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Umida Ahmedova оn the Burden of Censorship and Being a Female Artist in Uzbekistan

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Many see her film The Burden of Virginity as shining a light on women's issues the world over, not just in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan, where it was made.

Umida Ahmedova, a filmmaker and photographer, prefers to describe herself not as a dissident living in one of the region's most repressive states, but as an artist with 20 years of creative success to her name.

Umida is among few women involved in documentary filmmaking and photography in today's Uzbekistan, a landlocked republic of 30 million people that gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

She graduated from the Institute of Cinematography in Russia in 1986, marking the beginning of a long but increasingly troubled artistic career.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Umida’s problems with the Uzbek state began following two documentaries and the release of a book of photos in 2007, which formed the basis for criminal proceedings against her.

In early 2010, she was charged with Defamation and Insult, Articles 139 and 140 of Uzbekistan's Criminal Code. An expert panel subsequently ruled that she and her husband and co-creator Oleg Karpov had discredited the traditions and values ​​of the Uzbek people, presenting “negative information, which may negatively affect the moral and psychological state of youth.”

The commission accused Umida of defamation and disrespecting national traditions.

On February 11, 2010, Umida was convicted and received a sentence of six months imprisonment or two to three years in a labor camp. Protests against the sentence sprang up in Moscow and Paris immediately.


Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

She was later granted amnesty on Uzbekistan's independence day in late August, but life is still far from easy for Umida. Most recently, her husband was removed from his role as director of the Museum of Cinema of Uzbekistan for signing a petition in support of the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine last year.

Global Voices talked to Umida about her ongoing artistic and personal struggles, all of which are experienced through the prism of deeply conservative Uzbekistan.

Global Voices (GV): How was the idea for The Burden of Virginity conceived and what was your experience during the filming?

Идея создания фильма о том как в мусульманских странах проверяют на девственность, была у меня давно.
Даже не столько проверка столько жертвы. В то время , почти 10 лет назад люди не боялись говорить свое мнение, сьемки шли спокойно. Но режиссер Олег Карпов тогда не хотел писать фамилии людей кто говрил в фильме. Потом мы поняли, что он сделал правильно.

Umida Akhmedova (UA): For a long time I had the idea to make a movie on how in Muslim countries they verify [women's] virginity.

It is not a film about the inspection itself, but about the people who fall victim to the ritual. At the start of shooting, almost 10 years ago, people were not afraid to express themselves, and filming took place calmly.

But Oleg did not want the names of the people who spoke in the movie to appear. [Author's note: in the second part of the movie, the filmmakers talk to anonymous individuals on issues related to social disgrace and conservatism].

Later we realized that he was right.

GV: What do you think would have happened to these people if they had not been anonymous?

В любом случае, это хорошо, что было анонимно.

UA: It was good that they were anonymous.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

GV: In which areas were you filming? Can we talk about your trips to rural parts of Uzbekistan?

UA: Я всегда много снимаю народные обряды и ритуалы. В фильме использованы эпизоды из свадеб, которые снимались в основном Ташкентской области в регионе, где я родилась. Свадьбы здесь больше как фон и не имеют отношения к реальным героям. Кроме того как в начале фильма история
рассказывает реальный человек-женщина, мать девушки, которая подвергалась проверке и потом ее выгнали.Есть интересный эпизод, где я наблюдала в Андижане за купающимся детьми, где одна девочка долго не может прыгнуть с моста на воду. Это получилось как образ. Женщины, которые продают головные уборы, это снято в Самарканде. Поверка на девственность не факт, что это происходить только в деревнях. В фильме есть две простые женщины, которые говорят об этом, одна из них, живет в отдаленном регионе в одной из южных областей Узбекистана, она говорить, что такого обычая проверять на
девтсвенность у них нет. На самом деле, в ряде кишлаков нет такого обычая. Так что, проверка это не факт, что именно в кишлаках.Люди могут сделать вполне цивилизованную свадьбу, очень похожую на европейскую и при этом обязательно устроить проверку на девственность.

UA: I have always photographed folk rituals. In the film there are segments from weddings that were shot mostly in the Tashkent Region, where I was born.

Weddings are mostly in the background and have no connection to the characters [in the film]. In the beginning we hear the story of the mother of a real girl who has been subjected to verification and after that expelled by the relatives of the groom.

There was one interesting moment, when we observed in the region of Andijan how children were bathing. There was a girl there who did not want to jump from a bridge into the water. We used this image as a metaphor.

Verification of virginity does not only happen in the villages. In the film there are two ordinary women talking about it. One of them lives in a remote area in southern Uzbekistan and says this custom of virginity checks does not exist.

And indeed, in some kishlatsi (villages) there is no such custom. So, the check does not happen just in the kishlatsi. People can have a fully civilized wedding very similar to a European one, and at the same time again they can organize an inspection of virginity.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

GV: A panel of experts decided that your work presented Uzbekistan in a negative light and undermined its spiritual values. What do you think it was that this panel didn’t like?

Так называемая “экспертная комиссия” ничего не делает самостоятельно. Есть группа людей, которые “выполняют” “заказ” . Официально у нас нет цензуры, но когда если что-то не нравится есть такие “комиссия” и
УЗАСИ(Узбекское агентство информации) агентство это “получает” “заказ”
и проводить мониторинг. “Эксперты” эти “карманные”, когда нужно их
“вытаскивают”. Уголовное дело-не они возбуждают.

UA: The so-called “expert commission” does not do anything on its own. This is a group of people “carrying out orders.”

Officially, we have no censorship, but when something is not approved here “commissions” and UZASI (Uzbek news agency) get an “order” and begin monitoring.

These “pocket experts” are plucked whenever they are needed. The criminal case is not initiated by them.

Umida Akhmedova. Personal archive. Used with permission.

Umida Ahmedova. Personal archive. Used with permission.

GV: What gives you and your husband relief from everyday problems? Do you feel you are under observation and control in your daily life?

К сожалению, мы сейчас мало делаем фильмы, у моего мужа отобрали его киноклуб “Музей кино”, мешали, когда он проводил фестивали видеоарта за свои же деньги. Какой еще контроль, когда у моего мужа отобрали все! Особенно после узбекского “майдана”, когда мы, группа людей пришли в посольство Украины в Ташкенте с петицией. Потом фотографировались у памятника Тараса Шевченко в Ташкенте. Мой муж подписал петицию, но не был у посольства. Были я и мой сын. Но “там” решили, что нужно наказать моего мужа, отобрали у него последнее…Мы не можем здесь показывать свое творчество, куда еще хуже.

Unfortunately, we do not make many films anymore. They took away my husband's “Museum of Cinema” club. They harassed him when he held video art festivals with his own money. What greater control can be spoken of when they have already taken everything from my husband?

Especially after the “Uzbek Maidan” when we, a group of people, went to the Embassy of Ukraine in Tashkent with a petition [of support for the Ukraine protesters]. Then we made a picture of ourselves at the monument to [Ukrainian wordsmith] Taras Shevchenko in Tashkent. My husband signed the petition, but did not come to the embassy. I was accompanied by my son.

But they decided that a punishment should be made for my husband as well and they took everything from him….We cannot show our work here now — what is worse than that? They control us….Although they do not sit day and night under our windows…

GV: Do you think you are popular in your country?

Я в своей стране была известна прежде всего как первая женщина фото-кино документалист, первая женщина кто получил профессиональное
образование в Москве(ВГИК) . До того как открыли на меня уголовное
дело , много раз выступала по узбекскому телевидению. Получали призы
даже в Узбекистане-) . Сейчас известна на Родине как художник-диссидент-) Большинсто людей кто был в хороших отношениях со мной боятся общаться-) Особенно после узбекского “майдана”.

UA: I am known primarily as the first woman photographer in my country. The first woman [photographer and filmmaker] who received a professional education in Moscow.

Before they opened a criminal case against me I had appeared many times on Uzbek TV. I even received awards in Uzbekistan. I am now known in my homeland as a dissident artist.

The majority of people who had a good relationship with me before are now afraid to communicate with me. Especially after the “Uzbek Maidan” incident.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

GV: You have been accused of depicting Uzbekistan as a medieval state. How would you answer such accusations?

Коротко- это у людей , которые возбудили уголовное дело против моего творчества-мозги средневековые!

UA: In short – the people who initiated the criminal case against my work possess medieval brains!

GV: How big is the community of creative people like you in Uzbekistan? How do they manage to express their views?

В реальном Узбекистане я уже не вхожу ни в какую общность после того как Президент Академии Художеств Узбекистана приказал убрать часть работ моих учеников, потом узбекский “майдан” и большинство моего фотоклуба “отвернулись” от меня , я окончательно поняла, что паутина
страха сильно окутала людей и работать или общаться с такими людьми нет =смысла. Мне с коллегами здесь неинтересно и не вижу никакого развития. Есть очень
маленькое количество людей с кем общаюсь, но они “погоду” не делают.

Слава Богу! Есть интернет, социальные сети, группы, Мы с мужем сотрудничаем с художниками из Кыргызстана и Казахстана. Участвуем на разных фестивалях вне Узбекистана.

UA: In Uzbekistan I am no longer in any community, after the chairman of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan ordered the works of my students to be removed.

Then, after the “Uzbek Maidan” most of the participants in my photo club turned against me and I finally realized that people have been so strongly entangled in a web of fear that there is no sense in me working and communicating with these people.

It is not interesting for me to work with colleagues here and I do not envision any development. There are a small number of people I communicate with, but they do not influence the times.

And thank God there is the Internet, social networks, groups. My husband and I collaborate with artists from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. We participate in various festivals outside Uzbekistan.

GV: Have you thought about emigrating and, if so, why do you stay?

Об эмиграции никогда не думала. и не думаю, но не Дай Бог, будет очень опасно жить здесь(угроза жизни моих родных) конечно нужноэмигрировать. Но я оптимист, очень надеюсь, ч то в моей стране будет Мир!

UA: I have never thought of emigration, and I do not plan this, but, if it becomes very dangerous to live here (if there is a threat to the life of my family) of course I would have to emigrate. But I am optimistic, and I hope very much that my country will have Peace!

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

Photo by Umida Ahmedova. Used with permission.

  • Laura

    What an incredible story. Thanks a lot for sharing it. It’s amazing how power struggles to keep itself there at the expense of private life. And this isn’t only the artists’ lives I’m talking about (even if the display of cowardice in their censoring and intimidating moves is amazing), it’s also the controlling of women’s lives and young people’s sexuality. It shows their weakness and how social structures keep them strong. Excellent post!

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