December 12, 2013 10:49 pm

A secret history of women’s freedom

‘The way that any society treats its women cuts to the fabric of the whole social group’
Woman looking at a poster of a female revolutionary. Illustration Shonagh Rae©Shonagh Rae

A couple of decades ago I read a tome that changed how I thought about the role of women in the world. No, this was not some self-help guide or an essay from Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir. Instead, it came from an unlikely source: an account penned by Greg Massell, an American historian, called The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet central Asia, 1919-1929.

While this topic sounds dull – if not exceedingly esoteric – Massell’s work opened my eyes to a crucial insight: if you are discussing the position of women in society, you are never “just” talking about female issues. On the contrary, the way that any society treats its women cuts to the fabric of the whole social group and defines its identity. Thus, if you start redefining the role of women, this can create all manner of unexpected social ripples, be that in far-flung realms such as Bukhara and Samarkand – or in modern western corporations.

To explain why Massell’s account is so illuminating in this respect, first you need a little history. Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, many of the places associated with the Silk Road, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, were part of the imperial Russian empire. So, when the empire was toppled, these Muslim areas fell into Russian communist hands.

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Gillian Tett

However, the revolutionaries were initially rather frustrated. In the 1920s, the local Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations were (unsurprisingly) hostile towards the Russians and the communist activists did not find it easy to identify any natural “proletariat” allies in central Asia who might be willing to join their cause. So, as the communist thinkers flailed around, they developed a startling theory, known as “shaking the nail”.

This postulated that if any group was a suppressed class in traditional central Asia, it was not the labourer “proletariat” as in Europe; instead, it was the women who were the most repressed of all. This was morally offensive in itself, the communists declared. But it also had a wider implication: the suppression of women helped to prop up power structures and underscore the cultural identity of (male) leaders in central Asia. So, if women were liberated, this could “shake the nail” that held together the edifice of these traditional societies – or so the theory went.

Viewed a century later, this idea seems bold; and I daresay many FT readers will dismiss it out of hand simply because of the “c” word (communism), which is almost taboo today.

But that would be a pity. For echoes of this novel “shaking the nail” idea are now found in many western development initiatives. Just think, for example, of what aid groups are doing in Afghanistan or what Grameen Bank is trying to do, offering microloans. And Massell’s account of what subsequently happened to the long-forgotten “shake the nail” campaign – or khudzhum – in central Asia is thought-provoking.

Starting from 1927, Russian communist activists roamed across the region, exhorting local Tajik, Uzbek and other central Asian women to attend school, spurn forced marriages and take up jobs. Traditional marriage rituals were overhauled and women were given new legal rights. Some were even pushed into political office, and campaigns were launched against the Islamic veil. On March 8 1927, for example, a particularly dramatic event occurred when thousands of Uzbek and Tajik women assembled in a historic square in Samarkand and collectively ripped off their veils.

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Unsurprisingly, this sparked a backlash from local (male) leaders. “The Bolsheviks are responsible for the undermining of the honour of women of Russian Turkestan,” complained Ibrahim Beg, a local anti-Russian leader. “This treacherous government deprives its subjects of the right to be masters of their property and wives.” Indeed, by the early 1930s the backlash had become so violent that Moscow eventually toned down the most aggressive policies. But the reform efforts continued, albeit more stealthily, with strong female support. And six decades later, when I travelled to Soviet Tajikistan myself, I discovered that while gender inequalities remained a cultural backdrop, genuine change had occurred: girls were attending school, if not college, exercising legal rights, marrying late and sometimes holding political office. It was a stunning contrast to what I had earlier witnessed in Pakistan and Afghanistan or almost anywhere else in the Muslim world.

Of course, these unusual gender “freedoms” went hand in hand with other odious forms of Soviet repression that make me shudder. But the key point is this: what the long-forgotten Silk Road tale also shows is that women’s status and rights can sometimes change, even in unexpected places; the west does not have a monopoly on promoting gender reform. More important still, campaigns to improve women’s rights never occur in a vacuum; they shake the nails of our social structures too. Which is what can sometimes make the issue so exhilarating, emotive and deeply challenging – in the modern world as in 1920s Samarkand.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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