One of the reform efforts preached by the Jadids and the Bolsheviks was the “liberation” of Central Asian women. The Bolsheviks sent their own women’s group, Zhenotdel, to help Central Asian women modernize, starting with an unveiling campaign that did not go according to plan.
The Communists and Jadids both agreed that Central Asian society needed to change drastically. especially the role of women in Central Asian society. Many Jadids believed that women were being held back and actively being harmed by society and both Qodiriy and Cho’lpon wrote about the horrors women endured at the hands of men and tradition. Check out my blog post on Qodiriy’s Otkun Kunlar and Cho’lpon Night.
Many Jadids argued that women have a right to education, that the seclusion of women from the rest of the society was more harmful than helpful, that the act of polygamy needed to end, and accepted girls into their new-method schools. The Communists were also supportive of women’s rights if it brought them into the workforce and provided them a loyal cadre of Communist comrades who had received a proper Communist education. The Communists brought Zhenotdel, the party’s official women’s committee, to help bring Communism and “liberation” to the women of Central Asia.
Who Were the Zhenotdel?
The Communists were somewhat progressive when it came to women’s rights. They accepted women into the workforce as equals, made divorce and abortion more accessible, and established International Women’s Day.
The group Zhenotdel was created mostly through the efforts of Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai was concerned about conditions in women’s factories and when she became the first woman in Lenin’s cabinet, she petitioned for a committee dedicated to providing social provisions so women could enter the workforce without barriers. This committee would be known as Zhenotdel.
Zhenotdel traveled all over Russia from 1919 to 1930 advocating for the emancipation of housework and getting rid of all barriers women faced when trying to find work. The organization’s upper management and propaganda branches were managed by Moscow, and they employed field offices all over the USSR. These offices recruited women from the local populations. Their two main branches were education, which enlightened women about their role in society, and recruitment, which tried to convince them to join the Communist party.
The members of Zhenotdel believed that the USSR would never be a truly Communist enterprise until women could control their own futures and women could not do that until the idea of wife = cook and housemaid was dismantled. Kollontai, one of Zhenotdel’s founders, believed that the nuclear family and marriage were outdated ideas and would disappear the more communist Russian society became. One can imagine the affect Zhenotdel’s campaign had on Central Asian society.
Life for Central Asian Women
Life for women in Central Asia before the revolution was hard and often unfair. Women had little to no say about their own futures. They were married and remarried and divorced based on the whim of their parents and husbands, they weren’t allowed in the workforce, they were forced to wear the veil, and were secluded from most aspects of life. I want to be careful because it’s common to attack a Muslim society for being cruel to women and it’s really easy to say oh the veil is evil. The veil isn’t evil. It’s a piece of fabric women wear to be closer to their god. Christianity demands the same from their women and often control how women should dress so they remain “pure” and “holy”. It’s the same concept. The problem becomes when the veil is forced upon someone, and they are purposely kept out of society and education with no way to resist. So, I don’t want to say that Central Asia was the worse place for a woman ever, but it wasn’t a very open society for women.
As we mentioned before, the Jadids spoke about this openly and wrote many plays and stories about the plight of women. In fact, in 1917, the Jadids supported Kerensky’s Provisional government’s decision to grant the women the right vote (in part because then they could overpower the Russian Settler’s votes) and they wanted to expand educational opportunities for women.
The Jadids were confident that education would be the key to women’s liberation. In 1917, several men and women organized courses for women teachers and created the teacher’s institute Bilim Yurti. This institute would create a cadre of women graduates who taught, entered the press, and even acted unveiled on stage. An elementary school followed, and Turar Risqulov found funds to send men and women to Germany and Moscow to continue their education.
Only a small number of women received their education and many who did took an active role in public life. Manzura Sobirova wrote under the pen name Oydin and became a well-known short story writer and poet. Robiya Nosirova ran a new-method school herself. Shohida Mahzumova became a prominent actor and her aunt Bashorat Jalilova was an active proponent of unveiling women. Many of these women would make up the core editorial staff for the Communist women’s journal: New Path. The expansion of educational opportunities and the campaign against the veil (which we’ll talk about in a second), naturally changed how the younger generation approached love, family, and the role of men and women in society and upset many of the older, more conservative members. This was exasperated with how the Communist’s approached the “liberation” of women.
Zhenotdel in Central Asia
I truly believe that the members of Zhenotdel who went to Central Asia meant well, but I also think they are a perfect example of, a mostly white women phenomena, of thinking they know best and ignore everyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.
The Russian Communists loved to tout that they were the only ones who could truly liberate women. In 1921, the Turkestan Committee outlawed the payment of bride wealth, established a minimum age for marriage (18 for men, 16 for women), and brought in Zhenotdel to help “liberate” women.
Zhenotdel saw the liberation of Central Asia as an almost religious duty and a gift they could bestow upon the Muslim women of Central Asia. They wouldn’t be true Communists unless they showed the Muslim women the many ways they were suppressed and helped them overthrow the veil and the patriarchy so they could join the Communist party and serve it faithfully. The members of Zhenotdel thought of their Central Asian counterparts as illiterate, backwards, and lost sheep who couldn’t possibly liberate themselves. One European Communist woman wrote:
“We are the liberators of Muslim women from this slavery, from the imprisonment of being married off before their youth is over. We will struggle on this path and we will achieve our goal.”Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, pg 205
For all its racism and chauvinism, Zhenotdel created opportunity for local women such as women’s clubs which served as a gathering place but also offered medical advice and literacy classes. It created local chapters that could report abuse and organize local women into the Communist party. It provided legal help for women in trouble and worked to ensure that a woman’s case would be heard in the courts.
Zhenotdel never had a large number of members, but for the people it helped, it was life changing. Young children such as Xayriniso Mahmudjonova and Zaynab Koribuva ran away from home after disastrous attempts at arranged marriages and took shelter in the school, Bilim Yurti and the organization Zhenotdel. Other women like Zaynab Qosimova, Habiba, and Ridsolat Madraimboyeva were orphaned at young ages and married to men of various ages before they were either thrown out or ran away and found purpose in Zhenotdel’s activities.
These women understood that these opportunities were available because of the party, and they were loyal members. Sobira Xoldarova worked as a housemaid before enrolling in Bilim Yurti, became an editor for a local paper, before becoming an editor for the New Path in 1925. She became a party candidate and studied in Moscow. Tojixon Shodiyeva had been married to a 50-year-old man as a twelve-year-old child, was rescued by Zhenotdel, joined the Komsomol and the Communist party and became an editor of New Path.
Many Central Asian women agreed with modernization and wanted control over their lives. For these women, Zhenotdel was an exciting opportunity to shape their own path. Many of these women had been educated in the Jadid schools and Marianne Kamp, an expert in the Soviet Union’s relationship with Central Asia women, argues that
“the ideas for changing women’s roles that most profoundly shaped Uzbek activists, whether men or women, expressed continuity with Jadid thought far more than a deep reflection of Bolshevik agendas.”Marianne. Kamp, the New Woman in Uzbekistan, pg 32
So while there was the acknowledgement that Zhenotdel provided new opportunities, many of these women embraced the Jadid approach to reform.
It is estimated that there were about 200 women who were members of the Communist Party, and they enjoyed the support of Party Secretary Akmal Ikramov and Bukharan Republic Chairman, Fayzulla Xo’jayev. When the Turkestan Committee banned underage marriage, many women mobilized to explain the initiative to the people of Central Asia. They argued with local ulama, they toured areas of Central Asia unveiled, hosted plays and events to explain the horrors of underage and forced marriages, and mobilized local women whenever they could. Unfortunately, these activities sparked great protest and the women of Zhenotdel faced grave dangers, including physical and sexual violence. Similarly, girls who attended the Soviet schools were threatened and attacked.
This didn’t damper Zhenotdel’s efforts to improve the lives of Central Asian Women. When they weren’t focused on the veil, they focused on attacking the inequalities in marriage and child rearing. They supported legislation which said that men and women were equal in seeking marriages, divorces, and child custody, ended polygamy, and ended the practice of bride stealing and they kept a record of how many times a court heard a case for domestic violence or polygamy. They also worked with the nomadic peoples of the Steppe to ensure that women still received an education. One way to address this issue was to create mobile red yurts, red corners, red tents, and red clubs. These Red tents/yurts followed the nomads, preaching to women the benefits of education and Communism. A member of one of these Red Tents detailed their activities as:
“The main work and tasks of Women’s Red Yurts are liquidation of illiteracy, and by August 20, in Arpa Red Yurt there are 48 students, 45 in Aksay Red Yurt, and 50 in Sonkul Red Yurt. In Naryn Sonkul, there are 36 people. Besides there are readings organized and conversations concerning the themes of rights, domestic violence, and other political topics. Moreover, there have been legal support activities carried out”Askar Azamet, The Women’s Emancipation movement in Kyrgyzstan, pg. 48
No Veil = Liberation?
The arguments around unveiling equaling liberation were heated because of the cultural, religious, and social dimensions. Some activists believed that economic freedom or independence was far more important than the act of unveiling and if women were educated, they would eventually unveil on their own. Others believed that the veil was a symbol of “backwardness”. There were others who worried that a forced campaign to unveil all women would cause a “setback rather than any good, and we will encounter bloody conflict” (pg. 201, Making Uzbekistan, Khalid).
The European members of Zhenotdel were adamant that the veil was an abhorrent reminder of the past and was holding Central Asian women back. Several Central Asian women, like Anna Nukrat, one of the first Turkic leaders of Zhenotdel, agreed and campaigned against the veil. The idea of unveiling didn’t originate with the Communists, but had been preached by the Tatar Jadids (who influenced the Jadids of Central Asia). It did not go unnoticed by Central Asian women that Tatar women were mostly unveiled and far more educated.
One European member of Zhenotdel, Serafima Liubimova, recognized that women unveiling on their own was dangerous, and it would be advantageous to issue a state sponsor ban. She argued that a ban would give women
“an argument to convince their husbands, who wanted them to maintain social standards, and Islamic clergy who claimed that women would go to hell for unveiling.”Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan, pg.207
It would also shore up women who maybe wanted to unveil, but weren’t sure if it was permitted. A ban would take it from being an individual choice to being a statewide initiative, taking the pressure off the individual women themselves. A formal ban was never put in place, but Zhenotdel continued their fight against the veil.
The efforts to unveil women culminated what the Soviets called the hujum, or assault, against the “moldy old ways” of Central Asian society. It was a social campaign designed to pressure women to, not only unveil, but embrace a life of a liberated, Communist women and pressure men to accept unveiling as a step towards modernity and to embrace modernization for the benefit of their wives, sisters, daughters, etc.
They launched the campaign on March 8th, 1927, which was International Women’s Day. It took many forms, but the main focus was getting rid of the head to toe veil of horsehair and cotton. The Zhenotdel wanted to complete the campaign by October 1927 to celebrate the tenth-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Several hundreds of women unveiled. They ranged from being relatives of party members to the women who truly hated their limited options and wanted a less restrictive society to women already at a disadvantage and needed support from Zhenotdel, such as orphans, widows, and runaways. It is true that some Soviets tried to force unveiling on unwilling women, but there were far more women who unveiled willingly. In fact, Rahbar-oi Olimova went to a demonstration in Tashkent, made a speech declaring an “end to slavery, an end to the paranji, long live freedom” and threw her paranji (veil) into a fire. (M. Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan pg. 158)
Unveiling was an incredibly brave thing to do as women faced pressure from their families and neighbors. Husbands could lock their wives away, preventing them from attending Communist meetings or parades, could divorce them, and kill them. These women were often attacked in the street, sexually assaulted, and murdered.
Marianne Kamp discovered that 235 women were murdered between 1927 and 1928 and 2000 women who participated in the Hujum campaign were murdered in Uzbekistan from 1927 to 1929. While many of these murderers justified these attacks by claiming the veil was sacred, this was a violent outburst against all efforts to educate women and provide them opportunities outside of marriage and the family.
One Soviet member wrote,
“The Uzbek woman is very cautious. She boldly and confidently walks to women’s meetings—unveiled. And to [Soviet] family circles; she goes [unveiled] wherever she knows that she will not run into insults, ridicule, and mockery. [But] it is hard to find unveiled women at the bazaars, or on the lively streets of the Old Cities. Here [the Uzbek woman] tries to cover herself, that is, [she veils] in those places where insults can most often be heard directed at the unveiled.”Anne McShane, Bringing the Revolution to the Women of the East
Surprisingly, some of the most severe defenders of the veil and old traditions were women themselves. The Cheka filed reports of women planning violent restriction to “liberation”. For example, 200 women in rural Andijan planned to hold a protest march again the hujum on May Day. They marched to the police station and demanded the return of the veil. When that didn’t work, they returned a few days, this time with knives and stones, and attacked unveiled women when they couldn’t move the police to support their cause.
Zhenotdel tried to protect their Central Asian Women counterparts by organizing lectures on women’s rights and new legislation, and by supporting demonstrative court trials where men were tried and sentenced publicly for domestic violence and attacking women who were activists.
Unfortunately, these violent responses to the hujum only ended up hurting the women brave enough to unveil. It turned the veil into a symbol of “Central Asianness” and solidified the believe that the Communists were invasive outsiders who were trying to destroy everything that wasn’t European. It didn’t prevent women from fighting for liberation and many women continued to unveil and engage with Communist activities. Like many initiatives started by the Jadids and Communists women’s liberation would be a controversial and activity initiative that was hurt by the Soviet’s heavy-handedness, the local actor’s limited input, and Central Asian society’s distrust of everything Bolshevik-Jadid related.
Unfortunately, like all aspects of the Soviet Union, Zhenotdel and the Central Asian women would be crushed by the steel toed boot of Stalin in 1930. Antonina Nukhat, the Turkic leader of the Zhenotdel who was from the Bashkir, was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulags before being released in 1945. Zinaida Prishchepchik, from Belarus, was a member of Zhenotdel. She was arrested in 1937 for anti-Soviet terrorist activities and executed on October 9th, 1937. Stalin disbanded Zhenotdel in 1930, banned abortion, and introduce the “Cult of Motherhood”, effectively ending the fight for women’s liberation in the Soviet Union, including Central Asia.
Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR by Adeeb Khalid
“The Women’s Emancipation Movement in Kyrgyzstan: The Work of the Zhenotdel of Kyrgyzstan from 1924 to 1930” by Azamet Askar
The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism by Marianne Kamp
Tribal Nation: the Making of Soviet Turkmenistan by Adrienne Lynn Edgar
Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia by Douglas Taylor Northrop
“Bringing the revolution to the women of the East. The Zhenotdel experience in Soviet Central Asia through the lens of Kommunistka” by Anne McShane
A Woman, an Actress, a Jadid? Reflecting on a Recent Exhibition in London