The month of March brings with it the official start of spring, the vernal equinox (this year on 20 March), and in Tajikistan – as with other Central Asian countries – the celebration of Navruz / No’rooz, or New Light/Day. There are multiple spelling variations of what has been classified as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO.
In recent years, celebrations of Navruz in Tajikistan have taken on a distinctly nationalist character as the government seeks to appropriate it as something that embodies the modern Tajik state, shifting the festivity away from its ancient pan-Eurasian and Iranian roots.
Like the other post-Soviet states, Tajikistan has been frantically building an identity for itself as an independent state over the last quarter of a century. This has been done within a framework that is more globalized, placing unprecedented pressures on the formerly Soviet countries in ways never experienced by other ‘new’ countries of the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. Yet unlike some of the post-Soviet states, Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbours experienced independent statehood (with their current geographic boundaries) for the first time in the 1990s, making the nation-building imperative even more urgent.
Thus the celebration of Navruz in today’s Tajikistan becomes something more than an expression of joy at the end of winter and coming of a new harvest season. It separates Tajikistan from its past, when Navruz was banned in Soviet times.
It is a ‘safe’ quasi-religious celebration that does not give too much credence to the official religion of Islam, a source of great stress to the leadership of Tajikistan (where even wearing a beard can get a man into trouble). It is the government’s idea of a good social policy, as it can offer public holidays and festivities around the country.
This year the government is taking Navruz to new highs. In a recent letter to all educational establishments in the country, the Ministry of Education and Science has decided that all teachers and students should wear national dress during March [ru] in honour of Navruz. Why, you might ask? Here’s the answer news agency Asia-Plus gives:
В распоряжении отмечается, что данная рекомендация сделана в целях пропаганды и возрождения лучших традиций предков таджикского народа и достойной встречи Навруза.
This recommendation is being made to promote and revive the best traditions of the ancestors of the Tajik people and in honour of the great holiday Navruz.
[Source: Asia-Plus; my translation]
According to information agency Avesta, this ruling only applies to female students [ru]. Once again, it seems to be the women who get the dress code at university. Apparently, some educational institutions might take this ruling even further. A senior (male) leader at northern Khujand State University said that female students and staff might continue to wear national dress through to the end of the academic year, not just for March. (Or perhaps Khujand State is on a mission to prove it can exceed government targets in Stakhanov-esque fashion.)
This isn’t quite the laughing matter that it appears. As Asia-Plus points out, the cost of a dress made of the ‘national’ material of atlas can be around US$30, or around a third of a monthly salary. A government official in the capital city has already had to issue a clarification to its statement noting that kindergarten/nursery children are not subject to the dress code rule after parents reported rumours that their little ones would also need to be suitably kitted out during March.
You’ll doubtless be relieved to know that the Ministry of Education’s Press Secretary has confirmed that no one in schools or universities will be forced to wear national dress during March [ru]. They are also allowed to wear a ‘pretty dress’ instead…
Let me remind you of the last time the government decided that women should dress differently at university, when it was fairly easy to prove that no, wearing high heels did not in fact make you a better learner. Wearing national dress during March may look great for your school photo, but does it make you more patriotic? Work harder? Think more? I think you know where I’m going with this.