Tajikistan

“We have kept our traditions” – Why not everything has changed in higher education – Seminar, Feb 22, online access

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After an event as momentous as the fall of the Soviet Union, it would be natural to expect significant changes as a result, whether that be at the macro-level of new states being created to the micro-level of people being forced to change profession in order to earn enough money to keep their families going in the economic crisis that followed the Union’s dissolution.

It would be logical to expect major change in higher education too, given that in the Soviet system, universities were funded and managed solely by the state – so when that centralized state disappears along with the ideology that underpinned it, you might even have predicted the collapse of higher education. This was amplified in Central Asia, where, despite rich educational legacies stretching back hundreds of years, the newly independent states inherited only the formal Soviet system of higher education that had been built up since the 1920s.

And yet, as the quote in the title of the post implies, higher education in Central Asia has not completely transformed.

In the course of my PhD fieldwork, I found out from the faculty members I interviewed that certain aspects of higher education seem to be incredibly durable. This doesn’t mean they are totally unchanged, but that certain values and ideas persist despite change.

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No cats were harmed in the making of this presentation.

Intrigued?

I hope so!

(Honestly, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far into the post it suggests that you might have an inkling of curiosity, or at the very least share a tiny bit of my passion for higher education in Central Asia!)

I’d be delighted if you’d join me on February 22, 2019, so I can share more of my findings and ideas with you. I’ll be presenting as part of the Joseph P. Farrell Student Research Symposium organized by the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre at the University of Toronto. The whole symposium will be streamed online at https://zoom.us/j/661234725.

I’m on between 10.45am-12.15pm EST as part of a panel with two excellent fellow researchers in my department, Nadiia Kachynska – who will be talking about the idea of ‘research excellence’ in universities in Central and Eastern Europe – and Scott Clerk, who will present his emerging thesis research plans to study south-south development cooperation in higher education.

Here’s the schedule for the whole day: JPFSRS Final 2019

Hope to see you online then!

Study abroad returnees required to report regularly to local police in Tajikistan

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Not content with demanding its nationals return home from studying abroad, reports are circulating [ru] that the government of Tajikistan is now regularly monitoring these former students.

Despite international borders opening for Tajiks since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tajik government appears to be doing its best to close down opportunities for travel – for some citizens, at least. Since 2010, officials have been ‘encouraging’ students enrolled in courses related to Islam in other Islamic countries to abandon their studies and come back to Tajikistan.

Around 3,000 students have returned from Islamic universities and madrassahs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. No one really knows how many students remain abroad or how many have managed to get around the travel restrictions since they were introduced, but there were suggestions back in 2010 that there were around 4,000 Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone.

The government’s stated reason for returning these students home is the risk that they will be radicalized abroad. The directive is in line with other steps that have been taken to try and limit the growing popularity/resurgence of Islam in Tajikistan. Such measures have included restrictions on clothing and personal appearance (in short: hijab or beard – bad, suit and tie – good), age limits on mosque attendance and asserting control over who is permitted to provide Islamic education.

Yet the risk identified by the government appears to be unfounded: whilst there is evidence that a small number of Tajik nationals have joined ISIS and/or travelled to Syria and Iraq, Central Asian security expert Edward Lemon has cogently argued that the perceived threat should not be over-estimated.

Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue those who made the choice to follow instructions and return home from their study abroad. In January 2019, Radio Ozodi (Liberty) reported [ru] that these former religious studies students are now obliged to report to their local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs twice a year for ‘registration and an interview’.

The purpose of these twice yearly meetings is to establish that the former student is still living in the same place i.e. has not gone back abroad. A number of former students explained that they are also being asked by local officials what the purpose of their study abroad was, what they are currently doing, and who they are friends with.

Human rights activists have pointed out that the rights of these former students are being violated [ru] on the presumption that they remain innocent until and if proven otherwise.

Yet all the evidence points to the government taking little heed of these warnings. Rather, it is likely to continue poking away at citizens’ ability to freely express themselves, to learn and to practice religion, to wear what they want and go where they want. And perhaps frustration and dissatisfaction with that is what might in the end cause people to take a path towards radicalization – not a handful of Islamic studies students.

Empowering girls through education in Tajikistan

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Channel your supercat this year! Be like Tajik teacher Hamadony Muzafarov and work for a better world.

Happy new year! I hope that 2019 will bring you health and happiness, and I hope that the world becomes a slightly more sensible place this year (I can hope, right?).

Kicking off the year is a wonderful story about an inspiring teacher in rural Tajikistan who over the course of many years has shown great dedication to his students.

Hamadony Muzafarov is particularly committed to his female students, working to raise the opportunities and prospects for girls and women both in and out of the classroom. As Muzafarov says:

“My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities.”

-Hamadony Muzafarov

His ‘day in the life’ story is below. Read, enjoy, and be inspired to take action!

The article is (c) TES and can be found in the original at https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

A day in the teaching life of Hamadony Muzafarov

This teacher faced opposition when he began teaching girls English in the rural villages of Tajikistan, but he refused to give up

By Hamadony Muzafarov

30 December 2018

When I left my remote village to attend college in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I dreamed of becoming an English teacher in Tajik villages. But when I started teaching, I had significant problems with local attitudes: local men told me that it’s better if their wives are uneducated so that they won’t be able to talk back or challenge them, even in the case of physical violence.

Realising the severity of the problem, I dedicated my work to women’s education in this difficult climate. Slowly, I’ve changed local attitudes: first ensuring that girls can complete high school and eventually, in 2014, integrating classrooms, so that boys and girls could learn together. English is key to female empowerment – in Tajikistan, knowledge of the language is necessary to attend university.

Mastering the English language can open a student’s mind and allow them to exchange ideas, opinions and cultural views. Similarly, it plays a great role in intercultural relationships and increases opportunities for the future. It will allow students to pursue higher education, apply for scholarships abroad, and it increases their employment opportunities.

To reach these goals, I ran my own language centre, Dunyoi Donish, from 2006 to 2016 and taught in local schools. Since 2010, I have worked in partnership with the US Embassy in Tajikistan to teach the English Access Micro-Scholarship Programme, which is targeted at children from low-income families.

Until 2014, the male and female students who were accepted on the programme were separated from 10 to 14-years-old until I started mixing them. Throughout the year, I facilitate a girl’s empowerment club. Every summer, I run a summer leadership Program and organize a free summer English club for children which teaches English and leadership.

My passion for empowering local girls, sharing the benefits of knowing English, and making children excited about learning, drives my desire to teach. Even in this remote corner of Tajikistan, it’s important to inspire and educate the future leaders of our world and all of its individual communities. I strive to create a safe and friendly learning environment inside the classroom, and outside of the classroom I plan activities where students can encourage and empower other students.

At times, it’s been an uphill battle. I fight daily in a traditional society where it is challenging for girls to reach even secondary school. Tajik girls in rural areas are often pulled out of school as teenagers and forced into marriages. I’ve worked with girls from rural and underprivileged backgrounds by building trust with parents when I launched an all-girls group.

Once I won trust in the community, I started gradually mixing girls with boys to foster gender balance in my classroom. My first female students have become “trailblazers” in the community, have confidence, and share their knowledge with other girls in the villages. They have learned English so well that they have become competitive for highly sought-after slots in American exchange programmes.

In 2015, I created a leadership development club for girls where 100 schoolgirls attended seminars on women’s rights, gender issues, parenting, environment, sewing, debate and peer training. The project included speakers who came to discuss the importance of education and disadvantages of child marriage.

In the Rasht region, war has damaged the quality of education. The remote locale of my district reduces opportunities for low-income citizens to receive a proper education. Female attendance in my region has been historically low because many families think education for girls is useless. This situation presents a unique set of challenges for any educator.

In 2010, the US Embassy provided me with funds for a pilot programme that encourages talented female students to study English. All the girls applied to institutions of higher learning to become English teachers, physicians, or other professionals.

Two of them were the first in their village to go to the US with exchange programmes, the first from their village. One of them, Madina, was one of my private students. After studying in the US, she became a teacher in Dushanbe.

She’s a clear success story. One of the judges of the Teaching Changes Lives competition at Oxford University even commented: “If we need proof that teaching changes lives, [Madina’s story shows] beyond doubt the power of education.”

The importance of teaching female students in a conservative society has been groundbreaking. So many girls regularly attend my classes and I have no doubt that all will be successful.

Hamadony Muzafarov is an EFL teacher, ambassador at TeachSDGs and runs a University Prep Club for Girls

(c) TES, https://www.tes.com/news/day-teaching-life-ofhamadony-muzafarov

Tajik research recognized on international stage

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Professor Saidrahmon Sulaymoni. Image by Shukhrat Sa’adiyev

Congratulations to Professor Saidrahmon Sulaymoni of Tajik National University, who has been awarded a Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding!

Professor Sulaymoni built his academic career in Arabic language at Tajik National University (TNU), working there from 1972 to 1985. He then worked at the Soviet/Tajik Academy of Sciences but in 2005, returned to TNU to lead the Arabic Language department.

In 2012 he was elected to the Egypt based Academy of Arabic Language, the first academic from Central Asia to receive this honour.

One of Professor Sulaymoni’s key achievements was the publication of an Arabic-Tajik dictionary, which he worked on for over 20 years! He has also found time to publish over 100 articles and a five volume collection of works by Abuali ibn Sino (probably the most famous Tajik* academic ever; commonly known in the English-speaking world as Avicenna).

According to Trend News Agency, the Hamad Awards seek to

honor translators and acknowledge their role in strengthening the bonds of friendship and cooperation amongst peoples and nations of the world. It hopes to reward merit and excellence, encourage creativity, uphold the highest moral and ethical standards, and spread the values of diversity, pluralism and openness. The Award also aspires to inculcate a culture of knowledge and dialogue, promote Arab and Islamic culture, develop international understanding, and encourage mature cross-cultural interaction between Arabic and other world languages through the medium of translation.

A photo of Professor Sulaymoni collecting his award in December 2018 was shared by Asia Plus.

Congratulations again to Professor Sulaymoni! It is exciting to see researchers in Tajikistan being recognized on an international stage.

Happy new year grumpy catThis news also allows me to end the 2018 blogging year on a lovely positive note. I’ll be back in January, but in the meantime, many thanks to all my readers and followers.

In 2018, you found the blog from over 110 countries! My top readers for 2018 based on site visits are in the US, UK, Canada, Kazakhstan and India – but I am delighted that one reader each from locations as diverse as Cambodia and the Cayman Islands also found their way here! Have a very happy (Orthodox) Christmas to those who celebrate, and all best wishes for a successful, healthy and cat-meme-filled 2019!

 

*For fact lovers: Ibn Sino was born near Bukhara and lived his life in the territory that is now Uzbekistan, but it is generally accepted that he was Tajik. Here’s a Canadian perspective from the Global Affairs Canada department’s Country Insights section:

“In the finest Soviet tradition, dead poets and writers are revered. Tajikistan does have an extraordinarily rich cultural legacy of poetry and music, and just about every Tajik can recite some lines by poets such as Rudaki or Rumi, among others. Avicenna, the great Tajik philosopher-scientist, is to the East what Aristotle is to the West.”

A novel about Tajikistan! A review of The disobedient wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

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I wrote this review some time ago (at the point this book first came out in 2016), but for various reasons it has not yet been published. To avoid any further delay, I decided to publish it here include it on my blog and hope that it encourages you to purchase a copy of the book (available for purchase from the publisher and the usual array of other booksellers) or see whether your local library has one for you to borrow.

disobedient wife coverReview of The disobedient wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Published by Cinnamon Press, 2016

What an oppressive and constrained world the two main characters, Harriet and Nargis, inhabit in this book. Harriet is a young, bored British expat wife, struggling to make sense of her new surroundings in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. Nargis is a young, harried Tajik woman, struggling to make ends meet to care for her family and keep her repugnant and unwanted second husband away.

The disobedient wife is billed as the first English language book to be set in contemporary Tajikistan, the poorest former republic of the Soviet Union, located in Central Asia and bordered by Afghanistan and China. It tells the story of these two women as they grapple with the fundamental problem of finding their place in society and in the world. Their lives intertwine when Nargis comes to work part-time for Harriet and both share the story-telling, although we primarily hear Harriet’s perspective through her journal entries as well as narrative.

I found the opening chapters somewhat stark, painting a truly depressing picture of living conditions in the Tajik capital and creating a strong sense of “them” (the Tajiks) and “us” (the expats) that in some respects was reminiscent of a bygone European colonial era. Harriet’s American acquaintance Patty plays the role of superior foreigner, unable to comprehend that the world looks and feels different from her native Texas and unwilling to make any effort to get under the skin of her Tajik surroundings.

Harriet’s discomfort with this artificial delineation of worlds grows as the story progresses but she never quite manages to see Nargis as an equal. For her part, Nargis doesn’t seem to express a desire to have Harriet as a friend. Both women are more occupied by the men in their lives: Harriet with cosmopolitan workaholic husband Henri, whose increasingly frequent and sometimes unexplained absences only serve to heighten her sense of isolation; Nargis with the memory of her beloved late first husband as well as the legacy left by second husband Poulod, whom she has controversially walked out on, despite being married off to him against her will and having to deal with his abusive behaviour.

As the novel progresses, what had seemed like an insurmountable cultural divide between Tajikistan and the “West” begins to soften; the claustrophobic atmosphere beginning to lighten. The depictions both of people and surroundings become more balanced and sympathetic, and it was at this stage that I found myself gripped, immersed in the pages as they sped by. Harriet slowly becomes more self-aware, and despite the odds, Nargis is able to assert more control over her future.

I won’t give away the eventual plotline but I was relieved – if slightly surprised – by the bittersweet ending. I had come to care about both women in a way that surprised me because of the somewhat unpromising start, and was very tense as I read through the last few chapters where their destinies unfold. Both were deserving of a fresh start, but given the circumstances of Harriet’s closeted expat life and the societal expectations weighing on Nargis, I wasn’t at all sure whether or how they would succeed.

As someone who knows Tajikistan well, it was a great pleasure to experience a strong sense of place emanating from the novel, and I could easily visualise the scenes author Annika Milisic-Stanley creates. Some hints as to the country’s potential are offered through, for example, attractive portrayals of the rugged beauty of the surrounding countryside and the images of Harriet’s garden on a summer’s evening, but I did wonder whether anyone unfamiliar with Tajikistan would ever seriously contemplate a visit after reading this book. It does all seem so bleak.

I was slightly unconvinced by some of the characters, who seemed to lack some of the “greyness” in their behaviour that make us the inconsistent and irrational humans we all are. As noted above, the American Patty was practically grotesque in her hatred of her life in Tajikistan and her attitude towards the “natives”. Poulod is unequivocally the “bad guy” with his black leather jacket and penchant for violence. At the other extreme, taxi driver Zavon, Nargis’ old school friend, is noble and sympathetic, ready to help out with a moment’s notice and never with any other motive than kindness. Overall, however, this does not detract the reader from the bigger picture Milisic-Stanley presents.

Whilst the location of The disobedient wife will be unfamiliar and even alien to many fiction lovers, the overarching theme of female redemption traverses the setting and allows the reader to readily engage with the novel. Told through the eyes of two ostensibly quite different women, their lives separated by the accident of where they were born, it is in fact the similarities that enable Harriet and Nargis to alter their trajectories that makes The disobedient wife so compelling.

 

 

New publication: Review of ’25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity’

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Feel the weight of history

I have a new book review out.

Sometimes, a book comes along just at the right time. The recent publication of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity was that book in 2018 for me.

The book is the main end product of an exhaustive and huge-scale project led by the Higher School of Economics in Russia over the course of several years, and as I say in my review, the book is truly an impressive achievement.

Each of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union gets a chapter dedicated to developments in higher education since 1991. Alongside these empirical chapters, there are two conceptual chapters laying out the overall framework of the book and setting the post-1991 shifts into the historical context of the Soviet Union. This was indeed a formative period for higher education, even in the republics that had much older histories of higher education and a number of pre-existing universities.

Of course it’s a tough ask to summarize the main points of a >400 page book in 1,500 words but my review is an attempt to do just that. I’m pleased to say that the publisher has made a number of copies of the review available free of charge; to download my review, click here.

And then, I hope, the review will whet your appetite to delve into the whole book, which can be downloaded totally free from the publisher’s website (or bought in hard copy for 30 Euros).

Internot: Wi-fi access in Tajikistan’s universities still a pipe dream

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Fast, reliable and free internet access is widespread across many university and college campuses these days. In fact, access to the world wide web, often delivered wirelessly by wi-fi, is so much of an everyday expectation that those working on campus tend to take it for granted, noticing only on those rare occasions when the internet goes down for a few hours.

Not so in Tajikistan, where Asia-Plus reported recently on the ongoing challenges for students and faculty in obtaining access to the internet [ru] on the country’s campuses.

Even the country’s leading university, Tajik National University, has not yet been able to roll out free wi-fi across all of its departments, and that’s with additional funding from China (see also my previous post on China’s generous financing of infrastructure in Tajikistan).

And whilst there seems to be general agreement that decent internet access can support distance learning and provide greater access to learning resources and electronic libraries, the jury appears to be out on whether Tajikistani students should be trusted to make sensible use of free wi-fi – were such a facility to be available.

There appears to be some scepticism that greater access to the internet might lend itself to non-learning outcomes (basically because students would be stuck on social media), leading the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Tajik National University to suggest that the internet “should be controlled”.

(That the government regularly closes down websites such as Facebook and YouTube at the first hint of a scandal or unrest goes unsurprisingly unmentioned in the article – and neither does the article note the many workarounds that Tajikistanis – students and otherwise – employ to get around such restrictions.)

But let’s take a step back before weighing in on whether and how students’ access to the internet should be monitored. The bigger picture is that students, faculty and staff in Tajikistan are currently living with limitations on the information they can access and the possibilities that the web can offer to enhance their teaching and learning practices.

Beyond free internet, there’s also the question of electronic journals and books that sit behind expensive paywalls. There are so many of these that the cost of subscribing is generally prohibitive to all bar the richest institutions.

As one student notes in the article, the introduction of web-based learning techniques – even in face-to-face lessons – could significantly improve the student experience. This could be asking students to do online research or using web-based polls/quizzes in large classes. Right now, the student reported, classes are “sometimes so boring that students fall asleep”.

Mobile phone use in Tajikistan is huge: on average, there is just over one phone for each and every citizen in the country. This suggests huge potential not just for higher education but for government and a wide range public service providers to develop creative ways to use that high level of mobile phone penetration to support learning and service delivery.

Nevertheless, with access to the internet is limited to around 20% of the overall population, there remain significant challenges to rolling out web-based technologies that could also be used in higher education.

Until internet access becomes more reliable and widely available in Tajikistan, those of us who have the luxury of being able to access academic sources and online teaching/learning resources at the click of a mouse might do well to think about ways we can redistribute those resources to promote broad, open access to the world’s vast repository of knowledge.