July 12, 2010

The High Cost of Talaq

Divorce is on the rise in Tajikistan, and many women are paying the price.

by Faromarz Olamafruz, Botur Kosimi, and Mahina Mehrdod
7 July 2010
ISTARAVSHAN, Tajikistan | For three years now, Zuhro Muhammadieva and her young son have lived in her parents’ house, ever since her husband divorced her because she and his mother did not get along.

The divorce was a simple-enough procedure. Muhammadieva’s husband simply repeated the Islamic term for divorce, talaq, three times to her. Unlike other predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, Tajikistan has not banned this practice.

Muhammadieva said the couple lived in his parents’ house, and he, not much older than she, had no money or property she could claim.

So Muhammadieva, who entered into an arranged marriage at 18, left, empty-handed and pregnant, hoping that for the sake of their child her husband would come back for her.

That never happened. Her last hopes for a reconciliation were shattered when his dead body was brought back recently from Russia, where he had gone to find work. Muhammadieva said he was killed by Russian skinheads on his way to work one day.

"Even if he let me down and disgraced me, I still loved him because he was my husband,” she said. “I had a hope that maybe when my son grew up some day we would be together again, but now I’m destined to be alone. Bad people killed him and God will punish them eventually."

Now, lacking an education or skills, she and her son live in a small upstairs room of a house they share with her parents and her two brothers and their families. She does not have a job and relies on her parents for support.

Muhammadieva’s uncertain future is shared by a growing number of Tajik women as the divorce rate climbs. According to the State Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in 2009 the number of divorces exceeded the number of registered marriages for the first time, reaching 5,840, about 500 more than in 2008. The committee said 1,657 divorces were registered during the first quarter of 2010, but experts say the real numbers are higher.

Life for divorced women in Tajikistan is typically much more difficult than for their ex-husbands. Tajik law grants men and women the same rights in a divorce, but the reality is often quite different. Mariam Davlatova, chief editor of Ravzana ba Jahon (Window on the World), a magazine on gender issues sponsored by the OSCE mission to Tajikistan, cited recent research showing that almost 80 percent of women are denied the right to family property after divorce and husbands often shirk their responsibilities to their children and former wives.

To be poor by Tajik standards is to be among the world’s poorest. About half the country’s population lived on less than $2 per day throughout most of the last decade, according to the UN Human Development Program. While literacy rates for women and men in Tajikistan are roughly equal, the UNDP estimates that men in non-farming jobs have incomes about 50 percent higher than similarly employed women.

That is the grim reality facing, for instance, the almost 30 percent of women in the southern city of Kurgonteppa who are single heads of households, according to the nongovernmental organization Dilafruz, which focuses on women’s issues and which conducted the research cited by Davlatova. 

Some experts say the divorce rate is not rising as fast as the numbers would suggest. Instead, they say, a 2008 law requiring that all marriages and divorces be registered could account for the spike. But that would not explain why divorces have outpaced marriages.

Rayhona Haqberdieva, director of Dilafruz, cited several factors that are driving up the divorce rate. “If on the one hand, it’s poor economic conditions, on the other hand, it’s the fact that girls are being pushed to marriage at a young age when they are not psychologically ready yet,” she said, adding that massive labor migration and the ease with which a man can divorce a woman, including via a phone or text message, play a role.

“A lot of my high school friends got divorced not because they didn’t meet their husbands’ expectations, but because they couldn’t tolerate the harsh attitude and mistreatment from their mother- or sister-in-laws,” said Dilovar Habibova, a nurse from the northern city of Khujand who has seen several of her friends’ marriages dissolve. “It’s sad that frequently young girls who leave the warmth of their parents’ house aren’t accepted in the same warm manner or as an equal family member in their husbands’ houses.”

Mavluda Umarova, a lawyer who has represented women in divorce cases and who assists a civic organization called Citizens Rights in Istaravshan, linked the climbing divorce rate to a cluster of social ills. “Labor migration, poor economic opportunities, and a lack of social cohesion have taken a toll on family life in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, the government is not doing enough to promote the sustainability of healthy families, and the [committee on women and family affairs’] activities as the only nationwide agency dealing with family issues haven’t been effective yet.”

Ignorance of the law costs many young women dearly, according to Davlatova. “Legal awareness among the population is very low and most women don’t know their rights,” she said. “Even if some decide to claim benefits and their share of property from husbands, it’s generally a very long and difficult process to get any financial compensation for them in the end. In addition, separated wives are not all welcomed back to their parents’ homes and they are not encouraged to pursue their interests in courts.”

Even though talaq is rooted in Islamic tradition, that does not mean the faith condones its widespread use, according to Qobiljon Boev, a scholar at the Islamic Center of Tajikistan. On the contrary, Boev said, getting married and having children are among the essential duties of a believer, although he said talaq is permitted in rare cases.

The Committee on Women and Family Affairs recently has been pushing to make marriage agreements legally enforceable, in the hopes that fewer husbands will be willing to calltalaq if it means dividing up assets after a divorce.

Former committee chairman Khayrinisso Yusufi said, “Nearly all the divorced women that we encounter complain that their husbands left them without any way to support themselves. In fact, most prostitutes arrested during police raids say they were divorced by their husbands and left without any source of income or place to live with their kids, so circumstances forced them into the streets.”

But Davlatova said she is skeptical that families will ever consider a marriage contract as legally binding.

The answer, she said, could lie in educating young people about the realities and responsibilities of marriage.

 “We need to put the horse before the cart and address the problem before it arises,” she said.

Faromarz Olamafruz is a pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe. Botur Kosimi is a business consultant in Burlington, Vermont, and a contributor to neweurasia.netMahina Mehrdod is a journalist in Tajikistan.

March 5, 2010

Parliamentary Elections in Tajikistan: Show of Democracy or Dictatorship?

Parliamentary elections in Tajikistan with its ups and downs ended yesterday. Such an important event in most of the democratic and developed states would be widely publicized and numerous speeches, open discussions and live debates would be held all across the boundaries in order for people to get to know their candidates well, but in our country elections went pretty quick and unnoticed. 

Unfortunately, there was no equal opportunity for all parties in promoting their elections campaigns, so people were mostly unaware of their programs and campaigns. A few city hall meetings organized under strict control of Central Commission for Elections and Referendum and a last minute round table conducted by a foreign sponsored Radio Ozodi (Tajik Branch of RFERL) was a clear sign that the country needs a free public platform for political parties to come together and debate regularly. State and private TV stations, radios and newspapers as well as billboards in major cities had as usual disproportionately represented President Rahmon, who at the same time is the head of ruling People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT).

Seems like our nation still believes that elections will neither be free nor transparent and no deputies in Majlis (parliament) will be courageous or capable enough to bring about changes to structure and quality of governing bodies in society. It is hard to blame them since everyone understands that no democracy can allow one person to stay in power almost 20 years and control both the legislative and judicial branches. For many it is like living in a shah state (kingdom) where the king and his family can do anything their heart desires. Obviously, democracy is the rule of people, not ruling and mulling the people. 

The result of “kingdom” is evident. The country is lagging behind in development, people are poor and officials have turned into robbers and beggars of foreign donors. The truth of human nature is that even the noblest and finest person in the world will become arrogant and selfish if allowed total power. Total power corrupts any person. Therefore, we are advised to have monitoring in any process, measure in any volume, and competition in any market. Until we are able to provide free and fair competition in matters of policy, economy, culture or society we won’t achieve significant results.

Although, I am not personally in favor of any political party in Tajikistan and in fact, wish to see someday a party emerge and commit to national revival and progress, if I would have traveled to New York or Washington on February 28 for the sake of promoting competition and balance, my vote would have gone to Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) and its chairman Mr. Kabiri.

Anyways, I was guessing this party will win several more seats in the new parliament than it had before. Possibly, out of 63 seats, 50 would go to PDPT, 5 to IRPT, 4 to communists, 1 to social democrats and 3 independents. But, according to CCER’s latest data, over 80% of voter participated in elections and the preliminary counting of votes shows the following breakdown of votes: PDPT - 71,69 %, IRPT - 7,74 % Communist Party - 7,22 %, Agrarian Party - 4,86 %, Economic Reforms Party 4,69 %, Democratic Party - 0,84 %, Social Democratic Party - 0,72 % and Socialist Party - 0,47 %.

I guess I was wrong, but CCER always to astonish people with numbers it comes up so quickly. My question is how so little known and “fresh from the government’s oven” as Agrarian and Economic Reform parties could win almost 10% of the votes, more than the combined votes of Social Democratic and Islamic Revival parties, most outspoken opposition parties? This is what happens when no independent observers are allowed in actual vote counting process. We, the citizens, may vote ten times under strict public view and outside monitoring, but does it matter if no one watches whether CCER counts them correctly and fairly or not?

December 29, 2009

Tourism Promotion for Tajikistan on New York Times

The most popular American newspaper, New York Times, published an article last week by journalist Andy Isaacson who reflected on his interesting and detailed observations from touring Tajikistan and especially its Pamir Mountains known as “Roof of the World.” I am sure every Tajik citizen can take a benefit and pride when reading it. For instance, Andy depicts his impressions to millions of readers in such sentences:
“East meeting West, North meeting South: since time immemorial, the Wakhan Valley, in the Pamir Mountains, has existed at the intersection of trails trodden by nomads, peddlers, pilgrims and, at times, the soldiers and emissaries of great powers. When I’d thought about traveling to see this rugged branch of the ancient Silk Road, it had seemed like an adventure to the far-flung periphery of the world. Now, as I looked around the market, taking the long view of history, it felt more like the center.”
Certainly, we learn much from such perspectives of foreigners regarding our nation’s history and culture which makes us glad at the first look, but when thinking more deeply it makes us sad since then we realize how we, the Easterners, have noticeably fallen behind from Westerners in science, technology, world influence, and etc. It is while just 10 centuries ago our civilization was the most advanced and influential in practically all vital fields and regions of the world. 

However, this is not the point right now, but rather the importance of developing tourism in Tajikistan which to some extent is already being done for us by foreigners free of charge. I can argue that even by promoting solely tourism sector to a desired level meeting high requirements our country can attract huge capital and thus, improve its economy and living standards of population. Countries like Switzerland and Austria which closely resemble Tajikistan in terms of land and climate types earn significant profits from their tourism sector, so we can potentially achieve the same results by investing to development and promotion of tourism in our country as well. 

Imagine if instead of miserable 15,000 tourists as of last year our country attracts 100,000 tourists in a few years ahead and if every tourist roughly spends $3,000 in our economy we could possibly reap $300 million and provide good income jobs for tens of thousands of our unemployed citizens. In addition, developed tourism can create a better image for the country and make it known more as land of fairy adventure to the Roof of the World, than as a home of cheap labor force and migrants. 

Our great ancestors have advised us that one finished job is better than ten incomplete. So, while our country lacks any major oil and gas reserves, if considered as weakness, perhaps we should dwell on its strengths like our mountain tops, speedy rivers, and rich culture and history as our best bet in creating a better future for the nation.

December 10, 2009

The Price Tag of Truth

The price tag of truth

Written by Botur on Monday, 7 December 2009
Media and Internet, Tajikistan
No Comment
Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).
Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: The Tajik government has recently instituted fees for information requests from journalists and the general public.  In this editorial, neweurasia’s Botur examines how putting a price tag on information will only serve to hurt freedom:  “Information is the lifeblood of democracy”.

In today’s world when just about every country is striving to improve its transparency, accountability and public access to information (or at least pretend to), the Tajik government once again decides to swim against the stream.

Last week the government issued a decree that envisions charging fees for reimbursement of costs incurred by providing information to news organizations and the public.  The fee has been set at 10 cents per page or $10 per 100 pages.  Consider that the average salary in Tajikistan is $70 per month, not to mention that there are barely two dozen functioning newspapers and news agencies, all of whom are strapped for cash.

The Roghun power plant construction site.  Image from the Flickr profile of ASIA-Plus.  Click on it to see more.
The Roghun power plant construction site. Image from the Flickr profile of ASIA-Plus. Click on it to see more.

The public’s right to know

In developed countries there do exist fees for particular government services and processing.  However, there are no restrictions to public access of the kind of information that should be readily and regularly available to anyone — like, for example, the spreadsheet of public shares in the Roghun power plant that is currently under construction.  According to the BBC/COMTEX:
While an estimated 3 billion US dollars would be needed to complete the project as originally envisioned, with all six generating units, Tajik leaders are adamant that at least two units can be completed over the next five years using domestic funds.
Earlier this month, President Emomali Rahmon said he was confident that the Tajik people “will do everything they can to help complete” the Roghun project.
Tajik lawmakers have expanded the effort by calling on people to buy shares in Roghun that would be made available for trading on the country’s stock market in 2010.
According to Tajik media reports, public-sector workers in some areas have already begun contributing money to the Roghun project, while others, including the Islamic Renaissance Party, have announced their intention to purchase Roghun shares.  (ENG)
An un-Freedom of Information Act

In the United States there is even a little something called the “Freedom of Information Act” (FOI) that enshrines this right, especially for journalists.  The new law in Tajikistan seems to be the precise opposite of FOI.  I believe it has ben designed to create a “safety zone” for the Tajik government from its own people by making information prohibitively expensive for journalists.   This will keep the population under-informed and under-educated.

The decree shamelessly defies the core principle of democracy — it is elected by the people, whom it serves.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that the fees are effectively a form of double-taxation.  This is absolutely unacceptable and harmful for a country that has chosen democratic path to development and which, on the contrary, seriously needs to improve transparency, public access to information, and media coverage of its population to achieve its goals.

Information is the lifeblood of democracy

…which is why the Tajik government should immediately repeal this decree.  In fact, they should also order the various ministries to hold regular press briefings, maintain active and responsive public relations departments, and vigorously collect and compile all data regarding their activities.   Instead, we see a government essentially saying to its people, “Don’t ask questions, just bring the money”.

December 5, 2009

One Step Forward, But Two Steps Backwards

In today’s world when every country and organization strives to improve its transparency, accountability and public access to its information in order to gain trust and support in society, the Tajik government once again decides to “swim against the stream.”

Just a few days ago, it issued a decree that envisions charging fees for reimbursement of the costs of providing information to organizations and public. The government is now allowing its offices, ministries, and agencies to require payment of about 10 cents per page or $10 dollars per 100 pages of information before providing it to anyone interested.

Unfortunately, this is happening in a country where average salary is roughly $70 dollars, most of the population don’t have easy or regular access to information and barely two dozen functioning newspapers and other media outlets are already struggling with financial difficulties and hardships in obtaining government-related information.

Although, in developed countries there are some fees for particular government services and processing, but there is nothing that restricts public access to the kind of information that should be readily and regularly available to anyone. Also, there are justified exceptions and privileges for journalists in foreign countries, but the Tajik government wants to impose plain restrictions to its information for everybody.

Evidently, this decree is designed to create a “safety zone” for Tajik government from its own people, make information access expensive and unaffordable for media and push more of them to edge of bankcrupcy and closesure, and generally, keep the population less informed and undereducated, so the ruling “gangsters” can continue robbing their nation, destroying the state, and walking unpunished.

Such action shamelessly defies the notion that in a democratic state government is elected by people and serves its people, but not vice versa. It is absolutely right, as one Tajik journalist noted, that especially in Tajikistan people cannot be expected to pay for government service twice as they already pay government to work through taxes.

Therefore, this is absolutely unacceptable and harmful for a country that has chosen democratic path to development and which, on the contrary, seriously needs to improve transparency, public access to information, and media coverage of its population to achieve its goals.

The Tajik government should immediately recall this decree and in fact, reverse it with additional order to its officials to make sure they conduct weekly or monthly press briefings, maintain highly active and responsive public relations departments, and conduct vigorous collection and distribution of data, information, and analysis regarding government activity.

Only by promoting information access, transparency, and accountability can this Tajik government increase its chances for regaining the trust and support of its own people and of international community that it has lost and improve its image in order to attract big domestic and foreign investments.

President Rahmon must understand that he cannot force Tajik people to buy shares for Roghun construction and join efforts in building such immense and important powerhouse, but in market economy and free society any cooperation can exist only through gaining trust and support which can be achieved exactly by broadening public access to information, transparency of plans, and accountability for ones own actions.

By announcing decree to restrict access to information and at the same time demanding from population to buy shares in Roghun power plant, it looks like this regime wants to tell us “Don’t ask, bring the money.” But doesn’t it remind everyone of the way gangsters deal with issues? I hope they know how gangsters end up, though.

In summary, the Tajik government likes to take “one step forward, but two steps backwards.” While previous decrees which obligated government offices and ministries to conduct regular press conferences as well as be responsive to public remarks circulated in media were steps forward, certainly this step is a backwards one.

August 2, 2009

The Language and the Nation

Recently a proposal of a new law to enhance the status and role of Tajik language has been submitted by government to Majlis (parliament) which became a hot topic for discussions. Our friends Darius Rajabian and Salimjon Ayubzod have expressed their views and memories in their blogs about this and other legal measures that have been undertaken in the past concerning the official language of our country. We were happy and thankful to read them as always.

Although, I have not had a chance to thoroughly acquaint myself with this new draft of law and in spite of many flaws and unclear aspects in the text of the draft that fortunately Darius has revealed for us, I believe it is still a step forward. If the attempt of government is sincere and patriotic it can be a useful and significant deed, but if this is another game of politics related to visit of Russian leader and somehow to negotiate a bargain, it will certainly further ruin the trust and reputation of current government.

Obviously, in the country where 80% of population speak one language there should be no need to have another language to carry out jobs, duties and official communication. For example, in US, France, Japan and majority of countries worldwide there is one language designated as official or state language which every citizen is obligated to learn and use. It is English or French that is expected to be spoken in all major events including people of various ethnicities. So, anyone who had contributed to accepting the law on Tajik language some 20 years ago, made a big mistake and showed a great disrespect to their own language and identity.

In fact, the language is a main determinant of every nation’s existence and future prospects. Also, it is a basis for national unity, because if the standard language of the state is brought closer to the language that ordinary people speak in different regions of its territory it will enhance sense of national unity among them. Therefore, I believe that teachings in all educational institutions of the state should be conducted in state/official language. People who study and get education in other languages will have much difficulty getting absorbed and involved in their society, so they will feel isolated and unequal members of the communities they live in. All conditions should be made available so that every citizen first learns and knows the state/national language and then they are free to choose whichever language they want to pursue for their own needs and goals. If the language of communication between people of different ethnicities in formal settings is not the official state language itself than problems will inevitably arise for the status of national/official language. For instance, Russian speaker in Tajikistan will never have incentive to learn Tajik language, because he will rather use Russian when communicating with people of different ethnicity rather than using official language. That’s the fine line contradiction, but it can play a significant role.

When the role of language as guarantor of nation’s existence is provided, we will need to try to maintain its growth so that it keeps up with pace of modern world developments. This part of problem is harder to address, but not less important. Since promoting Tajik language in separation from other major Persian dialects, Farsi in Iran and Dari in Afghanistan, will not be right or easy anyways, we should try to cooperate more with these two brotherly nations in order to keep our common language enriched, strengthened and updated. Though we have not yet decided to change back to our Persian/Farsi writing script. This will be one of the main ways to save our Tajik language from degraded and disadvantaged condition it is nowadays. Hopefully, this new law will have a section that will envision protecting the status of Tajik language in Uzbekistan and Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan.

Lastly, for anyone who thinks that the issue of language is not priority in paving our way out from current desperate situation the country is in right now, I can say that until we learn and master our language we will not be able ever to stand up, ask, and demand for our rights and choices in a civilized, organized, and effective manner. We can never get out of misery until we are able to communicate effectively with each other.