Gender and Family Structure

Gender and Family Structure

The Soviet era saw the implementation of policies designed to transform the status of women. During the 1930s, the Soviet authorities launched a campaign for women's equality in Tajikistan, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia. Eventually major changes resulted from such programs, but initially they provoked intense public opposition. For example, women who appeared in public without the traditional all-enveloping veil were ostracized by society or even killed by relatives for supposedly shaming their families by what was considered unchaste behavior.

World War II brought an upsurge in women's employment outside the home. With the majority of men removed from their civilian jobs by the demands of war, women compensated for the labor shortage. Although the employment of indigenous women in industry continued to grow even after the war, they remained a small fraction of the industrial labor force after independence. In the early 1980s, women made up 51 percent of Tajikistan's population and 52 percent of the work force on collective farms, but only 38 percent of the industrial labor force, 16 percent of transportation workers, 14 percent of communications workers, and 28 percent of civil servants. (These statistics include women of Russian and other non-Central Asian nationalities.) In some rural parts of the republic, about half the women were not employed at all outside the home in the mid-1980s. In the late Soviet era, female underemployment was an important political issue in Tajikistan because it was linked to the Soviet propaganda campaign portraying Islam as a regressive influence on society.

The issue of female employment was more complicated than was indicated by Soviet propaganda, however. Many women remained in the home not only because of traditional attitudes about women's roles but also because many lacked vocational training and few child care facilities were available. By the end of the 1980s, Tajikistan's preschools could accommodate only 16.5 percent of the children of appropriate age overall and only 2.4 percent of the rural children. Despite all this, women provided the core of the work force in certain areas of agriculture, especially the production of cotton and some fruits and vegetables. Women were underrepresented in government and management positions relative to their proportion of the republic's population. The Communist Party of Tajikistan, the government (especially the higher offices), and economic management organizations were largely directed by men.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Tajik social norms and even de facto government policy still often favored a traditionalist, restrictive attitude toward women that tolerated wife beating and the arbitrary dismissal of women from responsible positions. In the late Soviet period, Tajik girls still commonly married while under age despite official condemnation of this practice as a remnant of the "feudal" Central Asian mentality.

Tajik society never has been organized by tribal affiliation. The core of the traditional social structure of Tajiks and other sedentary peoples of Central Asia is usually the extended family, which is composed of an adult couple, their unmarried daughters, and their married sons and their wives and children. Such a group normally has joint ownership of the family homestead, land, crops, and livestock. The more prosperous a family, the more members it is likely to have. In the 1930s, some particularly wealthy Tajik families had fifty members or more. Although Islam permits polygamy, that practice has been illegal in Tajikistan for about seventy years; monogamy is the more typical form of spousal relationship because of the high bride-price traditionally required of suitors.

Traditional family ties remain strong. Tajikistan had one of the highest percentages of people living in families rather than singly in the Soviet Union. According to the 1989 census, 69 percent of the men aged sixteen or older and 67 percent of the women in that age group were married, 2 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women were widowers or widows, and 1.7 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women were divorced or separated. Only 7.5 percent of men over age forty and 0.4 percent of women over forty never had been married.

The strength of the family is sometimes misinterpreted as simply a consequence of Islam's influence on Tajik society. However, rural societies in general often emphasize the family as a social unit, and Islam does not forbid divorce. Grounds for divorce in Tajikistan include childlessness, emotional estrangement (in some cases the result of arranged marriages), a shortage of housing, drunkenness, and economic dissatisfaction. The highest rate of divorce is in Dushanbe, which has not only an acute housing shortage but a large number of inhabitants belonging to non-Central Asian nationalities. Marriage across nationality lines is relatively uncommon. Ethnically mixed marriages are almost twice as likely to occur in urban as in rural areas.

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