Control And Subversion: Gender Relations in Tajikistan

Control And Subversion: Gender Relations in Tajikistan

by Colette Harris



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745321677
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/20/2004
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Colette Harris is a researcher specialising in gender and development, with particular interests in family relations, sexuality and domestic violence. She is currently program director, women in international development at the Office of International Research, Education and Development of Virginia Tech University in the States.

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Power relations

Zora is from the town of Uroteppa in the north, while her husband, Fayziddin, is from a village near Qurghonteppa in the south. They met and married at university and afterwards stayed on in Dushanbe. They have two children, a daughter Dila, and a son, Ali.

Although Fayziddin earned much less than Zora he considered himself the head of the family and insisted everyone obey him, so that, despite the fact that his wife held a taxing job, he always refused to help in the house. It was not his business to do 'women's' work. On the contrary Zora must wait on him. If she protested he would beat her. Zora was often very tired and could not cope with all the housework by herself. With only one daughter to help her she found herself forced to co-opt her son into assisting her.

Fayziddin, however, was concerned with the effect this was having on his children's upbringing and especially on the family image. It made him very nervous to imagine the neighbours' comments. Therefore, whenever he came home and found Ali helping his mother he would beat her and threaten to repeat this if he caught her encouraging his son to behave in 'womanly' ways again. 'Boys do not do housework', Fayziddin told Ali repeatedly, while also beating him for greater emphasis. Eventually Ali learned his lesson, so that even in his father's absence he would refuse to do any work in the home, including taking out the refuse, ignoring his mother's plaint that this was a man's job.

Fayziddin never laid a finger on Dila because her upbringing was her mother's responsibility. He did, however, check how Zora was fulfilling this task. He was a strict father and wanted his children to behave as he and his siblings had done in his native village. Although they lived in Dushanbe, he would have preferred Dila to dress in traditional clothes all the time, even at university. In Soviet times all students had to wear Russian dress. Dila had been allowed to comply with this but by the time she started university the Soviet Union had ended, and with it such rules. Fayziddin was determined his daughter would wear ezor to cover her legs. Dila wanted to protest, but she could not oppose her father directly. Instead she begged her mother to intercede for her.

Zora, herself raised in an urban culture, thought her husband was over-reacting and that his attitude reflected his village upbringing. She told him that dressing like that would make Dila a laughing stock. Reluctantly, Fayziddin agreed to allow Dila to wear Russian clothes, but he kept strict reins on her throughout her student days.

When Ali started college he found himself unable to concentrate or work hard. As a result his parents ended up paying for him to pass the exams he could not manage on his own. He has now graduated but since he did not gain much in the way of skills he cannot find a job, so he spends most of his time at home. Dila is also at home a lot and the two of them bicker constantly. Their parents, however, demand total obedience from the two of them, just as they did when they were little. Fayziddin no longer beats his son, who is too strong, but he will brook no opposition from either child. Ali can sulk, but, like his sister he does not dare answer his father back or refuse to obey him. He knows that it would be a serious offence to confront him directly.

Dila and Ali are neither materially nor psychologically able to free themselves from their parents. Ali, in particular, resents their authority over him but for the time being he is unable to relinquish his dependence on them. Without their help he could not have got through college and he is unlikely to obtain a job or be able to marry without their intervention. Dila too knows she has no option but to accept parental authority until such time as control over her is passed to her future husband and his family.

In the following chapters Zora, Fayziddin and their children, reappear, along with many others. Meanwhile, this story provides a context for the presentation of my theoretical framework, illustrating some dynamics of Tajik family relationships and how these are affected by interaction with the wider community.

As male head of the family, overall control is Fayziddin's responsibility, while Zora's task is to keep the household running. As Dila and Ali grow up they are expected to assimilate the appropriate gendered behaviour, at times coercively inculcated. The latters' resentment of their parents' dominion over them is tempered by their material and psychological dependence. However, Fayziddin's dominant stance does not mean that he holds all the power within the family while the others meekly assume positions of subordination. Even Dila, who as a young woman holds a very low position, is able to exert a certain degree of power. Moreover, it is notable that she behaves quite differently in front of the different members of her family. With her father she is the most submissive, living up to the prescribed behaviour for young girls. However, she exhibits less docility with her mother, while behaving anything but submissively with her younger brother. Thus, power circulates between the members of this family and each person is able to exert some degree of power over the others. Dila, for instance, can put pressure on her father, but only through her mother, not directly.

Foucault's theories on power (1980a, 1990) provide useful insights into such dynamics. According to him, all social intercourse is shot through with power relations (Foucault 1980a: 90). These are never one-sided, rather a dominant power position is met with a corresponding counter force, so that society functions by way of a multiplicity of points of pressure and resistance (Foucault 1990: 94–6), just as described above.

But the different family members exert power unequally. Dila cannot use speech to articulate her opinions to her father, which indicates her relative powerlessness, since the capacity to express oneself in words in front of others is an important measure of one's power position (Langton 1993: 314–15 in Butler 1997a: 86). Nevertheless, although she may have been silenced verbally she can show her resentment at her father's injunctions by, for instance, refusing to eat or do housework. These are strategies girls in Tajikistan traditionally use to articulate their feelings when they are culturally constrained from doing so through speech (Peshchereva 1976: 37).

In general, the ability to speak is not fixed but varies with circumstances. Almost everyone experiences both situations in which they are socially permitted to talk and others in which they are silenced. Thus, Dila may be silenced in front of her father but is able to scold her brother, since although male he is also younger.

At the same time, Fayziddin and his family do not live in a social vacuum. As head of the family he may be powerful at home but outside it he is vulnerable to community pressures, which censure fathers whose children do not conform. To avoid this he has to constrain his children. Foucault (1980a) explains that power is something that circulates, that it functions during everyday interactions at the level of the family, the community, and other basic units of society, through strategies of exclusion and surveillance he calls 'micro-mechanisms of power' (1980a: 96–102).

Inmyexploration of how these are used for the control of Tajik society I start at the lowest level of social organisation with gender norms and, following Foucault's concept of 'an ascending analysis of power' (1980a: 99, emphasis in original), work upwards to show how social control in Tajikistan is strongly organised around the dual entities of gender and age.

Gender norms

Gender is a much used term but one whose definition has never been completely agreed upon. It is commonly used by feminists to indicate the social construction of masculinity and femininity, as opposed to the biological male/female sexed bodies. My usage takes this a stage further. Starting from the ideas of Butler I define gender as: a culture-specific ideal, varying over time, that males and females are supposed to live up to in order to become intelligible to, and accepted members of, their own communities. It is an ideal that remains tenuous because it is never fully internalised, never quite lived up to (Butler 1995a: 31–2). The internalisation of gender ideals on its own is not sufficient. In order to become meaningful gender must be performed, not once but over and over (Butler 1993: 95).

This means that gender must be acted out, that it is rendered perceptible only through repeated patterns of behaviour, that Butler terms performance (1993: x). Each social group has its own ideas of how men and women should behave, and articulates its expectations accordingly (Butler 1995b: 34). In fact, when people say that someone is a 'real man' or a 'real woman' they essentially mean that his or her behaviour lives up to their society's expectations of gendered behaviour.

People do not, of course, mechanically follow behavioural prescriptions (Butler 1997b: 16) but rather are constrained within a range of norms that are slight variations on an underlying ideal that has been inculcated into them from birth until it forms an integral part of their psyche (Butler 1993: x). Moreover, the differing bodily experiences of men and women are intrinsically related to the way they convey their gender identities, including movements, gestures and styles, which together produce the illusion of a permanently gendered being (Butler 1990: 140). In other words, when Dila behaves submissively towards her father she is correctly expressing her gender identity as a young girl, while Fayziddin considers Ali's helping in the kitchen inappropriate behaviour for a Tajik male, as it does not accord with the norms of masculinity.

Such norms are established 'through a stylized repetition of acts' (Butler 1990: 140, emphasis in the original), sedimented into an effect of timelessness, generally called tradition. Reiteration gives such sedimentation the appearance of something normal and natural and once this stage has been reached it is only a small step before what seems natural acquires regulatory force (Butler 1990: 140). The more often each norm is reiterated, the more natural it appears and therefore the more important it becomes not to contravene it, as this will appear almost like going against nature. At that moment, maintaining such norms comes to seem essential for human survival, which may account for the strength with which communities cling to their traditions.

This appearance of timelessness is deceptive. What actually happens is that variations continually insinuate themselves, only to be apparently seamlessly resedimented and gradually accepted as tradition, as if no change had taken place, although, looking back in time it is possible to discern differences (Butler 1995b: 135).

The norms regulating Ali's and Dila's subordination are politically formed expressions of Tajik social ideals. The behavioural patterns that upon repetition form norms, are not a matter of arbitrary choice but are directly related to a society's hegemonic ideology (Gramsci 1971: 12), which, in effect, is 'the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas' (Marx 1846a: 64), so that changes in ideas are directly related to material transformations (Marx 1846b: 3). This does not mean that only the material counts, but rather that ideology and the material situation are not isolated phenomena but effects of the same cultural processes. Variations in gender norms are an inevitable concomitant of material change but can also be used for deliberate subversion of the norms.

When gender norms are well established it may not be necessary to articulate them. They may simply be taken for granted. It is only through tension around some aspect of them that they enter public discourse. The result is that they gain explicit definition, after which silent variation becomes considerably more difficult. Since they have been publicly defined everyone knows what they should be and their preservation may become a weapon in power struggles (see Foucault 1990: 101–2). Upholding the norms then becomes all the more vital since any change can be exploited as a weakness in a society's defences (Chapter 2).

Invaded and colonised by the culturally alien Russians, the Tajik people were forced to defend their culture when their homeland was incorporated into the Soviet Union, with the regime making a determined and organised onslaught on its values (Chapter 2). Withstanding this required an especially strong resistance, which took the form of hardening social norms (Chapter 3). Confronted with the alien values of the governing powers, the Tajik population could not afford to make changes in their own norms that would appear to be an acceptance of the conquerors' ideology. Probably for this reason, in Tajikistan behaviour that in other places might be considered modern is labelled 'Russian'. It is notable that it was gender identities, particularly feminine gender identities, that were central to the struggles around community values (see Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1992: 113ff).

Gender identity and the theories of Butler

The work of Butler has been invaluable in helping me conceptualise a number of important aspects of the functioning of Tajik social norms for which I have been able to find no other convincing theoretical framework that makes sense of my observations. There are, however, several aspects of her work I find problematic.

The first of these is her discussion about the relationship of gender identities to such modalities as ethnicity, class and race. After stating that she finds them inextricably linked (1990: 3), she ignores them throughout the remainder of her discussions. This may well be intentional because Butler is exploring psychological categories, and at the level she is doing this, she may feel that the modalities of ethnicity, class and race do not possess overt meaning.

But in my view their influence is sufficiently important that we cannot afford to ignore them. As Moore states, gender discourse cannot exist outside discourse on these modalities (1994b: 20), since psychological subjects do not exist outside them. To assume otherwise is to perpetuate the hegemonic gaze of an elite. In this respect, and contrary to the universalistic approach of most psychoanalytical theory, including that posited by Butler (for instance, 1997b), I believe human psychological development to be culture dependent (see Ross and Rapp 1997). Thus, in those communities that prioritise group identity and conformity, it seems likely that individuals, and most especially the young, will be kept subjected to their parents as long as possible so that they develop agency much more slowly than the average middle-class white westerner.

In fact, Weyland notes it was traditional in rural Egypt for (male) heads of families to exert strict control over all family members, including adult sons. They did this partly through psychological pressures and partly through their control over economic resources, such as land (1994: 163–6). Although Dila and Ali are now in their 20s, they have no way of supporting themselves. Their parents expect them to remain financially as well as psychologically dependent, and their entire upbringing has been aimed at preventing them from wishing to break away. This is all the more vital since Tajik parents who cannot keep control over their offspring, irrespective of age, come under strong community censure.

In other words, ethnic differences produce highly significant distinctions in psychological development as also in gender identities (Chhachhi and Pittin 1996: 93ff; Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994b: 40; Fraser 1995: 159) and in fact, gender performance is always mediated through the cultural norms of specific social groups (see Schrijvers 1999).

The struggle between Fayziddin and Dila over the clothes she should wear to university highlights the cultural differences between the Russo-Soviet identity privileged by the state and that of the Tajik community, differences symbolised by whether or not a woman should show her legs in public. Apparently trivial, this is fundamental to the different concepts of femininity in these communities. What is at stake here is not just the distinctive traits of each social group's specific gender norms, but also the strength of the pressure towards conformity, the range of variations in performance acceptable for each gender and the degree to which performances reflect internalised ideals. Each community is distinctive in respect of these values and they constitute some of the most important features that distinguish societies from one another; in other words, they form the essence of cultural identity.


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Copyright © 2004 Colette Harris.
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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personaexii
Introduction: The Research Setting and Methodology1
1.Conceptual Background12
2.The Bolsheviks Attack but the Tajiks Resist42
3.Community Control67
4.Intergenerational Family Control92
5.The Individual Unmasked114
6.The Couple Relationship: Love, Sex and Marriage134
Conclusion: Control and Subversion170
Technical Information and Terminology177

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