Toxic Masculinity and Uzbekistan’s Domestic Violence Crisis
On September 3 Akida Mokhirova , blogger and founder of the charitable organization “Pokiza Insonlar” (“Noble People” in Uzbek), posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she interviewed a victim of domestic abuse.
The victim, a woman who was viciously beaten by her husband, became a viral sensation in Uzbekistan after it aired. But the video was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the interview, she recounted the horror she had gone through at the hands of her husband. Unable to bear it, she tried to kill herself three times. She even recounted a horrific incident in which her husband humiliated her by forcing her to eat their child’s feces from a used diaper grabbed out of the garbage. Her harrowing story offers just a small glimpse into gender-based violence in the country.
According to the victim’s account, the authorities in Samarkand — where the incident took place — began encouraging the couple to get back together. It took four days for the authorities to finally apprehend the perpetrator following the incident. Public rage played a crucial role in the arrest of the culprit, who had fled to Tashkent. But it did not prevent a similar incident from occurring on October 1 when another Uzbek woman, this time from Tashkent, was filmed by her husband eating feces.
Considering the sheer volume of violence against women that goes unreported, one has to wonder how and why society has allowed such brutal displays of force against women for so long. Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics on gender-based attacks in Uzbekistan. But the problem is clearly widespread, and has been exacerbated, like in other parts of the world, by Covid-19 lockdowns. One hotline for women reported receiving 830 calls between early April and mid-May alone, during the height of the pandemic. According to ACTED, a French humanitarian non-profit, Uzbek women “remain vulnerable to domestic violence, and are economically disadvantaged and excluded from decision-making processes, both locally and at the national level.”
As someone who grew up in Uzbekistan, I am no stranger to bullying, violence, and abuse myself. I persevered while being a minority within a minority, a Shia Iranian/Azeri in majority Sunni Uzbekistan, and also gay in a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by a three-year prison term. Even now, the trauma of being gay in Uzbekistan haunts me despite the fact that I am safe here in New York, under the laws of United States.
The abuse, harassment, and violence inflicted upon women and girls in Uzbekistan is horrific, and men bear responsibility for this situation. My household was no different. When I was seven years old, I approached my mother while she was crying after a fight with my father. Tears were pouring down her cheeks. I looked into her sad eyes and asked her why she would not file for divorce. My mother, flabbergasted, reassured me that everything was going to be alright.
The family elders, especially older women, would always intervene to remind my mother that she has to put up with this type of behavior for the sake of her children. And yet, the violence kept happening. Sometimes in our household. Other times in our neighborhood.
This pattern is all too common. Whenever a family dispute erupts between a husband and wife, community elders gather to resolve the conflict and implore the couple to work through their differences. The elders typically comprise the head of the mahalla, or local neighborhood, and his deputy, a female elder. By scolding the family, the elders accuse them of bringing shame upon their house, since public opinion matters more than anything for many Uzbeks.
Within the past few years, some positive changes have taken place under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016. But these are yet to achieve a major breakthrough. Parliament passed laws on gender equality and the protection of women from oppression and violence in 2019. The laws stipulated punishments for gender-based discrimination, provide protection for domestic violence victims and, theoretically, ensures equal rights for both sexes. Yet it fell short of criminalizing domestic violence and has not been fully implemented. Women have also become more visible in national politics. For the first time since the country’s independence a woman, Tanzila Narbaeva, was appointed as the head of the Supreme Assembly, the upper house of the Uzbek parliament, in 2019. But violence and discrimination remain commonplace.
In order to eliminate gender-based violence, the government has to start by taking the issue more seriously. Popular talk shows denigrating feminist movements, for example, including various flash mobs against sexual harassment, have to be condemned by people in power. Popular sayings such as “Ugil bolaning aybi yoq” (“Men can never be shamed”) or “Ayol kishi erkak kishidan bir qadam orqada bolishi kerak” (“A woman has to stand one pace behind her man”) speak volumes about existing gender norms, and they need to be addressed.
One promising way to advocate for gender equality and fight against gender-based violence is education. If boys are taught from a young age that they should treat women equally, it will help reduce violence in the future, as well as instill the notion of equality before the law. Further educational programs need to include materials on sexual education, consent, and female sexuality. Hopefully, we will see a push by activists and non-profit organizations to implement gender-based educational programs in the country.
Societal prejudices against women run deep in Uzbek society. Communities need to open up and have uncomfortable conversations about troubling issues like gender-based violence. Meaningful change can only come from profound societal change, not just laws passed on paper.
Anvar Latipov is a New York-based Uzbek LGBTQI activist. His Twitter handle is @anvar_latipov.