By Johanna Higgs
Rabat – Having spent many years traveling across the globe learning about the many forms of discrimination faced by women and young girls, one thing has become blatantly obvious to me: we need more men to speak up on this issue.
We need men to take a stand and acknowledge that violence and discrimination against women continues to be a very serious social issue. And we need men to help make this issue a priority.
The problem is that, around the world, men are perpetuating a neutral stance. Thus far, most men have remained silent and are reluctant to speak up acknowledge the importance of women’s rights. This results in a tolerance and acceptance of unacceptable attitudes and behaviors towards women and young girls.
However, some men are finally taking a stand.
Matt is one of these men. I first met Matt in Tashkent — the capital of Uzbekistan. He was introduced to me as a gender specialist, and after meeting in a smoky restaurant one evening in the center of Tashkent, it was clear that Matt had a passion for women’s rights.
Matt grew up in the small town of Termez on the border of Afghanistan in a predominantly Muslim society. Growing up, he recognized just how many problems women and girls face in Uzbekistan. Matt began working as a gender specialist in 2014 in Tashkent and is now actively combating violence and discrimination within Uzbek society.
Matt impressed me. Not only does he acknowledge the importance of women’s rights, but he was also taking action to help achieve change. What is even more impressive about Matt is the fact that he is more than happy to take a strong position and say that violence and discrimination against women and girls is blatantly wrong.
One evening, we sat down with a steaming pot of green tea in his home and he spoke about what he saw as the many problems facing women and girls in Uzbek society. He said that he saw many of these issues as being centered around cultural expectations of marriage.
In Uzbekistan, women are raised to be good housewives. They are expected to live with their husbands’ families, to wake up before sunrise, sweep the street, cook, and give up their own careers. In rare cases where women do work, they are expected to give all of their income to their mother-in-law and have no control over their own finances. There is also much domestic abuse in Uzbekistan.
‘This happened to my sister,’ Matt explained. ‘My parents forced her to marry someone that she didn’t like. He was physically and verbally abusive and was constantly having affairs with other women. His family was also always criticising her and telling her that she wasn’t good enough. She could not cook good enough, she could not do the household chores good enough or raise the children in the right way.’
Matt explained that as a wife, an Uzbek woman is only expected to care about being a perfect servant for her husband and his family. But ironically she doesn’t take good care of herself, she is criticised, and her husband may use this as an excuse to seek out sexual encounters with other women.
‘When I saw my sister being abused I tried to speak out,’ said Matt. ‘But my family told me that I shouldn’t say anything. They said that because she is married and has children, they have to stay together. ‘What will the neighbors say if they get divorced?’ they said.
Part of the problem comes from cultural concepts of virginity where women are expected to be virgins until they are married. If a woman gets divorced, then it is implied that she is no longer a virgin anymore, other men will not want to marry her because she will be considered ‘less desirable.’ It is also considered unacceptable for a woman to not be married. Even if a woman is being domestically abused, she is pressured by social expectations to stay with her husband.
‘My sister accepted the situation, mostly because she didn’t know that she could do anything different,’ explained Matt. ‘This society is so messed up. They’ll say it’s fine for men to come home drunk and beat up their wives and that nobody should say anything. They’ll justify their violent behavior and say maybe they were having a bad day,’ he said. ‘But that’s not an excuse for anyone to hit anyone.’
For Matt, one of the worst aspects of Uzbek society is that women who have been raped are forced to marry their rapist. ‘Society will blame her and say she was wearing western clothes, or that she behaved inappropriately so she provoked the rapist. ‘But what they don’t understand is that it is the rapist is to blame no matter how women act and behave.’
Matt believes that many of these problems can be attributed to traditions and history that come from surrounding countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, where it is believed that a woman’s life has no value.
However, women’s rights in Uzbekistan were not always so repressed. During Soviet times, the Russians introduced western notions that women should work and be educated. Levels of emancipation were higher, and many women worked in male dominated industries as their equals and pursued academic degrees in technical and engineering sciences. Women were also able to dress more freely like the Europeans.
However, after Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, some citizens wanted to go back to their old traditions, which also meant reverting back to a conservative religious mindset. As a result, the importance of women’s rights diminished.
‘Now old and sick traditions are re-emerging and becoming stronger,’ explained Matt. ‘This means the popular view is that a woman should only be a good wife and a good daughter. She should stay at home and should not have any aspirations to continue her education after compulsory secondary schooling. Women are starting to cover up their bodies more and there are getting married at younger ages.’
“Many years ago,’ Matt said, “in Uzbekistan, women fought and sacrificed their lives to be able to take the headscarf off, and now slowly they are starting to put them back on. Women are putting themselves back into a cage.”
Matt wants to see his society shift back to protecting and freeing women. He wants the situation for women in his society to better — something which he believes could be achieved if more emphasis were placed on women’s education and less on the need to get married. “If we would do this then our society would be so much more progressive,” Matt claims.