Not Much For Turkmen Women To Celebrate On International Women's Day


ASHGABAT -- At recent ceremonies ahead of International Women's Day in Turkmenistan, women and girls qualifying for small cash gifts from the authoritarian government touched the envelopes that they received to their foreheads in a mark of deep gratitude and reverence.

Protocol at the occasions filmed for state television was extremely strict, correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported.

At one ceremony in Lebap Province, women wearing traditional kerchiefs high on their heads like turbans were instructed to lower them and were informed that raised headdresses were no longer acceptable at state occasions.

The recipients of the cash prizes at this ceremony were then positioned in rows according to their physical appearance, with those considered more beautiful placed at the front.

But a participant at another ceremony in Lebap told RFE/RL that the ceremonials at her educational institution were literally just for show. The envelopes that they received were empty, and the participants in the event only received the 60-manat gift -- $3 at black-market rates -- after the ceremony, she explained.

"The women participants knew that this was all meaningless, but were obligated to follow the procedure," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Like a number of former Soviet states, Turkmenistan celebrates International Women's Day, March 8, as an official holiday. But this year it's possible that Turkmen women feel they have even less to be thankful for than in years gone by.

March 19 will mark the first anniversary of Serdar Berdymukhammedov's inauguration as president, replacing his father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who spent 15 years in the post before suddenly stepping down.

Central Asia's first hereditary presidential succession has not led to any notable reforms in one of the world's most tightly controlled countries, and the older Berdymukhammedov continues to wield power very visibly as Turkmenistan's new "leader of the nation" and the chairman of the all-overseeing People's Council.

But the intensification during this period of restrictions on women, who were already facing growing constraints, has been notable.

"In an authoritarian system full of harsh repression, women and girls are the most disenfranchised members of society," Leila Nazgul Seitbek, chairwoman of the Europe-based Freedom for Eurasia group, told RFE/RL. "With the emergence of the younger Berdymukhammedov, sexist repression against women and girls has taken on a particular cruelty."

Women Disappear From Roads, Cosmetic Surgery Goes Underground

In spring 2022, RFE/RL reported on a raft of unannounced restrictions imposed on women and in some cases enforced by police with giant fines for violators in the weeks after Serdar Berdymukhammedov took office.

They included a Taliban-style ban that saw male drivers of private vehicles prohibited from picking up women who are not their relatives and bans on cosmetic surgery and a range of services that were traditionally provided by beauty salons.

Dozens of these private businesses closed down.

For more than six years, women in Turkmenistan have been subject to discrimination on the road, with a de facto driving ban seemingly applying to most, if not all of them.

In the last year, RFE/RL journalists have reported growing instances whereby women have been told not to sit in the front seat of cars.

Some of these policies have been relaxed amid foreign media coverage and previously rare instances of opposition from women themselves, according to RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan.

And this month some beauty salons appear to have begun providing services that were previously included in the crackdown, notably those relating to nails, eyebrows, and eyelashes.

Cosmetic alterations like lip filler and breast implants as well as tattoos and hair removal remain firmly off-limits, however, and the growth of an underground industry for these services is already having grim consequences.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Balkan Province reported this month that at least 11 practitioners had been sentenced to jail in the last year for providing botox and lip-filler services after clients allegedly suffered infections and allergic reactions.

There were also reports in the Mary and Lebap provinces, meanwhile, that prices for the underground services had shot up in the last year. Body epilation procedures have now doubled in price to cost as much as 300 manats ($15).

And the dozens of beauty salons that have managed to stay in business and keep working legitimately still have to contend with a loss of clients, RFE/RL correspondents report, since bans on false nails and eyelashes for civil servants remain in force.

Gender equality was one of several rights issues reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR), which published its exchanges with Turkmenistan earlier this month.

In response to the OHCHR's concerns, Turkmenistan's delegation to the UN body said that "gender equality was reflected in all national programs for social and economic development," while the Criminal Code "had been amended to punish forced abortion and sexual advances at work."

The delegation told OHCHR that restrictions on women driving were justified since "information received from road police suggested there had been an increased presence of female drivers without permits."

International Community 'Complicit' In Government Messaging?

The all-dominating state media makes no reference to problems like sexual harassment and domestic violence, meaning that they are essentially not discussed in public in Turkmenistan.

Rights advocates focused on the country noted the publication last year of a first-ever national survey on the health and status of a woman in the family as an important milestone, with data on the prevalence of domestic violence contradicting the government's narrative of a happy, problem-free society.

The survey supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that 16 percent of the population, based on a survey of 3,500 households, had experienced some form of abuse by an intimate partner, with 12 percent attesting to physical or sexual violence.

Yet Aynabat Yaylymova, the founder of the Saglyk website dedicated to improving public health literacy in Turkmenistan, said some of the numbers in the survey were "questionable," while common forms of abuse -- such as mother-in-law to daughter-in-law abuse -- were not covered by the survey.

"Most importantly, there is no follow-up, no public education on the back of this report, so nothing was amplified and momentum was lost. And you will see on March 8 that international organizations [inside Turkmenistan] will not be using any of this to educate the public or push the government on gender equality in any way," said Yaylymova, who was born in Turkmenistan but now lives in the United States.

Through their passivity, Yaylymova says, many development organizations have become "complicit" in government messaging, whereby women are increasingly presented as mothers, sisters, and "guardians of national traditions."

"We have a new generation, now in their 20s and 30s, who have grown up with no alternative narrative about women and girls' roles in society. And that is precisely the problem here -- the lack of an alternative narrative," Yaylymova told RFE/RL.

It is not clear how many women in Turkmenistan received cash gifts from the government that only employees of the state, female students, and preschoolers were eligible for.

But the sum being distributed is unlikely to last long beyond March 8, since it would -- for example -- only buy about 3 kilograms of inexpensive cookies in Turkmenistan, where the country's devastated economy suffers from runaway inflation.

Desperate Turkmen Forced To 'Donate' Money And Volunteer Their Time To Keep Their Jobs


In a separate development pointing to the cash-poor status of the gas-rich country's population, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service last month reported that 250 recipients of an annual state award for women with eight or more children had been made to sign declarations affirming that they would not seek to sell the gold chains and expensive gifts that accompany the honor.

The move follows multiple reports of beneficiaries of the award doing just that.

In one instance last year, a woman from Balkan Province was caught at an event on Turkmenistan's independence day without the gold chain she had received from the state for having such a large family.

The woman, who RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has been able to identify but is keeping anonymous for security reasons, defended her actions by explaining that she needed to sell the gold chain to get money to care for her many children. "But the court sentenced her to three years in prison," a source with knowledge of the case told RFE/RL.

Written and reported by Chris Rickleton in Almaty, Kazakhstan, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in Ashgabat