Trans Eurasia travel

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Women's lives

The pattern of a woman's life in Turkmenistan was determined by several cultural and religious factors as well as by her own inherent qualities. As in any culture, there are sets of prevailing beliefs and practices, which, when taken all together, work to maintain life for members of both sexes. Turkmen Muslim culture had been, in some ways, overshadowed by elements of Soviet culture dictated by the USSR.

In general Muslim men have higher status than women. Each gender has their prescribed roles. Women do all things pertaining to the maintenance of the household within the compound. They also are responsible for all aspects of child-rearing and daily child care. When the woman marries, she becomes part of her husband's family. This young woman, now the daughter-in-law, has low status within the family. The bride, who may still be a teenager, is ruled by the wishes of her mother-in-law in the household. The mother-in-law can be kind and benevolent or cruel and punishing or anything in between.

Men are responsible for earning a living and maintaining the family's status in the community and clan. Some of the ways he does this is by helping relatives and neighbors when they have a problem or a big project to work on.

The Russians who had immigrated to Turkmenistan brought a more secular set of beliefs and practices. The few who had been Muslims in Russia had woven Soviet worldly ways into their daily lives. Most Russian and some Turkmen women were considered equal to men in many ways. They were educated as engineers, physicians and other professions usually ascribed only to men. In many households, both husband and wife worked at their professions.

The lives of many women changed after the Russian rule began. They graduated from universities and got jobs as physicians, university teachers, in government and in other professions. They worked six days each week.

After work, women were still responsible for all the household tasks they had before. Most meals were prepared from scratch. Given all the uncertainties of everyday life, having a home-cooked meal each day was a small miracle. Often there was no electric power for hours or days at a time and, because cooking gas usually generated at extremely low pressure, cooking itself becomes a much longer ordeal.

Maintaining relationships with extended family was also very important and fell within the woman's responsibilities. She had to be prepared to have guests from other cities and villages at any time of the day or night, depending on the railroad schedule. On holidays, at memorial services and other special occasions, women made all the food and served it. At these times, cousins and friends would join the preparations to help get everything done, including the cleanup.

There is a Muslim holy day to honor women who are elders. On this day each year, Gulnara invited six or eight women to a special dinner at her home. Special prayers were said and a holy person read from the Koran. Gulnara did this not only because she was a Muslim, but also because she believed in the importance of honoring our elder women.

Gulnara's marriage was different from most other Turkmen women. Both of her parents were Muslim and raised their family in a compound. Gulnara had been raised during the Soviet era and went to university in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She graduated and became a Russian teacher.

Zakir and Gulnara chose each other, contrary to the wishes of his family, who had planned for an arranged marriage. When the couple chose to live in an apartment, instead of a compound, the extended families were made even more uncomfortable. Gulnara viewed the choices as more modern, offering her more freedom in her daily life. She was a devout Muslim, and followed all the religious practices that held meaning for her. Gulnara also maintained good relationships with the couple's parents, brothers and sisters, cousins and a long list of other extended family members.

Things were different with Ibadulla and Mamajon. They had an arranged marriage. This was negotiated between their respective families who lived in Tashouz, another city in Turkmenistan. Tashouz is about 300 miles west of Charjoux, on the border with Uzbekistan.

I met many individuals who were in arranged marriages. Although that system of creating new families is frowned on in the US, it seemed to work as well as the American way of meeting and marrying. The number of divorces was much lower than in the US.

"Chai budesh? Anyone for Tea?" by Joan Heron