National traditions and modern standards. The international community bewildered by Berdymukhammedov’s “concern” over women

In April Turkmenistan was again the centre of attention in global media outlets due to the news baffling for the international public that the Turkmen authorities were concerned over the appearance and moral image of women who were being lectured about traditional family values, as well as not being allowed to have certain cosmetic procedures and occupy the front seat in a car.

“Chronicles of Turkmenistan” have asked its correspondents to report how the clampdown is being observed, how it has affected the beauty industry and what ordinary residents think about it.

Same old same old

These bans are actually not new because the authorities regularly monitor women’s appearance and behavior.The restrictions primarily apply to female public sector employees, students of secondary vocational and higher educational establishments as well as schoolgirls, who are occasionally reminded to refrain from wearing tight-fitting dresses and heavy make-up and accessories as viewed excessive by their immediate superiors or administrations of educational establishments.

More on these bans and constant monitoring of women’s appearance is available in the “Chronicles of Turkmenistan article”: “The rights of women disempowered. The Turkmen authorities concerned over the appearance and moral image of women”.

As with many other orders, these instructions from the Turkmen government are verbal and not legally binding.In other words, they are unlawful.Neither official ministries nor local media outlets announce the introduction of these bans.

Because those responsible for the compliance with these unofficial bans do not have clear guidelines, many things are done by rule of thumb using the principle: “better safe than sorry”.

And of course corruption is added to verbal instructions, already vague in interpretation.For instance, cosmetic procedures are still available in some beauty parlours whereas they are banned in others.

The current campaign for the moral image of Turkmen women kicked off as a high profile initiative involving raids on beauty parlours and shops, moral admonition of female students at general meetings and reports by the Deputy Prime Minister to the President.

This attracted the attention not only of international media outlets but also members of the OSCE delegations from various countries with whom human rights activists from Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights have been meeting over the past two months.

The reports on violations of women’s rights might also have reached the UN, whose representative arrived in Ashgabat a few days ago to discuss Turkmenistan’s report on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is being prepared this year.

As is often the case in Turkmenistan, after tightening control unofficial rules and bans are often forgotten as time passes. This is what has happened this time. As of today beauty parlours have almost fully resumed their operations, and cosmetic products have again appeared on store counters.

Necessity is the mother of invention

The new wave of restrictions for women was first reported in April. Police officers conducted raids on beauty parlours, the owners of which were barred from providing a range of cosmetic services, such as nail and lash extensions, injections and other invasive surgical procedures.

Representatives of the authorities inspected shops selling hygiene items and cosmetics.According to shop assistants and customers, they got the impression that the inspectors did not have clear instructions or guidelines, haphazardly identifying which products could or could not be sold.

Pursuant to the instructions, nail polish, lipsticks and mascara had to be removed from store counters.

Correspondents of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” report that following these raids beauty parlours did stop providing certain services for some time but this did not affect the number of women wearing makeup or “provocative clothes” in the city or at celebrations.

Make-up artists were cautious to offer their services to new clients but continued to work with regular customers from home.Some beauty parlours, which were apparently owned by officials or special services officers, were not affected by the ban: they covered their windows with curtains but continued to operate as before.

For instance, the beauty parlour “Baya” in the 30th residential district remained open.

Let us recall that a similar situation was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic when cafes and restaurants owned by law enforcement officers continued to operate despite the fact that officially public catering establishments were supposed to be closed.

Botox injections and other procedures can be also done underground, either at a beautician’s or a customer’s place.

Many announcements on available cosmetic procedures and services, including those which are banned, can be seen in Turkmen groups on social networks.

Neurotoxin injections, which block small muscles and reduce facial lines and wrinkles, cost $100 to $200. 2 to 3,5 ampules are needed for the entire treatment course.

Some split one ampule if each of them needs half a dose.Apart from the injections, the beautician needs to be paid, who charges a minimum of 800 manats ($40 at “the black market” rate) for local applications and up to 1200 manats ($60) for the whole face.

Lash extensions in Ashgabat cost 600 to 800 manats on average, whereas in the provinces this service is a bit cheaper 500 to 700 manats.

Despite the requirement to remove certain cosmetic products, they are still imported in Turkmenistan in the same quantities as before and no deficit has been recorded.

As regards the ban to occupy the front seat of a car, the authorities monitored the compliance of this only during the first few weeks after its introduction.

Later correspondents of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” and Ashgabat residents, who had been interviewed, did not personally witness this, despite the fact that they heard from third parties that police officers often stopped vehicles with a woman on the front seat and asked her to move to the back seat.

Some taxi drivers asked female passengers to move to the back seat for fear of fines.

Overall, the majority of residents perceived these restrictions negatively. The feedback from Turkmen residents can be summed up by one phrase addressed to the authorities “Have they all lost their minds?” As a matter of fact, swear words were used in most cases.

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Clumsy care

In the meantime, the question remains what level of authority and for what purpose these new regulations pertaining to women’s appearance and conduct have been introduced.

The restrictions were imposed in April, immediately after the Interior Minister had been replaced, which made many in Turkmenistan think that it was the new executive of the Ministry that had initiated these restrictions. Inspections of beauty parlours and shops, carried out by police officers inter alia, might well prove the point.

It appears that the ban on women taking the front seat in vehicles is also controlled by the police.

Police officers told the correspondent of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” that the majority of their colleagues are in favour of restrictions for women.

They cynically explain their position by the fact that the girls who behave in a defiant manner and wear provocative clothes encourage sexual crime which law enforcement officers have to deal with.

However, holding meetings for public sector employees and female students and lecturing them on ethics and morals is obviously beyond the scope of responsibility of the Interior Ministry.

The Deputy Prime Minister overseeing culture and mass media as well as the Chairperson of the Parliament’s Lower Chamber gave progress reports devoted to these measures to the President.

In other words, even if the newly-appointed Interior Minister did demonstrate excessive zealousness, the new regulations were not initiated by him.Moreover, no Turkmen official ever demonstrates such a level of independence.

It would therefore be logical to assume that the order was given by the incumbent President Serdar Berdymukahmammedov, who assumed office a month before that and who, as some experts believe, thus is trying to compensate for the “ordinary looks” of his spouse.

However, the editorial board of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” believes that this idea was put forward by another person, namely Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The relationship between members of the Turkmen tandemocracy deserves a separate analysis, but in this case it does not matter.

All unofficial regulations in Turkmenistan had previously been introduced on the whim of Berdymukhammedov senior and were based on his perception of morals and his prejudices.

Immediately after he assumed office as Chairperson of the Halk Maslahaty (the upper chamber of Turkmenistan’s Parliament) he was concerned over preparations for the Dialogue of Women of Central Asian Countries (held on 13 May), which he himself had launched.

In late April the head of state presented a new book authored by his father “The purpose of my life”.TDH emphasized that “this remarkable philosophic volume is “the ultimate quintessence of wisdom and genuine national spiritual and moral values passed on by the Turkmen people from generation to generation”.

The pompous title also suggests that this book will become the mainstay writing of the prolific writer.

The Dialogue of Women of Central Asian Countries.

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Following the publication of previous books almost all reports in print media and television broadcasts were devoted to the topic under review.For instance, following the presentation of a new volume on medicinal herbs, mass media wrote about medicinal herbs; after the publication of books devoted to Turkmen horses conferences bringing together horse breeders were held; after the publication of a historical book ancient treasures were found at excavation sites in the cities mentioned.

It is not surprising that preparations for the publication of a book on traditions and moral values led to increased attention to women, who must respect traditions, be humble and raise children.

A Turkmen Parliament member, who commented to a local journalist in Kazakhstan, who had asked about the clampdown on women, said that the ban targeted beauty parlours providing cosmetic services without a license.

In this case it turns out that the restrictions on the use of make-up, regulating the appearance and the ban to occupy the front seat in a car are the result of overzealousness of local officials.

According to correspondents of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan”, there were cases in Turkmenistan, when unsuccessful injections or cosmetic surgeries resulted in an infection and women’s faces became swollen. Some needed to be hospitalized.

Anyway, it is mostly likely that the authorities are now backing down and have stopped monitoring the execution of at least some of the ban after the commotion caused by foreign media outlets.

Moreover, according to sources of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan”, the beauty industry brings substantial profits to officials and NSM officers overseeing many beauty parlours, who were very dissatisfied after they had been deprived of this income.

However, it should be recalled that this fact did not prevent the authorities of Turkmenistan from imposing a ban on the sale of tobacco products in privately-owned stores, which had also generated large profits to some high-ranking officials.

It appears that initially a 65 year old person, who was raised in the national patriarchal traditions and who now plays the role of a wise mentor, sincerely believed that by banning these procedures and urging women to respect national values, he cares for them rather than violates their rights.

He tried to demonstrate this to the international community by organizing the Dialogue of Women.The modern world did not appreciate this “masculine” gesture.

The post National traditions and modern standards. The international community bewildered by Berdymukhammedov’s “concern” over women first appeared on Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

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