The Word "Feminism" Was An Insult. Now Young Girls are Embracing The Term.
Elena Nazhmetdinova on feminism, social media and navigating your space as a woman in modern day Central Asia.
A mountainous central Asian country wedged between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, Tajikistan is among the world’s 30 poorest countries. 26.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. Nearly one in five Tajiks have to work abroad, mainly in Russia. Their remittances are the country’s principal source of income and makeup 41.7% of the GDP.
Women suffer disproportionately from this poverty. Throughout the country, women face discrimination and inequality in social, economic and political life. In Tajikistan, less than half of girls complete secondary school. Gender-based domestic violence is common, and around 26.4% of women suffer from lifelong physical/sexual violence by an intimate partner. Punitive actions often include beating with sticks, strangulation, standing outside during the winter, food deprivation and being denied access to work or education. With little support due to socio-cultural expectations, many women live with little to no hope for the future or turn to suicide as the answer.
“It’s why we desperately need to embrace feminism here,” says Elena Nazhmetdinova, a 21-year-old Tajik feminist activist from her home in India. After joining Instagram in 2016, she realised her thinking clarified, and she had no other choice but to use her platform to raise awareness around domestic violence, honour killings, gender roles alongside other issues. “It felt like a natural decision to open a micro-blog on Insta. If no one talks about it, how are we going to get anything done?”
A psychology student interested in art, Elena often creates attention-grabbing posts to bring people to her page. “I’ll usually write my posts first, then tailor my pictures around it. I want to express issues that matter to me, to us,”
Besides getting onto the Insta-train, Elena says that her everyday existence also pushed her towards activism. “A lot of the times, women pretended that being sexually assaulted was not even that bad. Men are only men. You had to turn a blind eye to the young girls who believed suicide was their last resort because they had to live with shame for losing their virginity. Or they have to be with the rapist to keep the honour. The women are always to blame. Honour killings, abuse, domestic violence, it is all on her. And many women are taught to be quiet and understanding as we are meant to the docile sex, whilst men can run around doing whatever they want because they were born male.”
According to a recent report conducted by the UNCHR, only 65 out of 1200 files against domestic violence and rape resulted in a charge against the perpetrator, a deplorably low rate for the thousands of victims who have not received justice.
“What’s even worse is that most women don’t report it. They are too scared,” Elena tells us solemnly. “It is why I began the project Tell Me Sister, which I launched without much thought or planning. I realised there’s strong stigma around women opening up and thought it was time someone showed them it is okay to talk”.
Although the project is not there as an alternative to reporting instances of abuse, Tell Me Sister is a safe space for girls to tell stories that often no one in “real life” believes, so long as their identity remains anonymous.
“Speaking up is powerful, and if people learnt the harm their actions cause, we can stop the normalisation of heinous acts,”
Although she had launched Tell Me Sister more than a year ago, Elena still gets pain every time she reads their stories but wants to continue the project. “I’m not there to tiptoe around the pain or sugarcoat the horror these girls endured. No one thought of their pain. No post can depict to the rest of us the extent of their trauma,”.
Another issue Elena has to address is benevolent sexism. “Women are told that they shouldn’t work, have to stay at home and live for their children because it is in their nature and the man is charitable by being the breadwinner. I’m not a big fan of cooking myself and felt irritated when I was pressured to simply because I’m a woman,”
But benevolent sexism creates deeper issues. Often, men who beat their wives use it as an excuse, saying that women being the less-rational sex, need to learn how to obey the leaders of the house. According to Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, many men say beating their wives was necessary.
If your wife doesn’t listen the first time properly, you warn her…If she does it again, you must beat her properly. This is the role of the man in the house. He must show he is in charge, and the women in the house must obey him.
“My work means I end up getting much hate, and I have been verbally abused out in town as well as on social media. I’m normally called either stupid or a prostitute. Normally, I block them, but I’m also saddened because these are the people that support a problem that should have been dealt with a long time ago. They are the kind of people that make the girls that use Tell Me Sister feel trapped for so long,”.
Despite the challenges ahead of her, Elena feels hopeful for the future. “You can see feminism becoming more and more accepted in Central Asia and it is exciting. You now log onto social media and see more and more women taking to the internet to talk about the issues that matter and it makes you think “Yes! Finally!”.
“More women in Tadjikistan are coming out as feminists. Before it was seen as a movement for the ignorant and uneducated, now we see a surge in girls who aren’t afraid of voicing out their opinion. We will not solve our issues overnight, and I doubt it will be solved in a hundred years but I think what we should be focusing on is not stopping. Keep sharing with the people around you, and change will come even if slowly,”.
follow Elena on instagram; https://www.instagram.com/why_elen/