability to be advocates for Muslim women who did not wear the veil.”[33] Prior to narrowing their emancipation activities to arguing for unveiling, however, Zhenotdel activists had attempted to liberate women through the same legislation as that passed in the Turkmen republic. So, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Soviet officials were only able to make progress at causing deep structural changes in Central Asian society when they had a clear and visible symbol to rally people behind. This, of course, assumes that Soviet officials were deeply interested in women’s emancipation in the first place.

The language of gender was manipulated and politicized by the Soviet Communist party to mobilize labor in Soviet Central Asia, to modernize (and homogenize) traditional society as part of its attempt to show a progressive face to the rest of the world, and as a means of exerting control over elements of society that were seen as dangerous and in need of eradication. The issue of politicized gender in Central Asia is highly complex and deserves more attention than that afforded by this paper, but key elements of Soviet policies, including attempts to legislate against crimes of custom and the need for visible symbols to create markers of modernity have been explored. Further issues that should be explored but were not addressed are the issues of re-veiling and a more in-depth analysis of how Central Asian men used rhetoric to influence gender politics to their benefit.


[1] Deniz Kandiyoti, “The politics of gender and the Soviet paradox: neither colonized, nor modern?”, Central Asian Survey 26 (December 2007): 603.

[2] Douglas Northrop, “Languages of Loyalty: Gender, Politics, and Party Supervision in Uzbekistan, 1927-41,” The Russian Review 59 (April 2000): 181.

[3] Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid., 76-77.

[7] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 134.

[8] R.R. Rakhimov, “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia),” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia vol. 45 no. 6 (Spring 2007), 68.

[9] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 133-135.

[10] R.R. Rakhimov, “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia),” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia vol. 45 no. 6 (Spring 2007), 68.

[11] Ibid., 72-77.

[12] Ibid., 77-87.

[13] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 55.

[14] Ibid., 150-151.

[15] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 133.

[16] Ibid., 123-128.

[17] Ibid., 135.

[18] Ibid., 135-136.

[19] Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 98.

[20] Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29,” The Russian Review 62 (January 2003): 132.

[21] Ibid., 133.

[22] Ibid., 134-135.

[23] Ibid., 135.

[24] Ibid., 136 and Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 72.

[25] Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29,” The Russian Review 62 (January 2003): 136.

[26] Ibid., 137-138.

[27] Ibid., 141.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 142.

[30] Ibid., 144.

[31] Ibid., 144-148.

[32] Ibid., 148.

[33] Ibid., 149.



Ahmed, Leila. 1992. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Edgar, Adrienne Lynne. 2003. “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29.” The Russian Review 132-149.

Kamp, Marianne. 2006. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 2007. “The politics of gender and the Soviet paradox: neither colonized, nor modern?” Central Asian Survey 601-623.

Northrop, Douglas. 2000. “Languages of Loyalty: Gender, Politics and Party Supervision in Uzbekistan, 1927-41.” The Russian Review 179-200.

—. 2003. Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rakhimov, R.R. 2007. “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia).” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia 67-92.


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