Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan: A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system

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My latest piece for University World News, a global online publication for anyone with a passing interest in higher education, was published on October 19. I wanted to bring UWN’s readership up to date with recent developments in Uzbekistan, which have been taking place at breakneck speed over the past couple of years.

Please find the article at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20191017104759957; a copy of the text is below:

UZBEKISTAN

A breathtaking shift from autocracy to an open HE system

The higher education landscape in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, has been changing rapidly over the past three years. Since the passing of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, who had been in power since 1991, the country has seen an about-face under the leadership of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Under Mirziyoyev, a swathe of policies aim to transform higher education into what one government minister has called ‘Universities 3.0’.

These policies will give universities more autonomy to choose their own leaders and to manage their own affairs through their governing bodies, will give universities greater control over student numbers and course offerings and will liberalise price controls on tuition fees and increase the number of public-private partnerships.

In October 2019, these and other ideas were formalised through the ratification of the Higher Education Development Plan to 2030.

Although Uzbekistan was the first of the Central Asian states to permit international branch campuses, having hosted the United Kingdom’s University of Westminster and Russia’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics since 2001-02, the number of foreign higher education institutions remained very limited at just five.

However, under Mirziyoyev, regulation was introduced in late 2017 offering tax breaks and other financial incentives. Since then, international branch campuses have spread ‘like mushrooms’, according to Yekaterina Kazachenko, a journalist with the independent Russian agency Fergana News.

Much fanfare accompanied the opening of the American Webster University, where bilateral talks on opening campuses in Tashkent and Samarkand had apparently begun under the previous leadership in 2012. However, it was not until the 2019-20 academic year that the campuses were inaugurated, with just under 500 students.

According to the university, this makes the Uzbekistan branches the largest population of Webster students outside of the university’s St Louis, Missouri, main campus.

Interest from Russia and Asia

It’s not just English-speaking countries that are getting in on the branch campus act. Russia, which is the largest provider of branch campuses to the countries of the former Soviet Union, has also been increasing its efforts to expand the presence of its universities in Uzbekistan.

Campuses linked to six Russian universities opened in 2019 alone and talks are ongoing to create other branches.

With the country’s strategic location between Europe and Asia, it is unsurprising that interest in opening branch campuses in Uzbekistan is also emanating from the south and east.

The relatively well established presence of Singapore (Management Development Institute of Singapore) and South Korea (Inha University) is being joined by Malaysia’s University of Technology and India’s Amity University, among others.

There are also rumours that China will be creating not just a branch campus but a fully-fledged university in the capital Tashkent.

The flourishing of branch campuses is one obvious area of change for the size and shape of the higher education system in Uzbekistan. Other reforms have also had a demonstrable impact, such as the resumption of the teaching of political science in 2019 after it was banned under Karimov, ostensibly because it did not represent the then president’s ideological leanings.

The speed of reform

Many of the plans being put forward adhere to what we might think of as a ‘standard operating procedure’ global template for higher education reform. It’s not only Uzbekistan that is welcoming international branch campuses, creating university rankings, opening science parks and pushing for publications in ranked international journals, as readers of University World News will be well aware.

Arguably, however, there are two things that make the reforms in Uzbekistan stand out. The first is the sheer speed with which a systemic overhaul is being introduced. Mirziyoyev has been at the helm for less than three years, but he has already made a significant impact, not only in higher education but in the media, economy, social policy and other areas.

The second is the distance that these reforms are taking Uzbekistan from the previous authoritarian regime.

In September 2019, academics in Uzbekistan and around the world rejoiced at the wonderful news that the scholar Andrei Kubatin had been acquitted of all charges and released from jail. Kubatin, a well-known Turkic studies expert and historian, had been imprisoned in 2017 and subjected to torture after being sentenced to an 11-year term on false charges of treason.

Human rights watchers and academics alike are hopeful that the reversal of Kubatin’s charges could lead to the re-examination of other politically motivated cases.

Ongoing challenges

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector continues to experience significant challenges. One is systemic corruption, which ranges from bribing professors for grades to using connections to obtain places on popular courses.

Another challenge is the limitation on who can access a degree. Although a record number of students applied to get into university in 2019, participation rates in higher education are still low at 10% (the gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education for 2018).

This figure is even less encouraging for women (8%), who continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality. It is also known that students from rural areas find it more difficult to get into higher education.

A third barrier comes from the top-heavy governance of the system, where university leaders are appointed (and removed) at the state’s behest.

Yet, as experienced journalist Navbahor Imamova has recently pointed out, despite continuing curtailments on citizens’ liberties and low trust in government, the reforms in Uzbekistan to date nevertheless reflect a “remarkable shift, one that stands in sharp contrast to what often seems like a relentless international trend toward greater repression, increasing autocracy, and eroding liberties”.

 

Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ has a new boss

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Several weeks after news broke that the head of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ had been fired, a new appointee has taken up the mantle.

Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL)’s Rector Yesemurat Kanyazov was fired not just from his university leadership position but also from his other job as Deputy Minister of Justice. The official reason now given was that Kanyazov was leaving for another role – Deputy Director of the Intellectual Property Agency at the Ministry of Justice, according to sources.

Taking the helm at TSUL is 36 year old Rahim Hakimov. Hakimov has a doctorate in law [the higher-than-a-PhD level Doctor of Sciences degree] and is a graduate of TSUL, from which he graduated with a Specialist degree [like a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s] in 2005. He joins TSUL from government, having previously served on the defence and security committee as a member of parliament.

Like his predecessor, Hakimov has also been given the dual role of Deputy Minister of Justice. Let’s see whether he has more effect in clamping down on the corruption that has given his new workplace the not so illustrious title of ‘most corrupt university’ in Tashkent.

 

exictement-cat-birthday-meme
No cat memes have been harmed in the making of this blog

PS Today is my blog’s 8th birthday! Having set out in 2011 to share stories about Central Asia and the former Soviet space and links to higher education, I’ve been true to form over the years. The blog has been viewed nearly 50,000 times to date and well over 1,000 of you subscribe to receive updates from the site. My top post – in terms of how many times it was viewed and shared on other sites – remains my bruising critique of the Tajik government’s introduction of a dress code for university students, High heels for higher learning

Thank you very much indeed for reading the blog. Here’s to the next eight years!

Head of Tashkent’s ‘most corrupt university’ fired

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you're firedCatching up on recent higher ed news, here’s a story from Uzbekistan that speaks both to the ongoing wave of education policy reforms in that country as well as to the persistence of corrupt practices in higher education.

At the end of August 2019, the Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL) Yesemurat Kanyazov was dramatically fired from his top position. The resignation was ordered by no less than the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

The reason(s) for his removal from the university post were not given. Kanyazov had been at the helm of TSUL since 2013 having previously developed a career in government. Indeed, at the same time as being Rector of TSUL, he also held the position of Vice Minister of Justice. It’s not clear whether Kanyazov has managed to hang on to this job either.

Ironically, TSUL is reported to be the capital city’s ‘most corrupt university’ as selected by a third of respondents in a survey undertaken by popular Telegram channel Qo’shni Mahalla.

At the time of writing this piece, TSUL’s website is still showing Kanyazov as its Rector and there are no news stories about his departure…

Conceptualizing major change in higher education

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In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.

That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.

To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.

You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.

International students from the former Soviet space

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Internationally mobile students 2011-17The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.

Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.

That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.

In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.

In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.

The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!

As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.

The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!

Outbound mobile from former SU 1998-2017

That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.

Jumping on the Silk Road bandwagon

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silk_roadWhether it’s China’s ‘One Belt, One Road‘ series of economically driven initiatives, books* rewriting the history of this exotic-to-the-Westerner region or UNESCO’s growing repository of Silk Road resources, it seems the world can’t get enough of the (new) Silk Road(s) at the moment.

Central Asia is right at the heart of both the ancient trading routes that eventually took on the Silk Road name and intertwined with more recent developments. For example, Professor Timur Dadabaev of Tsukuba University in Japan has written about the use of ‘Silk Road’ as a foreign policy discourse used not only by China but Japan and Korea in their contemporary approaches to Central Asia. Central Asian Analytical Network has some nifty infographics on Central Asia’s place in the new Silk Road [ru]. Guo Huadong has written in the high profile publication Nature on how the Digital Belt and Road Project could support the environment as well as promote economic development.

Examples of this Silk Road mania abound, and higher education has been no exception. Currently getting into the Silk Road spirit in Uzbekistan is the recently established International University of Tourism. Handily, the university has already cottoned (silked??) on to the trend, with its full name being the Silk Road International University of Tourism.

Pro-Rector [Vice-President/Pro-Vice-Chancellor] Bahodir Turaev has announced that the university intends to form a Silk Road network university [ru], bringing together universities from around the former Soviet Union to create student exchanges and support the integration of young people. Turaev deliberately places the emphasis on student mobility given that young people make up the majority of the population in these countries and they are the most progressive and active.

This new network will join the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road, founded by China in 2015 as the latest in what is becoming a very long and meandering (silk) road.

 

*If you’re going to read something other than this blog, make it the excellent Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, also available in a beautiful illustrated version.

On the slow progress on women’s rights in Uzbekistan

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With the opening up of Uzbekistan under President Mirziyoyev, I have been able to expand my blog’s coverage beyond my traditional territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The dominant narratives for higher education in Uzbekistan over the past couple of years have been the dizzying speed of reforms and the massive drive to internationalize the higher education system by creating new joint or international universities in the country. Take a look at some of my recent posts about Uzbekistan to get a flavour of the depth and breadth of change.

As with any reform package there will be winners and losers. Huge changes are being foistered onto Uzbek society and for many, this is making a positive difference. But for some groups, much still needs to be done. This is why I am sharing an excellent article [en] / статья [ru] published on the also-excellent website Open Democracy about women’s rights in Uzbekistan.

Authored by Darina Solod, the article points out where changes are being putting in place that will support gender equality/equity, but also explains how and why much deeper societal transformations are still required.

The article is below, (c) Open Democracy and Darina Solod. The Russian version is here.

In Uzbekistan, women’s rights are changing – but not fast enough

Uzbekistan still lacks a law on domestic violence, and legislation on gender equality is yet to appear.

Darina Solod
4 July 2019
In Uzbekistan, women facing domestic violence have few mechanisms to defend their rights

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CC BY-NC 2 Vladimir Varfolomeev /Flickr. Some rights reserved

In Tashkent, women facing violence at home have nowhere to go. No one has heard of shelters, and if a woman has no friends or relatives, the situation becomes impossible: no hotel will take a locally registered single woman, on suspicion of prostitution. It’s pointless contacting the police, even in the most desperate circumstances. In a recent case, police refused to accept a statement by a 14-year old girl that she had been raped, because she was “of the age of consent and had no obvious signs of injury”.

Cases such as these happen in Uzbekistan more often than one can imagine. Neither the law, nor society is interested in protecting victims, instead telling them to find their own way out of difficult circumstances. Uzbekistan was and remains one of the few countries in the world that lacks legislation on domestic violence.

Furthermore, women experience restrictions in a range of spheres. Until 2017, for example, women couldn’t travel freely – in order to leave the country, a woman needed a sticker (the equivalent of an exit visa) from the visa and registration department, and this required the permission of her parents or husband.

Since the death of president Islam Karimov in 2016, however, attempts have been made to improve women’s rights – at least legally. Here’s an overview of them.

Draft laws

In April this year, Uzbekistan’s Women’s Committee published a draft law designed to prevent sex discrimination. The Women’s Committee, set up in 1991, aims to improve women’s status in society, and this draft legislation is the first ever document of its kind published in Uzbekistan. It goes into relevant terms (gender equality, discrimination) in great detail – and, for the first time in Uzbek law, discusses the concept of societal stereotypes about gender. It also describes future mechanisms to protect these rights and establishes penalties for violating them.

In February, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree that aims to “fundamentally improve support for women and strengthen the institution of the family”. The law criticised the current situation with women’s rights and their participation in affairs of state.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev | Source: President of Uzbekistan

This decree also created the Oila (“Family”) research centre, which aims to strengthen marriages, study issues of reproductive health, investigate problems faced by modern families and compile lists of low income households. Staff at the Oila centre travelled across the country, talking to women about violence and their own family situations. The centre was also given responsibility for “strengthening families” and for divorces. Previously, if you wanted to end your marriage, you had to ask your local council office for permission, but now the Oila centre is responsible.

This official initiative to support women is, of course, important in itself, but there is a built-in contradiction. On the one hand, the Oila centre should do everything it can to help women and try to resolve difficult situations. On the other, the centre has to do everything it can to keep a family together. This can lead to serious conflict: in situations where divorce should be permitted, centre staff attempt to persuade the couple to continue living together.

Help is unavailable

In 2018, the Women’s Committee opened a hotline for women who had experienced violence – you now can dial the number 1146 to contact a doctor, psychologist or lawyer. Tanzila Narbayeva, who heads the committee, tells me they didn’t expect the number of phone calls and requests for help that were triggered by the line.

Last year, the committee also opened the first shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence. People familiar with the situation tell me that initially committee members weren’t entirely sure what the shelters were for and, instead of offering refuge, organised handicraft groups.

“The Women’s Committee reports on opening shelters and hotlines, but there are either too few shelters or they haven’t opened yet, and all this information has to be verified,” says psychologist Liana Natroshvili. “It’s the same with the hotline: some of my clients have tried to call the number when they have been in a difficult situation, but the line was either down or inaccessible.”

Electoral suffrage doesn’t guarantee women the opportunity to defend their rights | (c) Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved

Natroshvili believes that these steps remain critically inadequate: “This is still a new issue for our country. We’ve been talking about violence and gender questions for a year or two, but everything is still at an early stage. People in the regions who need to react quickly to new policies still share the old stereotypes about women. They aren’t ready for the new realities.”

A turning point in the protection of women from violence was the “Preventing Domestic Violence” draft legislation published in September 2018. For the first time since Uzbekistan became independent, the country has draft legal definitions of psychological, economic, domestic and other types of violence. Discussion of the project’s proposals ended a month later, but there’s been no further progress – the draft bill remains in a state of limbo.

Then in May 2019, the Women’s Committee published a new draft bill against domestic violence, which would also protect women from harassment or bullying at work and at home. This draft is an updated version of a bill on domestic violence from the previous October. Discussion lasted for a week, but there is no certainty that it will be passed in the future.

Impunity

Faina Yagafarova, a feminist activist, believes that these initiatives aren’t enough – it’s still difficult for women in Uzbekistan to have their rights observed. As proof of this statement, Yagafarova tells me that it’s still not easy for women to work and be mothers – companies in Uzbekistan have to pay maternity benefits, but believe mothers should pay these costs themselves, and are therefore unwilling to take women on.

“You can receive maternity benefits until the child is two years old, but nurseries only accept children when they reach their third birthday,” says Yagafarova. “It turns out that if you don’t have relatives to take care of the child, a woman has to live without state support or work for a whole year.”

“Local doctors refuse to accept complaints about beatings, saying that ‘they have had enough of resolving family feuds’. The police won’t throw abusers in jail and medical examiners re-traumatise women who come to them”

According to Yagafarova, the situation is similar in the judicial system – the police confirm that fines for domestic violence are paid out of family budgets, although legislation provides for alternative punishments, from community service to imprisonment or house arrest.

“The violence prevention law still hasn’t gone through Parliament. No one in the regions complies with the Criminal Procedure Code. Local doctors refuse to accept complaints about beatings, saying that ‘they have had enough of resolving family feuds’. The police won’t throw abusers in jail and medical examiners re-traumatise women who come to them [after being attacked].”

There are also problems with divorces: even a court ruling against a husband for beating his wife isn’t sufficient grounds for divorce in judges’ eyes. And high court fees for divorce deprive many women of the opportunity to file a complaint, even if they are living daily with domestic violence.

“Those feminists have some nerve!”

But change is happening. While the government tries to figure out the “women issue”, ordinary Uzbeks are gradually shifting their position on gender equality – at least in the capital and other large cities. In Tashkent, for example, there are local projects on feminism and violence prevention, and there is even a growing independent feminist community. Social media channels focusing on sexism are also appearing and the press is writing about gender inequality issues.

“Currently people look to traditions and persistent stereotypes which have been passed down from generation to generation. We need to change society’s perception of how things have to be”

One important project is the “Speak Out!” online discussion group. This channel, which was set up a year and a half ago on Facebook and Telegram, helps women who have experienced violence. It also explains terms such as sexism, debasement and feminism to other users.

This channel began by explaining what was wrong with the debasement of women and why reactions in the spirit of “it’s her own fault” are bad, as well as how to help anyone who has experienced violence. The most difficult thing was to build up a loyal following that grasped the importance of the issue and didn’t try to devalue victims’ experience.

After a time, having acquired a more or less loyal and appreciative following, the project produced an anonymous form for women who had experienced or were experiencing or witnessing domestic violence. The “Speak Out” forum then shares the experience of victims of this violence.

Irina Matvienko, the human rights defender who set up the project, feels that public attitudes to feminism are changing, but the changes are not major ones.

“According to Facebook, the target group for my project are generally Russian-speaking people living in Tashkent,” says Matvienko. “And it’s unlikely that our experience can be applied across the country. But I can see from our followers that some attitudes are changing. Many people, for example, have discovered the concept of ‘blaming the victim’ and learning why we mustn’t put the emphasis on the victim. The choice of violence, after all, is always down to the attacker, who decides whether to inflict pain or not. And we need to think about the person inflicting the violence, not the behaviour of their victim.”

Despite the recent draft legislation on gender equality, Irina Matvienko believes there is still not enough being done to fight against societal stereotypes on gender. There is a need, Matvienko believes, to re-examine television content on the basis of how it portrays gender stereotypes.

Дочь не должна быть бесплатной рабочей силой, “отрезанным ломтем”, которая выйдет замуж и больше не будет причастной к семье. | CC BY-NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Are these changes happening in the world?

Each year, international research bodies look at women’s position in society and publish reports on the question, using a system of league tables. One of the best known is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which monitors gender equality throughout the world. Last year’s report predicted that it would take at least another century to wipe out the economic, social and political inequality between men and women – and that only if the trend towards equality continues.

In 2018, all Central Asian states, apart from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, were included in the index, with Kazakhstan in 52nd place, Kyrgyzstan in 81st and Tajikistan in 93rd (out of 200). Uzbekistan was nonetheless included in a recent World Bank report (“Women, Business and the Law 2018”), which analyses attitudes towards women across the world. The statistics on Uzbekistan do not make for happy reading, with most of its figures at the low end of the scale – on the “protection from domestic violence” line the country has zero points. After all, Uzbekistan has no law on domestic violence. In this respect, the report’s authors compare Uzbekistan with Russia and Myanmar.

A more detailed look at the tables reveals that the situation with women’s rights in Uzbekistan is, however, better than in the Middle East and North Africa, where women’s rights are strictly de jure. Uzbekistan limits women’s rights de facto: most Uzbeks believe that the man is still the head of the family; it is he who decides what to spend the family’s income on, where his children will go to school and whether his wife can work outside the home. These points are unlikely to come up in reports by the World Bank, the World Economic Forum or the UN. Uzbek law is by and large on the side of women, but local officials or the public mood are not.

“There’s no point in explaining to people what gender equality is if you start with the premise that ‘the man is the head of the family’”

Liana Natroshvili thinks that society’s role is one of the most important when it comes to understanding a woman’s place in Uzbekistan.

“Currently people look to traditions and persistent stereotypes which have been passed down from generation to generation. We need to change society’s perception of how things have to be. We need to change things in all social groups: a family’s attitudes towards a daughter, for example. She shouldn’t just amount to free labour who will eventually get married and then cease to be part of the family. This all needs to be discussed and explained in schools and nurseries, workplaces, universities and colleges and elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Committee is proposing that the Uzbek public examine its draft legislation and comment on it. As far as gender equality goes, there are still far too few women engaged in the country’s political life. There are very few women’s faces to be found at meetings of ministers and officials. And the business sphere is the same: it’s a man’s world which lives by its own laws.

Uzbekistan wants to downplay its problems, rather than nipping them in the bud, concludes Faina Yagafarova. “There’s no point in explaining to people what gender equality is if you start with the premise that ‘the man is the head of the family’. This automatically makes the woman subordinate. I think we need another model of relationships – one of partnership and equality, where no one is more important by virtue of their gender.”