Could Central Asian Women Become 'Surrogate Democrats'?
by Paul Goble

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Florence, December 11 - Forty years ago, Gregory Massell entitled his study of how the Soviets used women to promote social change in Central Asia "The Surrogate Proletariat." Now, a new study by an Uzbek writer suggests, women in the post-Soviet countries may play the role of surrogate democrats and promote the opening of political life there.

In an article in the current issue of "Druzhba narodov," Aleksandr Dzhumayev argues that post-Soviet elites in Central Asia have in their efforts to promote distinctive national identities opened the way for the return of the most archaic and even reactionary forms of popular Islam

And paradoxically, he says, the elites who are doing that now were only a few years ago members of the Communist Party or Komsomol and seeking to destroy Islam in the name of promoting a modern civil society, one in which religion as "a survival of the past" was finally overcome.

The only major social group standing against their current strategy, Dzhumayev suggests, are "women leaders of various generations, who were educated in Soviet times" and who continue to "defend the positive achievements of the contradictory Soviet period and to oppose a return to the pre-Soviet past."

When the Central Asian countries obtained their independence in 1991, something that was for most of their leaders an "unexpected" development, many of the local elites adopted "a nihilistic attitude" toward the Soviet past and attempted to 'discredit it as a useless and nationally alien cultural phenomenon."

Many people in these societies, and especially Muslims, have been able to exploit such attitudes to demand a return to the traditions of popular Islam, a religion that, again because of Soviet anti-religious efforts, had not modernized during the 20th century and was not in a position to coexist with more modern forms of social life.

Indeed, Dzhumayev writes, "the rebirth and broadening of the influence of Islam during the period of independence almost was not accompanied by its theological basis, largely lost in the Soviet period." Instead, this largely if imperfectly realized Hanafi school of Islam was challenged by "new extremist tendencies" from abroad, including Wahhabism.

And that development has meant in turn, the Uzbek analyst says, that there is a chance in Central Asia "as has already happened in certain other regions on the territory of the former USSR" that there will be a changeover to another legal school of Islam, one less tolerant and open than the Hanafi school.

At the present time, he writes, "the strengthening of Islamic cultural influence" in a spontaneous way is being "made possible by the active official criticism and negative reassessment of the achievements of Soviet times," not only with regard to Soviet promotion of atheism but also its support for gender equality.

And threats from "'innovations' of a fundamentalist type" has led the governments in the region to incorporate both "popular and official Islam" as a key element of "state policy," however retrograde some of the aspects of the Central Asian Islamic tradition had become by the end of the 19th century and during the period of Soviet repression.

Although debates about this have taken place mostly out of public view and in coded phrases given the repressive nature of government media policies, some of the deepest splits are now emerging and attracting attention. And Dzhurmayev suggests that the most important of these may be women who see the rise of traditionalist Islam as a threat to their rights.

An example of the way in which women are seeking to counter government support for more retrograde forms of popular and official Islam is contained in a book entitled "Fates and Time" containing interviews with women in that Central Asian republic during the soviet period and after.

Assembled by three Uzbek women and published in Moscow in 2004, this book insists that "the 20th century was a turning point for Central Asia. Having been a semi-medieval and semi-feudal Muslim society at its start, Uzbekistan in the course of a hundred years experienced a radical transformation," including "in the first instance in the status and position of women."

"During the period of Soviet power," it continues, "the women of Central Asia, including in Uzbekistan, gained access to education, to professional activity in various branches, to social defense and health services and as a result, the position of women was and still remains higher than in other countries with a comparable level of incomes."

Obviously, the authors say, these achievements came at "a high price for both society and the women themselves," but they note, "the current situation raises many questions," not least of which is "will the republic, having started on the path of independence, not only preserve but develop further that enormous historical achievement?"

Were the governments of this region not so directly involved in supporting traditional Islam and thus "inevitably strengthening its 'archaic aspect,'" this attitude on the part of women there might not become so politically significant. But because of these government decisions, Central Asian women especially in urban areas are now the social base of opposition groups.

Given the repressive nature of most of the regimes there, what Dzhurmayev has called attention to may not matter anytime soon. But over time, the attitude of the women of this region could play an important role, especially if outsiders who believe in gender equality and freedom support them despite what might appear to some to be their pro-Soviet attitudes.

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