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"Are European girls virgins when they get married?" From Istanbul to Tashkent, the question comes up again and again, asked directly and often by strangers. Here in Central Asia, there is only one answer: "yes, or else!..." - just one aspect of the submissive, child-bearing mother stereotype women are expected to fit into. Meeting real women across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a very different picture emerges.
In Azerbaijan and in the Central Asian ’stans there are signs of hope when it comes to development: new roads, new investment, improvements on Soviet-era pollution eating up the natural environment. On one count there seems to be little progress, and that’s women’s rights. Women should shut up, have babies and do the hard work men don’t want to do: picking cotton, tending watermelons, paiting roadside fences in the midday sun. But despite the strong social pressure, surprisingly many women here are far from submissive. Time and time again we were welcomed by confident, even big-mouthed women, many of whom were quite clearly the heads of their families. Our first encounter with a loud Asian female was Nazela, an Azeri living in Aktau with her two kids, whose husband was away working in Moscow. When I first saw her on the Baku-Aktau ferry, I knew she was a kindred spirit: while most of the passengers suffered in silence as corrupt ferry officials tried to charge everyone far above the official price, she made a fuss that could be heard from afar and categorically refused to pay. When she wasn’t shouting at corrupt officials, Nazela laughed a lot, and loud, talked all the time, and asked us lots of questions. We stayed with her in her flat in Aktau for two days, and she cried when we left... Nazela contrasted starkly with another Azeri woman on the ferry - a timid, tired-looking young mum of three whose twenty-something, short-legged husband strutted around the ship’s deck while she took care of the kids. I was drawn into a discussion with the husband and, of course, he quickly steered towards the inevitable question: "where you’re from, do girls ’get around’ before they get married? You know - are they virgins?" - no beating around the bush here. He went on to proudly tell me that Muslim women must be virgins, and also that if his wife doesn’t bring him his tea, he’ll beat her, if she goes to see her family without permission, he’ll beat her... I told him I was glad I didn’t live in Azerbaijan. In Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, the same question recurred - do they ask all the Westeners they meet, or am I just lucky? - I wondered... The idea that it could be acceptable for women to have sex before marriage seems to fascinate people. Because here in X-stan, if a girl is found not to be a virgin on her wedding night (no blood, see?) she will be "thrown out into the street," I was repreatedly told - not only by the men, also by the women of the family. "Don’t take a wife from Tashkent, take one from the countryside, in the capital you’ll never find a clean girl," was the advice one man at an Uzbek wedding party gave to a young insurance broker. Of course, this rule only applies to women. Uzbek men can legally have up to four wives, while women only one husband. I found this out the hard way, talking to a man at a silk cocoon depot in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Like many Uzbeks, a nation famed for their hospitality, he invited me to his house: "then you can meet my five wives." I asked whether women could also have five partners, or only men, but he didn’t seem to like this question. He said his wives were satisfied with him, and, probably trying to shock me into order, proceeded to ask whether I’m satisfied in bed with my boyfriend, who was standing next to me - "you know, sex." He wasn’t drunk, we were there with friends. The main problem was, it seemed, that I had asked the wrong question and I "needed to be told." Fortunately, I was not the only woman asking uncomfortable questions in Uzbekistan. And with a cruel, repressive regime running the country and corruption at every step, there is no shortage of questions begging to be asked. On a small scale, the corrupt official-defying Nazela was doing just that - refusing to pay bribes and expressing the outrage everyone feels. "I know they don’t want a scandal, they want me to shut up, but that’s exactly what I won’t do," she told me at the time. Shaihida, another kindred spirit who generously took us into her home in Tashkent for almost a week, is another woman with seemingly no fear of social contempt, of the wrath of beareaucrats or otherwise. Living alone with her children - her first husband left when the children were small - and a second husband who passes by every now and again, she says: "If people talk badly of me it’s because they’re bored, or jealous, or both." She works two shifts as an administrator for the police and earns 200 dollars a month - a respectable sum here - while many of her neighbours are unemployed. She is not afraid of asking the "wrong" sort of question: "At Christmas, the Mayor gives out gifts to poor children, but the people handing them out often steal them. I go there and I ask them - "what are you doing? what did you do with those presents? do you have the receits?" People say I’ll get in trouble for asking things like that, but I don’t care," she says. "If I could do any job, I’d be a journalist," she adds. These are just the sorts of questions that need to be asked if countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan are to go forwards at all. Corruption and crony-ism are blocking development - as soon as a new business succeeds, officials come asking for money or even arrest the owner on fabricated charges. Both men and women could gain a lot from the questions asked by unruly women with their big mouths.