Since an independence unexpected and maybe not desired, the five Central Asian republics are faced with the construction of an identity to justify their existence. Region inhabited by often nomadic populations, Central Asia became absorbed in the Tsarist Empire through a long and difficult process of conquest. The drama was when Soviet Union, in a “planning delirium”, wanted to allocated to these populations a place to reside and, above all, an often artificial identity. During last months a debate is involving Central Asia, about the “right way” to dress for Central Asian women.
It is often said that “never judge a book by its cover”, this is absolutely untrue for Central Asia. Here covers, or better the clothes, are essential to identify the ethnicity, first the men’s hats subjects of a true cult. In a region torn by ethnic conflicts the manifestation of belonging to a group is crucial issue. Being exchanged for a foe could cost lives. Nevertheless, the current debate appears to assert that people, mainly the women, in Central Asian republics don’t care about traditional customs, neglected to follow foreign models of dressing. Very interesting is the fact that neighbouring countries, as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, approach the subject in a complete opposite way.
Central Asia is a crossroads of different worlds, it is sufficient to think how much it’s historically important the Silk Road. In this moment looks like the Central Asian rulers, often ex-Soviet bureaucrats, think to all those worlds as dangerous. In occasion of the International Woman Day (in Tajikistan dedicated to mothers), the President Emomali Rahmon has taken a vigorous stance against the use of hijab as Islamic clothing which does not belong to the tradition of Tajikistan, but rather imported from Iran and Afghanistan. After Rahmon’s speech the police of Dushanbe and Khujand, the two major cities in the country, fined several women and some shopkeepers. Until this moment the presidential ban has been formulated as an advice, but the situation in unclear.
Tajikistan in the past has already attempted to oppose some Islamic customs, for example in 2007 the veil was banned from schools, likely for political intentions. The imams of the country have been, indeed, requested to read sermons against IRP (Islamic Renaissance Party) the only legally recognised Islamic party in Central Asia. The operation appears to have been successful given that in the subsequent elections no member of the IRP, pivot of the opposition to Rahmon’s party, has been elected to Parliament. In a country which is 95% Muslim, where the religious fervour is increasing, this policy could be very dangerous.
Exactly opposite the same debate in Uzbekistan, where marked as foreigners are the western-style clothes. The triggering event should have been a TV show, in which the singer Lola Yoldosheva drew the attention of Uzbeknavo, the State Agency that grants to artists the permission of exhibition. According to the authorities the Yoldosheva’s dress was “in conflict with national mentality“, warning the singer don’t wear it again in the future. In reality, the incriminated dress doesn’t seem to be particularly scandalous leaving just the back and one leg uncovered. Maybe the reasons of censorship will be found elsewhere.
In the recent past Uzbekistan had one of the more westernized and trendy political figures: Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the President Islam Karimov. Until one year ago Karimova, very active in fashion, music and a lot of other fields, was considered the “strong woman” of the country. Afterwards, she has been arrested after allegations for tax evasion and corruption, with a public resonance very uncommon in Uzbekistan. Behind these events, a veritable struggle for power; the Karimov family’s empire until now unchallenged is under attack for the first time. Gulnara Karimova, because her luxurious and westernizing lifestyle, seems more hated in Uzbekistan than her father. This reveals an identity problem in this country as well.
Neither the rest of Central Asia is foreign to this debate: in Kazakhstan some intellectuals are proposing to establish a day to celebrate traditional dressing, in Kyrgyzstan a small movement campaigns against the spread of western clothes in the girls’ wardrobes. Controversies, significantly generated by men dressing European suits in their offices, are almost always concerning the apparel of women. In Tajik case, even, Islamic veil has been linked to prostitution, a charge always ready against the female world, as if it had the power to dominate men through their sexual appetites. The prostitute and in general the woman considered immoral, became the deviant par-excellence.
Central Asia is in the middle of an explosive geopolitical situation, struggling more and more to find its identity to hold onto. Its geographical position leads to endless pressures, both economic and political. So, between a past that doesn’t want to pass and a future unclear, paying are women, maybe because much less available than men to accept artificial and functional to private interests identities. Face to Central Asian rulers gives rise a forthcoming a feminine question, while the nation-state appears more and more in crisis.