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Central Asia's First Ladies: Heard But Not Seen?

From left Azizmo Asadullayeva (wife of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon) Raysa Atambaeva, Tatiana Karimova and Sara Nazarbaeva. Images mixed by author.

From left Azizmo Asadullayeva (wife of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon), Raisa Atambaeva, Tatiana Karimova and Sara Nazarbaeva. Images mixed by author.

In Soviet Central Asia, officially at least, women were the comrades and equals of men. Male and female did similar jobs for equal pay and pre-Soviet practices viewed as restrictive to women's rights were banned as reactionary. A famous Soviet movie, Silent Bride, in which a young Turkmen woman is reduced to sign language to communicate with her in-laws, parodied the obedience expected from a new bride in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek families, portraying it as a barrier to socialist progress.

The Soviet Union itself was never a model for most feminists across the world — only three women ever appeared in the politburo, the most powerful political organ in the union — but most would argue that in terms of gender equality the five former communist republics of Central Asia, all of which have majority Muslim populations, have taken a step backwards since independence.

President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon and his family. Adopted from http://club.osinka.ru/topic-80993?start=210

President of Tajikistan Emomali Rakhmon and family. Image widely shared.

Evidence for this is everywhere. Recently in Tajikistan a group of “medical-legal experts” lobbied for Tajik women having a physical examination to prove their virginity prior to getting married. In Kyrgyzstan, the country with the highest proportion of female parliamentarians, bride-kidnapping has made a fiersome comeback, with some experts arguing the practice is far more widespread now than during the Kyrgyz people's nomadic past. Bridal prices, meanwhile, have reemerged in all five republics, most noticeably in Turkmenistan.  

And yet the Soviet legacy is also strong, particularly in terms of female education, which is nearly universal across the region. This leaves powerful women in the five republics in an awkward position: often pursuing successful careers but expected to conform to local gender stereotypes. This contradiction is particularly relevant for the wives of the region's presidents, who must appear traditional before a population that expects them to behave a certain way, but who, by virtue of their positions, are often thought to possess significant informal influence.

First Ladies as “grey cardinals”

In a recent article on the depiction of female public figures in the U.S. for Politico, Sarah Kendzior wrote that American media typecast powerful women into two roles, those of “Machiavellian maneuverer and cupcake-eating cheerleader.” While cupcakes are uncommon in Central Asia, the first label certainly applies to rumours surrounding first ladies of the region's two most powerful countries, Tatiana Karimova of Uzbekistan and Sara Nazarbayeva of Kazakhstan.

An old photo of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his wife Tatiana. Widely shared.

An old photo of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his wife Tatiana. Widely shared.

Referring to her academic specialization, Russian media nicknamed Nazarbayeva “the country's engineer-economist”, suggesting it is because of her connections that a clan from central Kazakhstan, where she was born, has come to control key positions in government and industry. Nazarbayeva has become less visible in the second half of the independence era, as has the wife of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, Tatiana Karimova.

Nevertheless, according to the Zamondosh blog:

На самом деле, Т. Каримова – серый кардинал узбекской политики и экономики. Многие источники сообщают, что Татьяна Каримова принимает самое непосредственное участие в управлении страной. Ни одно решение, касающееся кадровых перестановок, политики, или финансово-экономических вопросов, не принимается без ее участия.

In actual fact, T.Karimova is the grey cardinal of Uzbek politics and the economy. Many sources say that Tatiana participates directly in the governing of the country. No single decision concerning staffing, policy or finances is undertaken without her participation.

Mayram Akayeva, wife of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan's first president Askar Akayev, was similarly portrayed by her detractors, who referred to her as the “human resources department” up until Akayev's overthrow in 2005.

First Ladies as “supressed women of the East”

Amid rumours of an unofficial divorce from Sara Nazarbayeva, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev has spent more time appearing in public with a boy believed to be his youngest son. Given Sara's age (73-years-old), the appearances have been surrounded by conjecture as to who the child's mother is. In fact it is not uncommon for rich Central Asian men to take several partners — despite the fact that polygamy is outlawed in all five countries — and few men are richer than the president of oil-rich Kazakhstan.

Commenting on YouTube under a pro-opposition video about Nazarbayev's “other wives”, rkenzh made a crude joke about the alleged corruption of the Nazarbayev regime:

У него три жены. Тогда почему он нас ебет.

If [Nazarbayev] has 3 wives, why does he keep ****ing us?

Similar gossip surrounds Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, president of  gas-rich Turkmenistan. According to a US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks:

There is a rumor among Ashgabat residents that Berdymuhamedov has a mistress, in addition to his Turkmen wife, who is reportedly very conservative. The mistress is supposedly an ethnic Russian by the name of Marina. She was reportedly a nurse at a dental clinic where Berdymuhamedov worked earlier in his career, and has a 14-year old daughter with the president. Berdymuhamedov's wife has reportedly been living in London since 2007.

Berdymuhamedov has never been seen with either his wife or supposed mistress during nearly eight years in power, just as his predecessor, the infamous Sapurmurat Niyazov, was almost never sighted with his wife Muza Niyazova. Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon also keeps his wife away from the public eye.

Commenting on these findings on a popular Russian forum, one user, эльфа notes that presidential daughters seem to have a better life than their mothers:

мда… как говорят ” забитые женщины Востока”, но по крайней мере дочери уже вполне современны. 

yeah… the so-called “suppressed women of the East”, but at least their daughters are fairly modern.

The wife of current Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev, retired doctor Raisa Atambaeva, is probably the First Lady making the most public appearances in Central Asia. 

Meeting in Beijing: The first lady of Kyrgyzstain Raisa Atambaeva, President of KR Almazbek Atambayev and the Chairman of the PRC, Hu Jintao.

While the Kyrgyz language press has scrutinized Raisa for her ethnicity — she is Tatar, not Kyrgyz — she seems fairly popular among netizens as a whole, and is able to live an active public life without being depicted as a scheming Lady Macbeth.

Nevertheless, given a modern history in which presidential spouses and other relatives have been perceived as too powerful, too often, many Kyrgyzstanis are cautious in their admiration. As one reader of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz website comments:

Как бы не сглазить ….

 I hope she won't be touched by an evil eye…

On the borders of Soviet Central Asia, in Afghanistan, the Christian wife of new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Rula Saade, faces perhaps the biggest challenge of all the region's First Ladies in winning acknowledgement across a highly conservative society. Ghani's politically savvy predecessor, Hamid Karzai, hid his wife from the Afghan public throughout his thirteen years in power.

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