Having inherited the general contours of its territory from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union in the years following the 1917 Revolution found itself with nominal authority over disparate populations with few of the characteristics determined by Marx to be the necessary prerequisites of socialism, such as an industrialized economy with clearly defined proletarian and bourgeois classes. In the case of Central Asia, Soviet authorities faced the self-appointed task of bringing the region’s ostensibly backward tribes and multiethnic polities into the modern world.
Basing its policy on the writings of Marx and Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, the Soviet party hierarchy held that human societies were naturally divided into nations, that is, “historically constituted, stable communit[ies] of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” (Stalin, 307). Distancing itself from the racial theories prevalent in contemporary Western countries, Soviet ideology explicitly denied the existence of a biological foundation to nationhood. All the same, nations were sufficiently stable and distinct to deserve recognition as objectively existing entities, and were viewed by Soviet authorities as necessary preconditions for the emergence of a class society and economic modernization.
In the case of Central Asia, as in other regions of Russia’s periphery, the local populations had not learned to regard themselves as members of particular nations, instead deriving their identities from tribal or kin groups (Edgar, 17-41). Unfortunately, this sort of diffuse and indistinct identity was not compatible with progress to a classless society. Since Marxist thought recognized the preeminence of class as the source of common interest or antagonism between people, it was imperative that a people on the way to communism achieve class consciousness. For this to happen in Central Asia and elsewhere, Soviet authorities held, it was necessary for the local people to conceive themselves as members of distinct nations. In time, class differences would emerge within each clearly delineated nation, which would in turn enable the proletariat to consolidate and purge itself of its oppressors and enemies.
For the Soviet ethnographic project, the delineation of nations proceeded along the lines of language and everyday life. With regard to the latter, the practices of women, and, in particular, the practices of veiling women, acquired central significance in some areas, such as Uzbekistan. There, “[s]uccess in remaking Uzbeks as modern, civilized citizens was thought to flow from the party’s success in transforming the social position, legal rights, and cultural status of Muslim women” (Northrop, 7). In other cases, such as Turkmenistan, where the Soviet authorities found an ally in the poor peasantry, “women were at best a ‘supplementary proletariat'” (Edgar, 244), or a “surrogate proletariat” (Massell).
Regardless of the varying significance of female emancipation in the various republics created by the Soviet party hierarchy, the differing veiling practices served to illustrate the unique cultures of each nation. Uzbek women were said to wear a heavy veil called a paranja over their bodies and the lighter chachvon to cover their faces. The practices among other nations differed; Turkmen women covered their mouths with yashmak scarves to signify their deferential silence to elders or superiors (Edgar, 236).
This neat separation of nations according to veiling practices did not always accord with the complexities of reality, however. For example, women who belonged to other nations could adopt the veiling practices of a locally dominant culture. Soviet ethnographers explained away the aberration of Tajik women who wore the paranja by claiming that these were “culturally inauthentic, [. . .] either imposed or borrowed” (Northrop, 52). The existence of Jewish, Roma, or even European women who had adopted Uzbek veiling practices were generally elided in ethnographic accounts (Ibid. 51).
Further problematizing the notion of the veil as a convenient demarcation of national difference was that veiling practices, like the supposedly primordial cultures of Central Asia, evolved in response to changing social conditions. In the case of Uzbekistan, the veiling practices targeted by Soviet authorities were a remarkably recent development, “appearing widely only after – and perhaps partly in response to – the Russian colonial conquest of the mid-nineteenth century” (Ibid., 44). In Uzbekistan and elsewhere, veiling was more prevalent and more restrictive in urban environments than among rural or nomadic groups. In fact, the mostly nomadic Turkmen were initially held up by Soviet reformers as exemplary exceptions to the widespread mistreatment of women in Central Asian societies (Edgar, 225-226).
Regardless of the problems with the assignation of unique veiling practices to the various nations of Central Asia, the veil came to stand at the center of national identity in the eyes of Soviet researchers and activists. At the same time, the veil also served as an evocative affirmation of Central Asian backwardness. The defining feature of Central Asian identity, was, therefore, degenerate and in need of change. The veil acquired moral and medical significance as it came to be associated with dissipated behavior, dirt, and illness (Northrop, 60-65). But the Soviet project involved not just the physical imposition of modernity onto the Central Asians; they had to be transformed internally as well, and that meant, among other things, that members of tribes and families had to re-imagine themselves as members of nations.
When Soviet reformers succeeded in the latter regard, the result was often renewed local resistance to de-veiling. As national consciousness developed among Central Asians, they came to view their traditions and practices, however contingent or recent, as elements of an immutable and ancient identity. “The more the Turkmen were transformed into something resembling a modern nation, the more consciously they rejected the idea that their ‘ancient traditions’ should be thrown onto history’s rubbish heap” (Edgar, 223). As with the Turkmen, so too with other Central Asian groups. The encouragement of nationalistic thinking by the Soviets provided Central Asians with a new language in which to articulate their opposition to Soviet rule.
By portraying the veiling as an ancient practice, the Soviet authorities encouraged Central Asians to defend it as an essential part of their national traditions. When they associated veiling with a static conception of Islam, Soviet reformers endowed the veil with a substantial religious significance and posited de-veiling as an essentially anti-Islamic act. What Northrop writes about Uzbekistan can be applied in a more general sense to much of Central Asia:
Once veils had been made into emblems of backwardness, the hujum [‘assault’ on the veil] represented the logical culmination of the party’s efforts to remake and civilize Central Asia. The party, however, had also made veils into emblems of Uzbek nationality, and encouraged this national identity to develop and flourish – and therein lay the fateful contradiction (Northrop, 67).
Thus, the imposition of Soviet power in the guise of scientific knowledge and imposed modernization provided the targets of study and administration with a powerful new means of resistance.
- Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
- Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919-1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).
- Douglas T. Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
- Joseph Stalin, “Marxism and the Nationality Question,” in Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953), v. 2, 300-381.