- Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia
In 1927 the Bolshevik Party launched a campaign, or hujum, to emancipate women by eradicating the veil from Uzbekistan. Although focused on encouraging women to unveil, the campaign's goal was nothing less than the transformation of Central Asia into a modern socialist society. Under the Stalinist regime, the unveiling campaign shaped Soviet policies in Uzbekistan and provided a powerful symbol for resistance to them. In Veiled Empire, Douglas Northrop traces the origins, intentions, and results of the hujum, arguing that gender relations played a central role in the creation of an Uzbek national identity and in the Bolsheviks' efforts to establish Soviet power in Central Asia. He shows how each side used Uzbek traditions and culture to its own ends, and how local responses to the hujum provided a constant challenge to Bolshevik rule and hegemony in the region. In doing so, this book provides a welcome addition to the scholarship on gender, nation, and identity in Soviet Central Asia.
Northrop's discussion of the hujum rests firmly within the context of colonial studies. He presents the relationship between the Bolshevik Party and the local Uzbek population as a process of negotiating national identity. Gender and family relations formed the root of that identity. For the Soviet activists who understood veiled Muslim women as an oppressed class, women's liberation would create a society founded on socialist values of gender equality. Veiled women thus became the objects of the Bolsheviks' "civilizing mission," representing the patriarchal oppression of women and the "backwardness" of Uzbek society. In response, Muslim Uzbeks embraced the veil as a symbol of traditional family and gender relations and as a means of resisting Soviet rule. Indeed, veiling in Uzbekistan became widespread only in reaction to the Bolshevik campaign; wearing a veil "became an act of political and national resistance to an outside colonial power" (p.13). Ironically, by designating the veil as a marker of "backwardness," Soviet activists helped to establish it as a symbol of Uzbek national pride that could be used effectively to counter Soviet transformative efforts.
Veiled Empire focuses as well on Bolshevik and Uzbek responses to the hujum. As it became clear that the campaign was failing to have the desired results, Soviet leaders placed the blame on their perceived class enemies, particularly Muslim clerics and wealthy landlords, for inciting opposition to Soviet power. Northrop emphasizes that the [End Page 242] Bolsheviks' rigid class categorizations provided them with a preconceived picture of Uzbek society that often failed to reflect social realities. For example, they expected veiled women to support the hujum and were surprised that women often refused to unveil. Furthermore, Bolshevik notions of class prevented them from accepting any sort of compromise with their Uzbek opponents, instead pursuing the "total and immediate transformation of Uzbek gender roles" (p. 126). In reaction, Uzbeks embraced the veil as a defining symbol of their religious identity, a marker of virtue, and a visible manifestation of proper behavior. For them, the hujum represented not the Bolsheviks' vision of progress, but rather an attack on Central Asian cultural institutions.
Because for the Bolsheviks the hujum represented progress and liberation, the veil came to define political loyalty and support for Soviet power. Uzbek Communists had to conform to party norms of unveiling in public and private life. Indeed, Northrop suggests that the need to enforce party discipline led to purges within the Uzbek Communist Party in the 1930s of those who placed Muslim traditions above party unveiling directives. The Bolsheviks' attempts to alter Uzbek daily life extended beyond the Communist Party as Soviet authorities criminalized byt, or everyday life practices, including forced seclusion and polygyny, although they never outlawed veiling. The legal status of the veil reflected a deep tension within Soviet policies between the need to use coercion to unveil women and the desire that unveiling be a voluntary expression of women's liberation. Despite their best efforts, the Bolsheviks' attempts to transform Uzbek...