Unveiling Women in Central Asia

The major unveiling event of the Soviet Union in Central Asia began on International Women’s Day on March 8, 1927 (Khalid 354). The campaign was titled the “hujum,” which translates to “assault,” and was aimed at promoting women’s equality, encouraging literacy, and providing an entry into the workforce (Khalid 354, Kamp 150). Initiated by the women’s section of the Communist Party (the Zhenotdel) in 1926, the hujum made unveiling a main focus by 1927 (Khalid 354). Members of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan debated whether “the paranji [full body covering] was a symptom or an instrument of women’s subordination,” but agreed that if the state was to push Central Asia to modernize, women needed to unveil (Kamp 165). On International Women’s Day in the cities of Tashkent, Samarqand, Andijon, and others, “thousands of women tossed their paranjis and chachvons onto bonfires,” in a move that spoke defiantly to tradition and religion (Khalid 354). Backed by the motive to bring women out of seclusion and into the working world, the unveiling became both a symbolic and literal rebellion against the long time “seclusion and subjection” of women (354-355). Although the hujum was an effective catalyst for politically backed changes to women’s rights in the Soviet Union, it bred ground for extreme violence against women who unveiled (Kamp 4, Khalid 357).

While the intention was to bring women into the productive labor force and away from Islamic traditions of oppression, the hujum allowed the government “to assert its authority over the process of cultural change in Central Asia” (Khalid 362). Competition developed between men, specifically party members, “to liberate ‘their’ women,” and those who had unveiled their wives were held in higher esteem than those who had failed do so (355). The force that fed the unveiling led to severe violence against women, who were often legally and financially threatened if they did not unveil (355). Instead of providing women with free choice, the hujum became another way that men in power forcefully oppressed women to appease their own political agendas (355).

Unveiled women began to be seen in a different light, and were often thought to be more sexually liberated than those who had yet to cast off their veils (Khalid 355). This assumption led to sexual assault, rape, beatings, and murder (Kamp 187, Khalid 356). Three years after the hujum began over 2,000 women had been killed with even more having been beaten and raped (Kamp 186, Khalid 356). These murders, being vicious acts against women who unveiled, were also seen as a way for men to assert that they, “not the state, had authority over women’s actions,” as many men felt that the movement was an assault on their sense of masculinity (Kamp 187, Khalid 356). For these and other reasons, such as modesty, tradition, and religion, many women rejected the unveiling (Khalid 356). After years of misogyny and violence, the female victims who were killed during the hujum were seen as “the martyrs of the new life” (356).

In the wake of extreme violence, the Zhenotdel demanded new legal measures to protect women (Khalid 356). This allowed the Soviet state to promote itself as the “protector of unveiled women” as it now prosecuted violence against unveiled women as terrorism (356). During this time, the Zhenotdel prompted the state to put an official ban on the paranji so that unveiled women would have the backing of the government to protect their actions (357).  Congress, however, argued that issues such as employment were far more important in the movement towards women’s liberation than unveiling (357). While the issue of the veil remained a civil rather than a legal matter, the aims of the hujum remained to “usher in a new way of life,” emphasizing the party’s conflict with Islam and the belief that it was Muslim society that had kept women oppressed (358-360).

While the hujum was not seen as the most important policy to emerge in the “modernization” of Central Asia, the idea of the backwardness of the region that was promoted during the hujum continued throughout the reform (Khalid 362). The murders of thousands of women happened during a time of great cultural disorder, as well as increased control by the state in effort to suppress the Islamic influences in Central Asia (Kamp 187-188). Due to the turbulence of the times, the murders were either downplayed as a result of the transformative era or underscored as a demonstration of how greatly the Uzbek women needed help from the state (186). Regardless of the justification, the hujum failed to provide agency to women despite “freeing” them from their paranjis (213). The violence revealed the deeply ingrained gender hierarchies that Central Asian societies held onto during the late 1920s and beyond, as unveiling women posed a threat to the long-standing traditions that had recently come under attack by the state (214). While “the violence effectively deterred women from mass unveiling,” it did not alter the government’s plans for modernizing women in Central Asia (214).

Contributor: Lillian Rodriguez

Works Cited:

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2006.

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015.