gender and higher education
8th March saw the annual marking of International Women’s Day (IWD), which is a formal opportunity to celebrate female success on the one hand, but also a time to lament the continued global persistence of male-dominated structures and norms, and to work on ways to reverse this situation.
IWD continues to be celebrated around the former Soviet space to this day. I particularly enjoyed the Moscow Times’ Buzzfeed-friendly feature ‘5 Russian Women You Haven’t Heard Of But Should Have‘. (Check out number 5!).
Over in Uzbekistan, the local Sputnik news agency ran with a story about Gulchehra Rikhsieva, currently the only female Rector (Vice-Chancellor) of a higher education institution in the country. Rikhsieva heads Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, having worked there since 2000 and assuming the leadership in 2019 after a short spell in government as Deputy Chair of the Senate Committee on Science, Education and Healthcare. She is a member of the Republican Commission on Gender Equality and the national Higher Education Council.
In an interview with Rikhsieva, she brings up some of what has become the ‘new normal’ in Uzbekistan’s higher education – rapid reforms, university rankings, competition, internationalization and so on. So far, so on message.
But a couple of the questions really grate, undermining everything Rikhsieva has to say about her plans for the university, the future for Uzbekistan, and so on. Could you ever imagine a male Rector being asked ‘How compatible is your role as a Rector with your family responsibilities? How do you cope with managing the university and household chores?’, or ‘Do female Rectors accept male Rectors? Isn’t it difficult for them to work with you?’
I didn’t think so.
Next door in Kyrgyzstan, women leaders of a different kind have also been facing both gendered and physical barriers. A women’s march on March 8 was initially banned by local authorities and then permitted to proceed, but then got cut off and assaulted by a group of masked men. Things turned from bad to worse when the police, who had been waiting in the background, arrested around 70 people who had been attacked.
Yes, that’s right. Not the attackers. The victims of the attacks. They were arrested.
The country that was once touted as the island of democracy is rapidly sinking under the weight of a shift to a set of norms that normalize so-called ‘traditions’ like bride kidnapping, permit abuse against women, and ban the expression of female issues.
The brilliant Kyrgyzstan-based movement Bishkek Feminist Initiatives calls for the development of feminist values in Kyrgyzstan and beyond, solidarity and respect for fairness and human rights, and the creation of a feminist space that will increase rights and opportunities for women and girls.
There are many ways we can do this, as individuals and by working together. Let me ask you to take the time to work out what (more) you can do. Even if you don’t think you can do much on your own, there is always somewhere to start.
It could be by supporting an organization involved in education and training for women or girls (as you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the Kyrgyz Space Program). It could be by educating yourself on the key issues faced by women and girls in Central Asia and around the world. It could be by amplifying the voices of females, whether that’s at a work meeting or on social media.
We all need to stand up and take action to end inequality against women and girls, and create a world where anyone can be and do anything.
After a recent blog post I published on Women in higher education in Central Asia, I was approached by University World News to write more about why it is that some women in Central Asia – particularly those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – are doing so much better (better even than the world average) in getting to university than their counterparts in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This led to some fascinating further research trying to understand more about this conundrum.
I am hugely grateful to Aksana Ismailbekova, Albina Yun and another researcher who chose to remain anonymous for their expert insights and support for this article, which I am delighted to say has now been published:
I would love to get your comments on this important issue, and ideas / practices from elsewhere in the world that might support greater gender equality in the parts of Central Asia where opportunities to enter higher education are not (yet) as accessible for women.
Did you know that as far back as the 1970s – an era when most of Europe and North America was only just waking up to the idea of mass higher education – that more women than men were enrolled in universities in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? And did you also know that these impressively high levels of female participation have been maintained in the post-Soviet period?
These were two of the findings from my recent study comparing how Central Asian women have fared in higher education since 1960. I decided to undertake the study after another paper I wrote last year showed that whilst female students in Tajikistan are more likely to be the subject of higher education reform efforts, they are least likely of all the possible stakeholder groups (faculty, students, government, international organizations) to have a say in the direction of that reform.
As a result, I decided to explore this in further detail through the lens of female participation in higher education between the Soviet era and the current period. I should be clear that I don’t view participation as a proxy for quality of education, persistence (do the students complete the education?) or post-study destination, all of which might tell us more about female empowerment than participation, which is more connected to gender parity. However, at least my study puts Central Asian women at the forefront, which is more than I can say for other studies!
The other point about my study that stands out is the use of two different datasets – the first from the USSR State Statistics Committee covering the period 1960-1989 and the second from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for data from 2000 to date (I couldn’t find any data for the 1990s, which does of course limit the study as it was a period of immense upheaval and you can’t see this reflected in the data). I believe that this is the first time these two datasets have been cross-hatched to analyse gender and higher education in Central Asia.
As you can see from the graph below, there is a very distinct difference between female enrollment rates in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the other three Central Asian republics.
The experience of Uzbekistan was of greater gains towards female equality than Tajikistan, starting from higher participation rates in the 1960s that were more or less sustained throughout the Soviet period. Only Turkmenistan appears to bear a semblance to trends in Tajikistan during the Soviet period, although here too the starting point for female participation in 1960 was higher by 7% than in Tajikistan.
The worrying drop in female participation in the early 2000s in Tajikistan appears to have been remedied in recent years: if the current growth trend continues to be consistent at around 2% per year, then it is feasible to hypothesize that parity in enrollment by gender in Tajikistan could be achieved within the next six years.
2015 data for Uzbekistan is not available but between 2005 and 2010 the picture was similar to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a 1% drop in female participation but from a much lower starting point. It is hard to offer any detailed interpretation for Turkmenistan where data is only available for one of the time points; however, there was a 5% decrease in enrollment between 1989 and 2015.
So: that’s an overview of my data, my rationale, and some of the findings. What do you think? What important stories does the data tell us that I’ve missed? Why is female participation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan so much higher? Could the prospects for Tajikistan be as tentatively optimistic as I’ve suggested (and wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something positive to say about Tajikistan for once)?