Tajikistan: Cultural Faux Pas or Nation Building?

Once Turkmenistan's former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi (“Father of all Turkmens”), died last December (as covered by Global Voices), the other Central Asian strongmen stood suddenly deprived of the “ne plus ultra of Central Asian dictators.” As such, Ian of Beyond The River says

…the other leaders could always point to him when poked in the ribs by Western governments and NGOs over human rights issues.

Tajikistan especially is making headlines these days that seem to ring the Turkmenbashi bell. It all began back in 2006, when President Rakhmonov (more on his surname later) ruled that state employees should not have golden teeth anymore. Vadim of neweurasia quoted the president as saying

“Once I met a Tajik in Switzerland” – recalls the president, “How did I know that he was a Tajik? Because he had a shiny mouth. It was shameful. He thought it was beautiful. People in the world are laughing at us. It shows the lack of culture.”

The stride of new cultural legislation went on: In March 2007, Rakhmonov decided that his name should actually be Rakhmon, thus scrapping the Russian suffix. Several bloggers detected a Turkmenistanisation in this move. As Bonnie Boyd of the Foreign Policy / Great Decisions Central Asia Blog noted:

This extension of presidential preference over private considerations is very reminiscent of the late Turkmenistani President, Saparmurat Niyazov’s rule. Niyazov dictated what would be approved in the way of facial hair, dental work, educational curriculum, and relationships between husband and wife. It heralds the beginning of a contingent dictatorship, where people are forced to change civic and private behavior mid-course due to the whims of its leader.

James of neweurasia cited more evidence for the shift in Rakhmonov‘s cultural policies:

  • All new babies in Tajikistan will no longer be able to use Russian name endings either
  • Certain Soviet and Russian holidays such as “ABC Book Day” are now banned
  • Students must now leave their cell phones and cars at homes so as not to distract from their studies

The latter regulation got extended by a new dresscode for students yesterday.

What is to make of this flurry of new legislation? Teo Kaye at Registan.net has the (witty) answer by posting a cartoon from his fellow colleague Tom Wellings:

It's quite clear what Rakhmon tries to achieve with these moves: He wants to distract from a dismal economic situation.

However, even Teo thinks that several initiatives shouldn't be laughed at and are actually quite normal for an independent country. In the comments to the post at Registan.net, he says:

As someone who taught a year of university in Dushanbe, I mostly agree with Rahmon’s latest rulings. Cellphones and silly clothes were something teachers regularly came to blows over with students. De-russification makes plenty of sense, even if it was possibly timed carefully and overall slightly impractical.

Lastly, what do Tajiks themselves have to say about the changes? Gulru, writing at neweurasia, comes to the following conclusion:

Are these changes positive or negative? Well, let the people decide. From my own observation, few people want to change their last name; however, according to Asia Plus, the Department of Justice is already envisaging the change of Russian ending “-ov,” “-ev,” into “-zoda,’ “-pur’ and etc.

Thus, the biggest mistake in these laws might well be in the tradition of Turkmenbashi, then. Despite some sense behind the moves, it would be best to let the people decide for themselves. But choice is a freedom Central Asian leaders only seldomly award their citizens with.


  • […] The president of Tajikistan is reviving the peculiar brand of Central Asian megalomania as we speak. Tajikbashi, here we come! […]

  • […] The president of Tajikistan is reviving the peculiar brand of Central Asian megalomania as we speak. Tajikbashi, here we come! […]

  • Faramarz

    I want to to put forward three points:

    1. President Rahmon’s name change is a correct policy. He simply re,oved Russian-imposed endings which were colonialist inheritance. So it is ridiculous to mock and compare him to Turkmenbashi. I myself changed my name before any such step was taken by Rahmon(ov). Rahmon should in fact have changed his name fiften years ago, he really delayed. Why do we Tajiks need meaningless Russian name-endings?

    2. You may laugh at Tajik president for his dress code, but look at your western stupid norms first: Last year a librarian could not win a case in a British court, the library did not rise her position just because of her dress style and make-up, court supported the library officials. Is this less nonsense than Rahmon’s dress code??? By the way, why Scottish men still wear their traditional skirts and which British judges use their thousands-years old wigs??? It is interesting that when the French government banned headscarf and other religious symbols, nobody called the French leaders “Frenchbashis”.

    3. Why do foolish Western critics come and see the real life in Tajikistan, record cases of human rights violations, corruption etc. instead of spreading nonsenses all over internet. It is rather Western organizations which are more corrupt than Rahmon’s regime. Most of international organizations and their staff are involved in corruption throughout the world than the local poor governments usually blamed by this same organizations. You want evidence? UN’s Oil for Food programme in Iraq several years ago, cases of corruption in other international organizations.

    Finally, Why there are authoritarian regimes in Central Asia?? Because of lack of proper activity of International organizations in these countries, they wash away millions of dollars in these countries, the result of which just mocking and lacuging at the despots, they do nothing. Yesterday Human Rights Watch asked the European Union to put rights at the core of its Central Asia strategy, Althought it has special recommendations about four other Central Asian countries, in this report no word is said about Tajikistan. Human rights watch has no representative in tajikistan, there is no human rights activist here at all, but there are many organizations who make lots of money in this sphere… So, stop nonsenses and do whatever good if you can..

  • […] Originally posted on Global Voices […]

  • Zarif

    Unfortunately, we have few people like Faramarz who think changes are great. These are usually the older generation or some relative of the president or god know who.

    There is no dispute that name changing is positive and many people did it long time ago. But if Faramarz would take a horrible, overcrowded, humiliating bus ride to university at the same time owning his own car he might change his opinion. How about being late every day for the school? Why the government doesn’t think to tackle the public transport problem rather? Why be ashamed of golden teeth when we have worst heath and educational problems; why we are not ashamed of letting mothers or infants die during the birth in hospitals, why we are not ashamed that our drinking water is so dirty that our teeth get destroyed before they appear, why don’t we tackle the root problem, the problem of poverty (majority people don’t afford to have normal nutrition; how can they afford to buy toothpaste or the brush…). Is being toothless better then having golden teeth? By the way, golden teeth are cheaper then ceramic teeth. One ceramic tooth costs more then 100$.

    The Scottish men wear their traditional skirts by choice, not because some psycho-leader tells them to do so. We also have lots of people who wear traditional clothes. The problem is not the dress code, but rather one man decision over millions of people’s life. Why there no civil participation on such important decision making. Why should it be one man decision about all the aspects of our life. Why we never hear the parliament discussions on TV, they take decision over our life without letting us know. We live only one time and why we are not given the chance over our lives. By the way, comparing the French society to Tajik is very ridiculous. Let’s not forget, France is dominantly Christian society and we Tajiks are overwhelmingly Muslims. So banning headscarf in Tajikistan does not make scene.

    Faramarz, when I read your comment, especially about corruption and Human Rights records, it seams to me that you are either Rahmonov son-in-law or someone who works in some Tajik embassy outside Tajikistan, or perhaps some corrupt Tajik official. I never heard someone calling Tajik offcials “the poor local governments”. You can notice their corruption from their fat bellies, forget about other behaviors. If you would be an ordinary person like many of us in Tajikistan, you would have faced a horrible situation dealing with different discrimination or corruption almost every day. Wherever you go let it be law enforcement institution, public affairs, including hospitals and universities or tax offices, or even buying a ticket for Tajik airline you face open corruption and discrimination. If some international organizations or UN are corrupt it doesn’t mean we should torture our own people and rip them. Why should ordinary people suffer and how long?

  • Doroud

    Faramarz; your understanding of the situation is not correct; corruption has always existed, and will always exist, everywhere; the day corruption is completely overcome, we can say that it might be the end of the world.

    But to WHAT extent this corruption affects people’s life – now THAT’s the question; I don’t care if oil-rich billionaires and tycoons are buying and selling companies and invloving in politics and doing their corruption – so long as it doesn’t affect the ordinary population. You are right – western politics does have much corruption in it – but it hasn’t dicriminated and violated people to such an extent as we see in Tajikistan.

    Nowadays in Tajikistan – ordinary people who are completely innocent and faultless are exposed to this open, filthy, and corrupted atmospheres every single day of their life, so passionately described by Zarif. Corruption has become an INTERIORISED aspect of their society. They can’t imagine life without it anymore. THAT’S how far it has gone.

    Now to say that we are dramatizing this situation in CA and that Western governments are worse – i answer you something. Then why are the standards of life better in the west? Why has the west been more successful? Why is discrimination (not taking into consideration racial) much less in the West?

    Now nobody is making fun of Rahmon’s “cultural” reforms. All we are saying is that this is all propaganda-based “faux pas”. Tajikistan has much more fundamental problems to deal with. Yeah Zarif is so right, the water is so dirty that we don’t have good teeth. If Rahmon and his fellow governers can afford bottled and mineral water, not everyone can! If he can afford to have ceramic teeth which apparently cost 100 bucks each, we ordinary people cannot!!!

    There are such big problems with the economy of Tajikistan; education, health (so many diseases spreading around it’s unbelievable) undernourishment that these “cultural” reforms are absurd.

    In my opinion i think these are just absurd reforms aimed to divert the attention of the populace and of NGO’s.

    He had banned the use of cellphones in schools. Does that change anything? ANYWAY teachers are so lowly paid that they don’t teach anything. So i think it’s more useful for students to busy themselves with their cellphones and at least learn to use technology.

    When the french banned the use of headscarves in schools, they wanted to prevent religious extremism. Many hundred muslims protested against it, now if we protest against these “reforms” we’re gonna be shot dead tomorrow, while in France this phenomenon was openly critisized even with harsh offensive language in the press and television. I think France is developed enough to think of these kind of reforms. Look at Tajikistan – we don’t have electricity and heating and winter, and we are imposing dress codes. Doesn’t it seem absurd Faramarz? There is a word called PRIORITY.

    If we are to promote our national identity and nationalism, first of all – we should be proud of who we are and what we have achieved. Boasting about a Samanid’s empire which existed thousands of years ago has no benefit! It is the CONTEMPORARY Tajikistan we have to be proud of – everything we are, everything we have achieved, everything we have! In this corrupted society with so much discrimination, no human values, no proper education, no healthcare, how can we be proud of it? Isn’t it useless to boast the Samanids? Do you think the Samanids’ would be as proud of us as we are of them?

    Finally and Finally – Faramarz – we should never blame other countries for our misfortunes. We are the ones who should build our nation. WE are responsible. It is NOT the responisibilty of the EU to help us. It is OUR responsibilty.

  • […] Bloggers react to a recent law controlling uniforms in schools, amongst other rulings such as a ban on gold teeth for teachers and a ban on highschool graduation parties: […]

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