Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте!

Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте! Hello!

My name is Kristina and I am a 26-year-old Austrian with a slight obsession with Central Asia and travelling to the more remote parts of the world. Learning a lot (of and about) languages, foreign cultures and trying to gain a better understanding of traditions while teaching German has been my mission in the past years.
Initially, this blog started out as a mere means to inform my friends and family about my life and adventures when I first moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It became a lot more than that to me after realizing that writing helped me to make sense of the strange world surrounding me, to deal with culture shock as well as to help me organize the chaos in my head. My Central Asian adventures haven't ended yet and I am looking forward to entertaining you with some more (crazy) stories from Kyrgyzstan in the very soon future!

I am also a couchsurf host - if you're planning a trip to Naryn, let me know on here and we can take it from there :)

I am always happy to hear from my readers, so please don't hesitate to contact me if you have comments or questions, about travel tips in Central Asia or about life in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan :)

Much love,

Donnerstag, 27. Juni 2013

Men, women and mahallas

or: Traumata, gossip and multiple wives

"I think Western men are selfish because they let the women pay when going to a restaurant." (Female student, 20)

"You're saying that women didn't win as many nobel prices in the past because they didn't have the option to get an education. Why didn't they claim it? I will tell you why: because they are weak!" (Male student, 21)

"I understand why you're saying that you want to be equal to men and I would want that too in my marriage. But I still think that men should have the last word." (Male student, 23)

"Why do Western women always look so masculine? Short hair, trousers? At least Uzbeks still know how important it is for a woman to be pretty" (Female student, 20)

Notions about the role of the sexes, upbringing of children, marriage and sex are deeply entrenched in a person's way of thinking, their surrounding culture and their socialisation. Related questions in a completely different context: Why is it that English people are so scared of nudity, while Germans embrace the idea of going into the sauna naked? Why do we find that so difficult to explain? Or why do I find the quotations above so repellent? And why is it so damn difficult to get people to think about their own ideas a little bit more critically?

Welcome to another blogpost on a complex topic that you encounter and/or discuss on an almost weekly basis when living in Uzbekistan - a topic that many of us (Western women) would take for granted, at least most of the time. All assumptions made in this post are based on conversations with my students, colleagues and other expats, as well as on observations I have made here in general.. a lot of them may be generalising in one way or the other, but I believe that they do describe general trends.

I get into a cab. 
Otkuda?, asks the taxi driver. (where are you from?)
Ja iz avstrii. (I am from Austria)
Ah. Rabota? (Work?)
Da da, rabota. (Yes, yes, work.)
Mush jest? (Do you have a husband?)
Da, kanjeschna, mush jest. (Yes, of course, I have a husband)

Boom. Third question is whether I am married, and the conversation goes on along the lines what my husband works and if I have any children. Course I do, cause that's all I think about at my age. Really?

People here get married comparatively young, usually between the age of 18 and 25. If, as a woman, you're older than 25, you're often considered too old, or that there must be something wrong with you. Marriages are somewhat arranged, but at least women can state their opinion if they like their future husbands or not, and if they don't, then usually the family gives in and keeps on looking. As you grow up, there are many tasks to learn for a future bride - pretty much every single girl I have met here knows how to cook plov, make somsa, how to organise a household. Surely, in one way or the other, these are useful things to know, but it also means that these are believed to be essential for a woman when getting married. 

It's possible to get a divorce, but only when you are from Tashkent, which isn't AS traditional as the rest of the country. If you're from one of the regions and your marriage isn't working out, most men just get a second wife..these mostly don't live together but have their separate homes so that the two wives don't cross each others' ways. I have met a woman who was madly in love with an already married man in the regions but who didn't want to be the second wife... she shared her entire story and dilemma with me, how she tried to accept that being the second wife is the only possibility to be with him, how her family doesn't want her to be the second wife, and how she finally had to accept that she couldn't be with the man she loves. Absolutely heartbreaking story, believe you me.

The problem, really, is this: Men and women do not share a common space. There are men, and there are women. At weddings - there are tables for men, and tables for women. There are traditions for men - and traditions for women. While they may share their university, classroom, talk in their lunchbreaks, it is often shameful for female students to spend too much time with male students, for example. What if they also meet after university? And what if she invites him into her home? And the gossip starts. And goes on until all families know: That girl - she spends more time with a guy than she should (even though they are only friends). Which future husband would still want her? As an (traditional) Uzbek woman you can't invite a male friend to your home. One of my students told me this - I naively asked, and what if you just want to watch a movie? Or do homework together? It's not possible, because the mahalla (i.e. the neighbours) would know. And the gossip would go on, until it reaches the family and, in the worst case scenario, the father. 
So in order to remain respectful, women cannot really communicate with men. Get to know them, realise what men in general are like, what it means to be sexy. How often have I witnessed how Uzbek women sometimes dance, wiggling their bums and trying to be as sexy as possible, with or without realising that surrounding men were staring at them. And all I could think to myself was, do you even know what it means to be sexy? 
And then they have to choose someone (or someone is chosen for them) who they will spend, most likely, the rest of their lives with, they marry. They look forward to it, thinking, now I can do what I want without being watched by the mahalla and without being controlled by my family, because I am married. Now I am free! Hm, I am not so sure?

And then comes the wedding night. I attended an initiative called Join-in's basically an initiative in schools where school classes attend a few stations which inform them about contraception, family planning, HIV (ways of transmission, ART therapy) and other issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. I was a bit taken aback by it and asked myself, shouldn't the students (who were about 16) know about these things already? Sex education for example? I corrected myself slightly and thought, well, I suppose if you can only have sex within marriage, you don't really have to learn about it earlier. Still, I asked my colleague about it and what they would learn in sex education at school. We don't have it. Do you talk to your family about it? No. So how do people know anything about it? From their friends. Half-truths, I suppose? Such as, that HIV is transmitted by sharing the same bathroom facilities. Obviously there is still the internet, but even access to that is limited for many families, particularly in rural areas. What a tabooed topic sex really is can also be inferred from the following situation: My former housemate was teaching a lesson on a topic completely unrelated to sex, but for some reason, the text that they were reading (aloud) contained the word "sexual". As the student reading the text got to that passage, she refused to say the word.

So, the wedding night. To get intimate for the first time with a man you hardly know, not really knowing what you're doing because nobody talked to you about it. And there is so much pressure because outside of the bedroom, the families are waiting for the newly wed husband to come out and present to them the bedsheets with a stain of blood on it. Sounds like the middle ages, eh? One of my student's mother is a doctor, so I asked her if she was aware that losing your virginity does not necessarily mean to bleed. She said she knew, and that that really scared her cause if she didn't bleed, her family would think she was a shameful woman. I responded, but your mother is a doctor? She knows about that, surely? She does, but it doesn't matter. Tradition matters, so that everyone's waiting for the blood stain no matter what. I find that genuinely shocking..isn't that highly traumatic for the girl?

Women then often get pregnant shortly after their wedding, which - most of the time - is while they are still in University. If they time their wedding perfectly, then they get married in their last year, so that by the end of the college year they give birth. So they've just finished Uni and have to be mothers straightaway. What happens next depends on if you've married the only or the youngest son of your family-in-law, cause if you did, you have to move in to the husband's family home to take care of them. Then, you're not only under the whip of your husband, but also constantly controlled by your mother-in-law. "Now I am free!"

I find a lot of these things that I've just described genuinely difficult to accept and I have found myself numerous times discussing these issues with my students without getting anywhere. One of my students and I, with whom I still meet up every now and then, discussed this repeatedly, until she eventually said, "Kristina, I don't want to talk about this anymore. I don't want to talk about it too much until we actually start fighting about it. Please just accept that I am from a different culture." I genuinely don't think that I tried to impose my opinion on her, but I did feel somewhat bad, thinking, maybe I did? Where do you draw the line between imposing your culture-tainted idea of the role of the sexes and simply trying to explain to them that women have rights, too? I was very careful, and I think all I did was ask her questions to help her question her own traditions. Why do you think you have to get married so early? Why are you so scared of not bleeding in your wedding night although you KNOW that you know better? What does marriage change for you?

What have I learnt? It makes a massive difference if you read about these things in books, articles or maybe even guidebooks or if you actually talk to the people, get a chance to discuss, get their opinions and how they feel about their own traditions. A lot of the time, these ideas aren't as static as they seem to be and they are defined through the people who live them and not the other way round. Also, sometimes you just have to stop yourself from thinking, "they" are doing it the "wrong" way and I am doing it the "right" way.

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