Gradual Violation of Women’s Rights
The authorities need constant reasons for the use of petty repression and psychological pressure.
Turkmenistan is introducing bans on lip augmentation, eyebrow tattooing, hair lightening, and sitting in the front seat of a taxi for women. The trend towards gradual and systematic restriction of women’s rights is being observed in the country since 2018.
On April 22, female residents of Ashgabat faced the refusal by taxi services to let them sit in the front seat next to the driver and they were offered to sit in the back seat instead. Taxi drivers said “not allowed” and “new decree” to their baffled questions. However, no one have heard of the “decree” and Turkmen media outlets have not published such information. By the end of the day and the following weekend it became clear that it was a massive refusal to let women sit in the front seat.
CABAR.asia has managed to speak to a driver in a public taxi company (as there are no others in Ashgabat):
Our colleagues had a meeting on Thursday, and we were told then about the new order – not to let women sit in the front seat. When we asked what if a group of female passengers, say, three or four, wanted to get into the cab, they told us, “Just keep on driving.” How can we keep on driving? We have a plan and every passenger and every trip are of value. There is a strong competition for every passenger with owner-drivers.
According to witnesses, women are forbidden to sit in the front seats in private cars, too. If there is a wife or daughter inside the car, you need to present documents confirming your relationship.
Meanwhile, security services began to spread the narrative that it is “a shame”, “against the national traditions,” and generally “a sin” for women to sit in the front seat. No one explains why it is “a sin” – it’s “a shame”, period.
A few days earlier, the authorities unexpectedly started fighting against beauty salons. From now on, hair lightening, highlighting, false eyelashes, Botox injections are all under ban, mainly lip augmentation, eyebrow tattooing, etc. The police checking and closing beauty salons failed to provide any explanations, or official notices. After all, only haircuts and massage were allowed.
Public transport stops are being checked. Women are forced to show their hands, eyelashes and hair colour. Violators are detained and fined for 51 manat (14.56 dollars).
Women entering public offices are checked for false or long nails, hair colour, false eyelashes. If someone fails to meet the new requirements, they are not allowed to go to work and are sent back home to “do away with it”.
According to the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty (Azatlyk), in Mary velayat female employees of state-run agencies and companies are forced to promise not to use cosmetics, dye hair lighter colours, do manicure, wear tight clothes, and use additional ways to make oneself more attractive. Also, they are bound to wear wide traditional dresses and balak trousers with embroidery. In case of a breach, they may be fired.
Special groups of prosecutor’s office and health control office staff check if all requirements are met and if any breach is found, they impose a fine and put a perpetrator to shame in public, and even apply physical force.
Tens of female flight attendants and passenger car attendants have been fired for lip or breast augmentation, according to Azatlyk.
Meanwhile, there are rumours in the city that a low quality Botox has been injected to someone and caused inflammations and another harm to health. No one explains what is wrong with hair dying, false eyelashes and false nails. There is information that white European-style wedding dresses have also been banned. Now only traditional dresses are allowed.
At the same time, the authorities have banned all women wearing trousers and trouser suits, including jeans, from entering all state institutions. Female visitors are denied service, they cannot submit their documents or talk to the staff.
Meanwhile, civil servants have long been forced to follow the strict dress code – a national embroidered dress for women and all black or maximum dark suit for men. Exceptions are made for national minorities, yet with strict requirements – all clothes must be long and without cut-outs.
Dress code applies to all students and school students – girls must wear national dresses, and every university has its own colour and cloth texture for dresses, and it is strictly forbidden to deviate from this requirement, even from the colour shade. Every university purchases fabric on a centralised basis, just like brief cases and bags for textbooks must be of well-defined model.
Female students must wear braids, along with the national headwear takhya. This requirement has developed the hair market significantly – many female students just buy fake braids and attach them to their takhyas or buy readymade headwear and wear it at universities hiding short haircut.
By the way, all students are categorically forbidden to drive their own cars to universities, and two years ago they were forced to take driving test at the university administration.
Swimsuits and car driving are banned
The systematic violation of women’s rights, namely of visible signs of emancipation, westernisation, has begun just recently. Since 2018, new driving licenses were denied to women and their renewal was also denied under jive excuses, or mostly without any explanations.
It was a matter of mass outrage among women, numerous appeals to all possible state bodies, which certainly did not lead to anything and failed to radically change the situation – driving licenses were issued to a small number of applicants, and then the issuance or extension again stopped. According to the police, bans are again initiated because of accidents involving women.
Also in 2018, the authorities banned the imports of swimsuits into the country, as if they suggested that there was no need in exposing the body, even on the beach or in the pool. And pro-government sites began to publish photos of women at the resort of Avaz swimming in the Caspian Sea in national dresses.
Such bans have also affected young people. Meanwhile, cropped or skinny trousers, shorts, fashion haircuts and beards were also banned. Young people were taken from the streets by the police, forced to shave directly at the police station, fined, registered and forced to come for checks for several weeks in a row. Similarly, religious beards of all kinds were also banned, people under 40 were forbidden to wear them, and the so-called “Wahhabi” and “Taliban” beards were banned altogether.
These prohibitions are still in effect. At first the appearance was controlled very strictly, then the control was slightly relaxed with periodical checks and raids.
The authorities then imposed a de facto curfew when any passer-by could be detained by the police around 20-21 p.m. for identity verification. This was especially true of young people, who were detained in groups. Such raids continue from time to time added with “checks for virginity”, park raids continue during the day against couples, who are asked to present their IDs with the mark of registered marriage. Otherwise, lovers are at risk of being brought to the police department, calling relatives there and public reprimand at the place of study or work.
In 2018, Turkmenistan banned all car colours except white. That is, all cars in the country had to change their colour to white within the short time. The owners of all “non-white” cars were urgently looking for money and the opportunity to change the colour of the car.
At the same time, the procedure of official change of colour was furnished by the authorities as a voluntary act – the owner was forced to write a statement that he wanted to change the colour of his car from factory colour to white. The ban is still in force, there are no cars of other colours in the country.
Over the past few years, Turkmenistan has witnessed several prohibitive campaigns that have caused public outcry. In 2019, private drivers were banned in the country – drivers were caught, fined, special services specifically provoked private taxi drivers to spot an “illegal” trip. This campaign ended after about a month, as unexpectedly as it began, leaving a nasty feeling in the society and holes in the budget of private taxi drivers.
The same event is the “ecological campaign” held in the capital, when it is forbidden to use private vehicles for one week, from 8 am to 6 pm. Since 2021, it has been dedicated to April 7, the World Health Day. And before that, a week without vehicles could be announced at any time, including in the summer, in the very heat.
During the “ecological campaign”, only buses and state taxis are allowed, even agency vehicles are forbidden for use. The authorities urge all public servants and other people to switch to bicycles or use public transportation. Moreover, all state taxis are booked in advance by state ministries and agencies to carry officials, and then they are used by internet delivery services.
This campaign caused public anger in 2020 and 2021 in the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. It caused excessive and unjustified crowds in public transport. Moreover, in 2021, the authorities decided to prolong it for two weeks.
In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic and related restrictions excellently implemented the intentions and plans of the authorities to their surprise. Before the pandemic, they had worked out a decision to introduce exit visas for the citizens of Turkmenistan. Independence in decision-making has long been annoying to the authorities, high migration rates – both labour, and for permanent dwelling in Russia, Turkey and other countries – has had an impact on demographic balance.
First, the authorities decided to reduce the validity term of travelling passports from 10 to 5 years, and then prepared the legal environment for exit visas limiting the time of stay abroad. Moreover, the authorities had so-called “lack lists of disloyal citizens, whose exit was impossible and could not be challenged at court and other instances. The number of such citizens is over 30 thousand. Moreover, all more or less significant state officials had to hand over their travelling passports to administrations at their place of service.
Now when almost all countries have recovered or are recovering air travels and cross-border movement of citizens, the authorities of Turkmenistan prolong “lockdown” events time after time. There are thousands of citizens who stuck abroad, while the authorities pretend that they have no problems and organise rare export flights that do not tackle the problem.
The only way to exit the country is to go to Russia for permanent residence. Back in 1993, the two countries signed two intergovernmental agreements on the so-called “dual citizenship” and “protection of emigrants’ rights”. The dual citizenship document was denounced in 2003, but the agreement on emigrants is still in force. According to it, citizens of Turkmenistan willing to move to Russia can sell their apartment, property on special terms and order a container at a discount etc.
However, this is the one-way travel that requires all documents to be executed, including de-registration in Turkmenistan.
Stick and carrot policy
The strictest restrictions in Turkmenistan were introduced at the time of the first president Saparmurat Niyazov. He banned gold teeth, ballet, opera, circus, Academy of Sciences, reduced secondary education to nine years, and higher education to four with the interim practical training for one or two years; in other words, he banned the generally accepted education.
After Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became the president at the end of 2006, some of these bans were cancelled, but it still did not prevent him and his successor – son Serdar – from imposing new restrictions.
However, one of the dissidents who knew personally a few high officials said that current bans on emancipation and westernisation are related rather to the policy of moral coercion of the Turkmen authorities, than to ultra-traditionalism. The followers of the latter, according to him, were strong in power at the end of 80s and throughout the 90s, and partly retained the influence afterwards.
“Special eagerness was shown by middle- and low-level managers. They took it in good faith and did not understand the hidden motives. In fact, ideologists and spin doctors, so to say, devise bans on purpose by forming “sore spots” in the society, which are constantly irritated by security officials – police, tax bodies, and other state institutions,” he said.
According to him, the authorities need constant reasons for applying minor punitive measures and moral coercion:
They nurture constant fear of punishment, even non-lethal one, in the form of a fine or other pressure. But the authorities always apply such pressure, for different reasons devised every time. These are a kind of reprisals from the authorities against the society, one of the methods to oppress mental health of the society.
According to him, the series of such restrictions, their duration and painfulness is a tool to suppress the will of the society, its self-awareness, and self-organisation.
“No measures have caused death, and painful bans or restrictions cannot lead to riots or uprisings,” the dissident aqsaqal said. “But constant stick and carrot policy is the primary reason for all, at first sight, crazy actions of the authorities. Just as the constant and pseudo-legitimate cause for their use.”