Rukia, a mother of three, was between life and death when she was dropped off at the home of her parents.
Yet again, her husband had vented his rage. There is always an excuse.
“There are all kinds of things that make him aggressive,” said Rukia, a 25-year-old from Romit, a town about a 90-minute drive from Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. “His mother complains that I am not doing the housework properly, that I am refusing to listen to her, that I am chatting too much with the neighbors, that I am being disrespectful to his family.”
A bad mood is enough. Rukia told Eurasianet that on occasions, when her husband was in a foul state of mind, he has beaten her till she lost consciousness. At times, he has locked her in a room and prevented her from going to the bathroom.
The worst incident happened in summer. Rukia’s broken ribs were causing her such pain that she could not do any household chores or give the children the attention they needed.
“Since I couldn’t do anything, my husband took me and the children to my parents. He said that I was a good-for-nothing, that I didn’t want to work. The truth was that I didn’t have the strength to stand up,” said Rukia, who is not being identified here by her real name for reasons of safety.
Situations like these are not rare. Government representatives and international organizations have in the past estimated that one in two women in Tajikistan have at some time experienced domestic violence. It is this reality that underlies the often-unacknowledged epidemic of suicide and self-harm among Tajik women.
Taboos around this topic are especially strong in rural communities, which account in Tajikistan for more than seven-tenths of the population.
Abusive men are enabled by a popular norm best encapsulated by the Tajik proverb: “When a toad has a husband, she has respect.” That is to say, unmarried women of a certain age enjoy a lower standing in most traditional communities, so many are prepared to endure physical abuse to avoid experiencing social death.
What is more, girls are taught from an early age that they are a guest in their home, and that when they reach adulthood, they should leave.
This socially enforced norm compels women who go to live under the roofs of their husband’s family after marrying to abide by certain strictures. A wife must uncomplainingly clean, cook, and take care of her in-laws.
Even in those situations where women are prepared to flee an abusive relationship, however, there are few options available. Tajikistan, with its population of 10 million people, has only seven shelters for women. They offer accommodation for only up to six months. There is about twice that number of so-called crisis centers for women, but they are located mostly in major towns and cities.
Rukia’s story is, once again, a grim illustration of all these problems.
With little by way of an education and non-existent job prospects, Rukia will find it difficult to make her own way. And her own family was quick to push her to return to her husband.
“Mom prepared us a meal, she bought candy and things for the kids, and then she sent us back to my husband,” she said. “She insisted I be patient. She said that all families have crises in their relationship, that in future, as [my husband] gets older, his temper will abate.”
Rukia told Eurasianet that the first day she returned home, her mother-in-law gave her the silent treatment. And her husband beat her.
The law is not much help.
Legislation on the prevention of domestic violence, known as the Family Violence Law, was adopted in 2013, but critics view it as toothless.
“The Family Violence Law does not recognize domestic violence as a crime, providing only for administrative liability,” Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 report. “The law does not criminalize domestic violence. Victims seeking prosecution and punishment of the abuser must bring claims under articles of the Tajik Criminal Code that govern assault and similar acts involving force or violence.”
The implication of administrative liability is that penalties, when they are imposed, are relatively light – either a small fine or, in a more severe case, up to two weeks in jail. Lobbying by activists for domestic violence to be included in the Criminal Code have fallen on deaf ears.
All the while, a National Program on the Prevention of Domestic Violence 2014-23, developed jointly by the state’s Women and Family Affairs Committee, other government bodies and civil society groups, has run its course.
According to a UNDP survey published in 2021, women confronted with violence in the household tend first of all to seek help from their own parents, their in-laws, or their husband’s wider family. Only 10 percent of victims contact law enforcement or seek legal help. In the latter scenario, women are routinely advised to consider being patient and not to put the integrity of the family unit at risk.
Arguably one of the chief failures of the National Program on the Prevention of Domestic Violence has been that many women appear still not to accept that they are victims.
Rukhshona, 45, lives in the Jaloliddin Balkhi district, in the southern Khatlon region. For 20 years, she endured the drunken, violent rages of her husband.
“He beat me so much that I was concussed multiple times. Now I suffer from constant headaches. But I put up with it until my husband came to his senses. It has been a year now since he has raised his hand to me. All the neighbors say that I am a saintly woman, that even though I have been through so much, I stuck by my family,” Rukhshona told Eurasianet.
Rukhshona say her husband only turned over a new leaf, though, after he was warned by a doctor that he might drop dead from liver failure if he continued to drink.
All that notwithstanding, Rukhshona said she would not have had it any other way. A man has the right to beat his wife if she is overly argumentative, dress inappropriately or fails to do the housework, she told Eurasianet.
Kanoat Khamidova, head of the non-governmental group League of Women Lawyers, told Eurasianet that in most cases, women who find themselves victims of domestic violence lack support and self-confidence. Victim-blaming is rampant, she said.
“We need to do more awareness-raising work among the population. We need to let women know that they are not alone, and there are organizations that can provide support,” Khamidova said. “Those women, for the most part, do not know any other life. Their mothers were beaten, their grandmothers were beaten, their neighbors and friends also get it, and they think that violence is an ordinary everyday problems, not a crime.”