Joke In Turkmenistan Goes Too Far For Women Drivers Facing Unofficial Ban

ASHGABAT -- A government-run news agency in Turkmenistan has published an April Fool's Day cartoon that mocks women drivers.

For hundreds of women in Turkmenistan who've had their driving licenses confiscated by police in an unofficial crackdown against female drivers, it is no laughing matter.

The offending cartoon was published by Turkmenistan's Golden Age information agency along with a story about an April 1st Ashgabat art exhibition by illustrator Atajan Ashirov.

The cartoon depicts a woman behind the wheel of an automobile who is bedecked in jewelry crafted from traffic warning signs that conveyed the messages "Do Not Enter," "Caution," and "Danger."

One RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat, a woman who does not reveal her name out of fear of retaliation from authorities for her journalistic work, says Ashirov was obviously "trying to be sarcastic about women driving."

"This cartoon is consistent with the efforts of authorities to deprive women of their right to drive," she said. "It is notable that the woman in the cartoon is wearing a 'Do Not Enter' necklace -- thereby showing that the woman cannot pass through."

"Women in Turkmenistan see this as a symbol that authorities are trying to stop women from driving and deprive them of their licenses without any reason," she said.

Quietly Banned From Driving

There is no official law or decree in Turkmenistan against female drivers or legislative obstacles preventing them from obtaining licenses.

But women in Turkmenistan have been complaining for years about a pattern of discrimination from authorities when it comes to them operating vehicles.

In a country where even low-level government actions are rarely made independently of the president's office, it is common to tie such initiatives directly to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

In March 2016, RFE/RL reported on widespread complaints that driving tests were being unfairly administered to women and graded in a way that made it difficult for them to obtain a driving license.

Early in 2018, RFE/RL reported how women in Turkmenistan who already had a driving license were finding it difficult to get their documents renewed.

This year, in late February, Turkmen police launched a crackdown with traffic stops at busy junctions in the capital Ashgabat -- singling out female drivers and pulling them over to search their vehicles.

Women pulled over told RFE/RL that police were looking for any pretext to take away their driving licenses and tow away their cars.

At one point in late February, witnesses reporting seeing about 20 cars pulled over by police on one main avenue in Ashgabat while the drivers, all women, stood on the roadside waiting for police to complete their inspections.

Up to 120 women's cars have been impounded per day for violations such as an incomplete first-aid kit, not having a proper spare tire, or missing a warning triangle.

In one case, a woman told RFE/RL that police impounded her car and took away her driver's license on the grounds that the Analgin painkillers she was required to keep in her first-aid kit were of a generic type.

Another woman was so angered about the confiscation of her driver's license that she chased down the police officer and filmed him, trying to get him to explain on camera why he'd taken the action against her.

She said the police officer told her before she started filming that authorities had received an "order that women cannot drive on the major roads in the city."

In mid-March, as the crackdown on women drivers continued, those with documents confirming they work for a state organization could avoid having their driving license taken away.

But in the past week, a woman employee of Turkmenistan's Interior Ministry told RFE/RL that she and all of her female colleagues were told they should no longer drive if they want to keep their jobs.

That employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired and punished, said all women in the Interior Ministry have had their licenses taken from them and attached to their personnel files.

"Today, you can very rarely see women who drive," said RFE/RL's correspondent, who adds that she also is not driving in Ashgabat. "I recently spoke with three women who used to drive but have stopped because they don't want to have their documents confiscated."

"They are waiting for these crackdowns to end and they hope it will be soon," she said.

Written by Ron Synovitz based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.