Women at Work in Soviet Central Asia

Between the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the role of Central Asian women in the workforce changed rapidly, influenced by various political and religious reform efforts, changes in agricultural policy, and the national push by the Soviet government for modernization and industrialization (Kamp 26-27, 32). In the context of the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the USSR, the movement to modernize Central Asian women came from many directions and relied on methods “from coercion, to legalism, to a general emphasis on social engineering” to enact change (Khalid 2-3; Lubin 182). The Bolshevik’s Women’s Division of the Communist Party, the Jadids, the hujum, and the collectivization of agriculture all played important roles in the increased number of women entering the workforce in Central Asia, even though the various movements often approached the subject of reforming women through different methods (Kamp 215-218; Khalid 2). Lotte Jacobi’s photographs show the evolution, and importance, of Central Asia women and their work, whether they were in traditional dress selling home-made goods in the bazaar or unveiled and in contemporary dress working in factories.

Two of the main forces were the Jadids, a Muslim “indigenous movement of modernist reform” that viewed education as a path towards modernization, and the Russian Bolsheviks, a Communist group focused on “overcoming ‘backwardness’” (Khalid 2, 6, 198). The Women’s Division, the organization of women of the Communist party, was focused on progressing the role of women in Soviet society and viewed Central Asian women as “the most oppressed of them all,” aiming to bring rural women into the labor force through work cooperatives and improvements in legislation on gender equality (Kamp 215-217; Khalid 161-162, 204).

The hujum of 1927, a movement that sought to liberate Central Asian women through unveiling, expanding educational opportunities, and removing barriers for women to enter the paid workforce, played an important role in altering the societal perception of women in Central Asia, building off Jadidist efforts in the previous decades (Kamp 236; Khalid 342-343). The hujum gained additional momentum in Uzbekistan following the collectivization of farms in the 1930s, which produced the kolkhoznitsa, or the female collective farmer,” and caused many women to step into agricultural work when men faced policy-driven deportation, or dekulakization (Kamp 218-223; Randall 147). The hujum and the collectivization of farms both furthered the infiltration of the state into the everyday lives of rural men and women, and it was during these early years of transformation in the 1930s that Lotte Jacobi photographed Uzbek and Tajik women entering the workforce in various industries (Kamp 218).

Prior to the hujum and politically motivated reform of Soviet women more broadly, most Central Asian women worked seasonal jobs or found ways to make money from their homes (Kamp 26-27). Working in “cottage industries,” that is, carrying out any income-generating work from home, many women cultivated silkworms, sewed, embroidered, wove, and spun, and were thus still viewed “as homemakers, not earners of income” (27-30). Strict gender roles kept women behind the scenes while men mostly handled the transactional work at the bazaars (27). This started to shift between 1865 and 1913 when Russian domination of the cotton industry forced Central Asian cotton cultivation to expand greatly, with nearly all the mills for cleaning cotton were based in Turkestan (25-26). The rapid growth employed more Central Asian women to perform the “most labor-intensive and least financially rewarding aspects of cotton production, and the same was true of silk” (25-26). The famine of the early 1930s, which was largely a result of collectivization, cost the livelihoods and lives of millions of people and decimated a large part of the male labor force, furthering the rise in female employment so that decades later, “by the late 1950s women outnumbered men as active members of the collective farm labor force in Uzbekistan” (Kamp 223-228, 364; Randall 147).

Despite more women working outside of the home with increases in cotton cultivation starting in the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1910 when the Jadids began advocating for a new role of women in society that Central Asian women’s seclusion from participation in public life began to change, as Jadid men saw the advancement of women in education and public life as a way to increase progress in the nation (Kamp 30-32; Khalid 2, 6, 198-199). In combination with the push to prioritize education during the hujum, increased resources for child-care centers and schools allowed more women to obtain an education and enter the labor force while also making it possible for mothers to seek work outside of the home, in turn creating jobs in nurseries and childcare centers for Uzbek women (Kamp 85-86, 215; Lapidus 124). Lotte Jacobi documented these new childcare facilities that allowed mothers to enter the workforce. Over the next few decades, the mass education of girls in Uzbekistan began to improve societal perceptions about women’s place in the workforce (Kamp 215). However, the ratio of males to females enrolled in schools remained lowest in Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan through the mid- and late-twentieth century (Silver, 1974, as cited in Lapidus 142).

In 1919, the Women’s Division of the Communist party emerged with the goal of modernizing Central Asian women (Khalid 161-162). The work of the Women’s Division was fueled by Moscow's desire to have a “bridge of communication between the Party’s center and the periphery” (Kamp 98). The organization was multi-tiered; the Uzbek branch of the Women's Division reported to the Women’s Division of the Central Asian Bureau, which reported to the main branch in Moscow (98). In 1925, educated Uzbek women who worked for Uzbekistan’s branch of the Women's Division published the journal Yangi Yo’l, or New Way, which focused on women's issues and “sometimes asserted a vision of the New Life with the zeal of Russia’s cultural revolutionaries, but often advocated gradualism, a modernity in dialogue with tradition and Islam” that promoted women’s path to success through employment (Kamp 98-99, 109-110). The Women’s Division focused on supporting impoverished women and widows through labor cooperatives, furthering the goal of bringing women into the workforce (Khalid 161-162). While they organized clubs for women to gather and classes to increase literacy in Turkestan, the Women’s Division was still only successful in helping a relatively small number of Muslim women (Khalid 205).

Changes to societal views of Central Asian women did not keep pace with the growth of women entering the paid labor economy during the early twentieth century, yet the changes that did occur set the stage for the new role of women that expanded during the latter part of the century (Kamp 26-27, 215, 228). In her book The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism, author Marianne Kamp shares notes from interviews she held with elderly Uzbek women in the 1990s, who spoke about their pride in their careers despite the difficulties Uzbeks faced in the famine of 1930 and during World War II (228). In spite of the top-down approach to modernizing women in Central Asia, and the violence and hardship that ensued, Kamp writes how educated Uzbek women entered jobs in a variety of sectors and that by the mid-twentieth century, “women’s representation in chemistry and engineering was also rather high in Uzbekistan, reflecting a trend throughout the Soviet Union” (Kamp 223; Lubin 182). Although many of the efforts to modernize Central Asian women were forced and imposed without consideration of women's wellbeing, the progress made to bring women to a more equal footing with men, both legally and in societal perception, echoed throughout the following decades (Ilič 5-6; Kamp 223, 228).

Contributor: Lillian Rodriguez

Works Cited:

Ilič, Melanie. Women in the Stalin Era. Hampshire, Palgrave, 2001.

Kamp, Marianne. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2006.

Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015.

Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. London, University of California Press, 1978.

Lubin, Nancy. “Women in Soviet Central Asia: Progress and Contradictions.” Soviet Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1981, pp. 182-203.

Randall, Amy. “Gender and Sexuality.” Life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, edited by Kees Boterbloem, Bloomsbury, 2019, pp. 139-166.