- Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia
Douglas Northrop's study of the intersection of nationalism and gender within the contested colonial terrain of Central Asia considerably [End Page 126] enlarges our knowledge of how power, state-building, and nationalist politics have influenced women and the family. Like others who have examined similar dynamics, Northrop demonstrates the intricacies of questions about women and the family as focal points for colonial and nationalist projects, spurring new social movements and reconfiguring political hierarchies. His study is notable for many reasons, but perhaps it is most significant because, in the process of examining these dynamics, it brings rich detail from a largely understudied geographic area within Middle East studies into the literature of gender and nationalism. Northrop explores the nuanced and at times contradictory regulation of veiling by Soviet authorities in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Uzbekistan. In the process, he produces one of the most textured and evocative accounts of this Central Asian republic that exists to date within Anglophone social science literature.
In a series of conquests from the 1860s to 1895, tsarist Russian forces carved Central Asia into a number of geographic parcels, beginning with the annexations of Tashkent and Samarkand. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917, administrators drew fresh borders on this captured territory, producing the new Soviet Socialist Republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan by 1936. Like many regions that have been subjected to such divisions at the hands of imperial powers, the incipient republics of Central Asia were linguistically, politically, and economically heterogeneous places with flexible, highly fluid religious and cultural patterns, contrary to the discrete, fixed, homogeneous identities that Soviet authorities narrated for them. The new boundaries delineated by Bolshevik authorities had multiple consequences for people's daily experience of such complexity within each of the new republics. Through land reforms, public works projects, schools, and the establishment of new standardized national languages, the Soviet system transformed the most mundane aspects of life in the teenage republics, consolidating identities into artificial, neat, contained language-culture-nation blocks.
Northrop uses the case of the concerted 1930s Soviet campaign to eliminate veiling among Muslim women and girls in Uzbekistan as an entry point into the examination of how the confrontation between central authorities in Moscow and the Central Asian subjects whom they sought to categorize played out on a microscopic scale. As in many [End Page 127] British and French colonies, women's position and comportment became focal points for colonial Soviet authorities, who transformed commonly worn veils into emblems of Uzbek backwardness and thereafter used the veil as a mobilizing point for modernization reforms. In the purview of such pronouncements, these coverings, called paranji and chachvon, likewise became potent emblems of Uzbek nationality within the new republic. Movements to resist Soviet rule eventually incorporated the issue of the veil into their platforms. These processes were particularly complicated by the fact that, while Soviet authorities sought to cultivate Uzbeks as Soviet citizens, they also encouraged a certain degree of nationalist thinking. The creation of separate national political-cultural units had always been promoted by Bolshevik revolutionaries and Communist officials as an appropriate platform for proletarian emancipation. As Northrop observes, this added numerous tensions to the slated transformation of Central Asian republics. The particular Soviet logic that linked the veil to Uzbek identity, coupled with the Soviets' general encouragement of national cultural identification, set the stage for political ferment. In fact, unveiling campaigns in Uzbekistan were widely unsuccessful. More women permanently unveiled in places where such campaigns had not occurred than in places where they did occur. The contradictions inherent in the Soviet approach of cultivating a modernity that was intimately bound up in the politics of nationality appear to have produced serious obstacles to the basic Soviet agenda.
Northrop divides his study into nine chapters in addition to his Introduction and Conclusion. He first describes the sociocultural and political contexts within which unveiling campaigns took place in the first years of the Uzbek Republic. He...