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Buying things in Bukhara

Nargiza, 17, is taking this year off of school.  She’s postponed her 11th grade studies to help her grandmother cell ceramics in the shadows of the Kalyan Minaret in ancient Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Her wares, delicately arranged on the ground in front of the entrance of the Mir-i-Arad Madrasa, sell for anywhere between one dollar and thirty dollars. She is not alone with her sidewalk business.  Three other entrepreneurs surround her with the exactly same ceramics.  Competition for the dollar, or Uzbek Cym, is stiff.

The Madrassa, Bukhara

Modern day travel is always surreal for me. I am standing at the gate entrance of a madrasa built in 1535 and paid for with the profit Sheik Mir-i-Arab gained from selling 3000 Persian slaves. It housed as many as 130 men being educated in Islamic law. Women were forbidden from the fruits of education. Islam was established earlier and more extensively than in any other country in this region, with Bukhara the site of many religious schools and Islamic sects known for their conservatism. (At one point, Bukhara was said to have a mosque for every day of the year.) It should be noted, however, that none of these institutions were for girls or women. Only a handful of mosques were either set aside for women or had special spaces or days for them.

On this particular day the contrast of ancient history and modernity is stark as I am watching a teenage girl dressed in sneakers, waste-length olive green leather coat and blue jeans vigorously approach tourists with her pitch.  She’s able to converse and conduct business in just enough English, French and Japanese to make a few new acquaintances if not a sale.

“Buy from me,” Nargiza pleads.  “Buy from me. You will want a teapot,” she tells me as I shake my head to decline her offer. “Okay,” she says. “Maybe it is that you don’t want one but you can buy for a friend.”    “No, I cannot easily take it home,” I argue. “It’s ceramic and it can break during my travels.”  Nargiza has heard this many times before. “No! You can wrap it in a T-Shirt,” she argues. Amused, I wonder what tourist told her of that packing tip.

I sit on the step of the entrance. Nargiza pulls up a short stool and sits directly in front of me. She’s turned her attention away from the few tourists meandering around and directly to me. “What state are you from?” she asks. “Minnesota,” I reply.  “Are you married?”—A question I get numerous times a week it seems. “No.”   “Me neither,” she says.  “Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask. With a smile she nods yes just as another boy her age walks up. “But I am not going to tell you his name because he—as she gestures toward the new visitor—will hear and tell everybody and pretty soon the whole town will know.”   “That’s okay. Is he nice?” I ask. “Yes, but I am not going to get married. Like you,” she says. “Husbands want you to work and clean and cook and have children and they will not help. I don’t want that. I don’t want a husband,” she says with the certainty of a 17 year old.

There is a chance Nargiza will successfully maneuver past the family and societal pressures to marry.  That is, if she finishes school and finds enough support to surpass the obstacles women in Uzbekistan now face to higher education.  Women in particular must cope with a religious belief system limiting opportunities for education and employment. It’s a belief system that has been reinvented, if you will, during this post-Soviet decade.

It was under Soviet rule that the “liberation” of Uzbek women occurred. During the period of Soviet rule, the state promoted a laudatory history of its own role in freeing women from what it viewed as the oppressive strictures of Islamic religious law and local custom.

In 1927, the Soviet government launched an offensive against all traditional, patriarchal social practices deemed oppressive to women, including the marriage of underage girls, brideprice, and the most visible symbol of this oppression, the veil. At the same time the Soviet government maintained a brutal campaign to suppress Islam because Moscow viewed it as one of the major to Soviet political primacy in the region.

Fifty years later, the Soviet modernization drive claimed to have achieved near-universal literacy among men and women. Other socio-political gains for women were also noted.

Uzbekistan, which became independent in 1991, is a young state albeit with claims to an ancient past. The desire to reinvent national tradition, and thus to solidify the newly independent state’s claims to nationhood, has complicated women’s exercise of their human rights in recent years. Uzbekistan’s government has exploited the rhetoric of women’s rights as proof of the nation’s modernity in the process but has, at the same time, sent mixed policy messages. Government leaders also point to women’s “traditional” role as the very touchstone for its cultural heritage it is fiercely protecting and even marketing.

Contradicting its claims to protect women’s rights, the Uzbek government has often times urged the rejection of all things Soviet, and has invoked a particular, stylized version of “tradition” as a key strategy for developing a new national identity and national ideology, to substitute for defunct Soviet communism.

Since independence the government has taken little or no effective action to protect women’s basic human rights, particularly access to education and employment, which have both eroded.  It’s perhaps why Nargiza, at age 17, is unquestionably able to postpone her studies for a year to help cell ceramics for the family budget.  I did not notice boys her age doing the same, but I did meet other girls her age selling everything from carpets, to fur hats to ceramics.

Meet Nargiza and buy a teapot

The past decade has also seen the average marriage age, particularly for girls like Nargiza, decline, although the law sets the minimum age of marriage for girls at seventeen, and for boys at eighteen. Although some women’s committee leaders expressed to Human Rights Watch their desire to encourage girls to delay marriage, the practice of evading legal age limits through religious, not civil marriages occurs with the tacit approval of local authorities.

Early marriage tends to limit women’s access to education and employment outside the home. The new bride, or kelin, occupies the lowest status rung in her new family, particularly until she produces a first child. Strongly correlated with the trend toward earlier marriages for women, women’s educational attainment in the post-Soviet period has declined. Women made up fully half of the population, and 41 percent of students enrolled in higher educational institutions in 1991. By 1997, that figure had dropped to 37 percent. Most observers assert that the downward trend has continued since that time and some higher education officials have recently expressed the belief that post-secondary schooling should be limited to men.

As elsewhere in the post-communist world, the economic hardship after the demise of communism has led to disproportionate declines in women’s status and well-being. Women are increasingly concentrated in low-wage sectors of the workforce, and receive lower wages than men for the same work.

Thirty minutes later, after talking with Nargiza and her helping me scrutinize dozens of ceramic pieces, I found myself in possession of an intricately and colorfully painted teapot and five small cups. Nargiza’s profit was only a couple dollars but the sale, secured in front of her nearby male competitors, put a priceless smile on her face.

Karen Louise Boothe, is currently living and working in Central Asia. You can reach her at, [email protected]

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