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Sex and politics in Ashgabat, part 3: dreams of Otunbaeva, nightmares of Niyazova

Written by on Friday, 3 September 2010
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
4 Comments
Would an Otunbaeva be possible in Turkmenistan, and if so, would it really change anything? Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Would a Roza Otunbaeva be possible in Turkmenistan, and if so, would it really change anything? Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: Would a Roza Otunbaeva be possible in Turkmenistan, and if so, would it really change anything? neweurasia’s Annasoltan weighs the pros and cons in the third part of her ongoing series. “I wouldn’t be surprised if dreams of an Otunbaeva were exploited by a Niyazova,” she writes. “But on days when I’m feeling more optimistic, I believe that maybe a woman could bring something different.”

In my last post, I discussed the living and professional conditions of my countrywomen, which is pretty bad but has some potential precisely because of the areas to which we’ve been relegated. Now I want to directly address the question of whether a woman could ever become president of Turkmenistan, and if she did, would it really change anything?

Frankly, there isn’t much confidence in the current political system to expect that it would ever bring truly capable and popular leaders to the surface, either male or female. But besides that, most women who are actually in politics are virtually unknown and usually end up on the political stage by indirect means. Generally speaking, few to none of my countrywomen are politically educated, anyway. Most of all, the Soviet nomenclature system is gone, so that means no one would want to see “lightweight” women coming from nowhere into the boys’ club of politics.

Remember that a woman is supposed to be the epitome of “tranquility”. So, if she is tough, men will not see her as such, but as a cruel and mean person, and women will forsake her as too competitive. And the standard set for the presidency is all the more impossible for a woman, as there is an endless list of extraordinary skills and achievements she needs to accomplish, far above that of a man, even a demi-god like Niyazov. To attain to the Turkmen presidency, a women’s going to have to be a god, as much figuratively as literally!

But the real question isn’t if but so what? Turkmenistan’s no Kyrgyzstan, which has undergone two pro-democracy revolutions and in some respects seems to get more liberal in its ideals as the years go by, at least liberal enough to entrust a woman, Roza Otunbaeva, with the country’s most important job (although leave it to men to make such a mess of their country, especially in the Osh area, and then beg a woman to clean it up for them…)

By contrast, Turkmenistan is so entrenched in personality cultism, not only ideologically but bureaucratically, that it seems the only way someone can be a president here is by being a totalitarian. Some observers pessimistically believe that only a Gorbachev-style strongman — someone who can resist the temptation of believing in his own personality cult while using it to bring about real liberal reform — can bring change to Turkmenistan.

On days when I’m feeling more cynical, I’m really tempted to agree. Today is one of those days: I don’t think a woman is any necessarily more likely to be a truly decent president for Turkmenistan than a man. Considering the dog-eat-dog tactics that she would probably have to resort to even to reach the presidency, it’s a good chance that she’ll be even more of a deceitful crook. I wouldn’t be surprised if dreams of an Otunbaeva were exploited by a Niyazova.

But on days when I’m feeling more optimistic, I believe that maybe a woman could bring something different. The traditional viewpoint isn’t wrong: we’re natural caretakers. Yes, that quality could make a woman president even more totalitarian — a mother hen refusing to let her chicks out of the nest — but it could also make her more noble and open-minded. I’ve also talked with a lot of young people in my country, and they all say that if a woman carried a sincere promise of genuine change, then they would support her. That’s not bad to hear at all. :-)

Author’s note: Actually, there are very few Otunbaevas in modern history. It seems that Kyrgyzstan’s new president managed to climb the ladder by her own skills and merits. Most other women have usually had the help of a key male: Güljamal Khan, the last independent Turkmen leader, succeeded her husband Nurberdi Khan; Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto rose on the network of her assassinated father; India’s Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first prime minister, made use of the Gandhi and Nehru networks; the Philippines’ Corazon Aquino began her unlikely rise to power when her husband, the opposition leader Benigno, was assassinated; and over in Uzbekistan, Karimov’s daughter Lola is set to succeed him (check out this cute “inauguration speech” by neweurasia’s Timur).

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