Representing the Social Costs of Migration: Abandoned Wives or Nonchalant Women by Malika Bahovadinova, Oriental Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

The workshop

In the spring of 2013 a private workshop was organized by a major international donor for its Tajikistani state and NGO partner organizations in Dushanbe. The event was part of the reporting process related to a large labour migration program being implemented by three large international development agencies. I attended this event as a part of fieldwork on the bureaucracy of migration management I conducted between 2012-2014. At the workshop, each of the three organizations shared the results from their portions of the program from the last two years. In many ways, this event was similar to other conferences organized by international agencies in Tajikistan: first, high-ranking state officials opened the event, then the donor thanked its government partners for the opportunity to speak to this esteemed audience. Then, the floor would be given to the people who had actually been working on program, while the bureaucrats who had opened the event would sneak out. As a rule, these meetings would often spark disputes or heated conversations between state officials, NGOs, and experts from local or international research organizations. This one was no exception: toward the end of the tiring day of reporting and planning, a lively discussion took place – this time between the invited experts and the employees of the organization reporting on program implementation.

The building that hosted the event.  Photo by Oyat Shukurov. [i]

The dispute was over the concept of the “abandoned wife.” An employee of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was one of the three implementing agencies, had made a presentation about the organization’s work. Initially in passing, she had noted the growing problem of abandoned wives in Tajikistan and everyone’s responsibility to provide services to these women. When she said “abandoned wife,” she meant a woman who had been left to fend for herself and often children, after being “abandoned” by her husband, who had left for work in Russia and cut off ties to her. In some cases, men decided to leave their families for better financial prospects or women in Russia; in others, they simply decided that they no longer wanted to support their families financially.[ii] The husband could also be imprisoned or could have simply disappeared during migration.[iii]

After this IOM presentation, one of Tajikistan’s migration experts asked for a word. This expert reprimanded the IOM employee for making up the problem altogether. She said that Tajikistan could not possibly have any “abandoned” women, arguing that according to local culture a woman is always considered to be part of an extended family (her natal kin), and thus she cannot be abandoned. Someone in her natal family would always take care of her if her husband left her.

The presenters listening to the expert’s critical reprimand, however, were skeptical. How, they asked, could this argument explain the crying women they frequently encountered in rural areas, who had been left without any financial means to support their children? The expert’s characterization certainly did not seem to align with the state of affairs faced by an increasingly large number of women across Tajikistan. The expert, though, accused international organizations of making up the problem, which would be financially beneficial for them through the provision of funds to “help” these women. By doing so, moreover, she was educating everyone present about local kin norms and the responsibility they create in terms of taking care of women.

The state and the family

Institutional and professional interests aside, both arguments about the largely rural women affected by migration were fixed on far ends of the spectrum. For the past few years, employees of international organizations have presented the figure of an abandoned woman with her hungry children left without a roof and mistreated by her in-laws, while the expert depicted a woman taken care of by her kin, surrounded by brothers, uncles and a father in her natal family. In either case, however, women were represented strictly in terms of their relationship to men. The very term “abandoned,” represents a woman within the confines of her relationship to men. When a husband divorces his wife for better prospects in Russia, or simply disappears, she becomes “abandoned” in the humanitarian vernacular of development aid. This term invokes a helpless woman who has neither the capacity to demand alimony, nor to take care of herself and her children.

Although the image of an abandoned wife sits uneasily with traditional Tajikistani cultural norms, it is exactly this representation that has helped female bureaucrats from NGOs and development agencies to articulate the pressing need to accept this as one of the social costs of migration. For these bureaucrats, the social costs of migration are represented by the image of rural women left alone without (male) support. Research has been duly requested by international development agencies and implemented, thus providing statistics that support the claims made about the growing problem of abandonment. In addition, the representation of women as abandoned has provided the patriarchal state with an opportunity to step in and take control by appealing to natal kin to take greater responsibility for their women. In this framework, it is understood that women make claims to the state to intervene and resolve their problems – but only by strengthening the social contract of marriage. If this were to fail, the state’s role would be to assist women’s requests for alimony from their husbands in Russia.

In other words, when an abandoned woman is removed from the domain of her family, she is to be transferred to the domain of the state.[iv] The state’s support, however, is of a limited nature, and should ultimately prepare a woman to take care of herself. After all, development aid was meant to prepare entrepreneurial citizens who needed to learn the skills related to becoming independent and free. According to humanitarian logic, freedom from the suffering of being alone for these women, was to be found in self-actualization under the guardianship of the state.[v] This implied a bifurcated system of support: the state and village elders were to step in and shame men for leaving their women, while financial support to abandoned women would be provided within the confines of neoliberal logic. An abandoned wife should be taught how to take care of herself and her children – she should learn how to open a business or engage in other entrepreneurial behavior. Interestingly, even the bureaucrats from international organizations did not put forward proposals to support such women directly as single mothers or endow the state with funds to provide social support and other services. State officials, for their part, also wholeheartedly supported the convenient self-help dogma of development aid.

Of course, this all continued to presume that the problem existed – that abandoned wives were a growing phenomenon in Tajikistan. On the other end of the patriarchal spectrum was the image presented by the migration expert: that of a woman dutifully cared for by her kin. If her husband had failed in his obligation to provide for her and his children, she could nonchalantly return to the domain of her natal family under the protection of her father and male siblings. According to the expert, this was the way of a local culture that could not possibly allow for an abandoned woman to appear in its midst. The natal family’s honor was inherently connected to protecting its women. In a way, the expert was invoking images of an idealized traditional Tajik village, where norms were deeply rooted in a patriarchal power structure over the reproductive rights of women. In this presentation, kin structures would absorb any social costs from migration.

The idealized idyll of a Tajik village: Kumsangir District, 1987.  Photograph by V. Smirnov. [vi]

This expert did not discuss or note the well-known and frequent conflicts associated with women’s return home after a failed marriage. She did not evoke the legal challenges of divorce, or women’s failure to seek housing or alimony from their husbands, the anxieties of brothers left to provide for extra mouths in the context of rural poverty, the fear of abuse by brothers’ wives, or the simple inability of parents to provide an extra room for daughters after their marriage. All of these potentialities were moot in this representation, embedded in patriarchal families’ cultural responsibility to women. The support of the family was there: bureaucrats could focus on more pressing needs, rather then imagining the case of suffering abandoned women in rural areas.

Understanding change

Whether or not women are being abandoned, labor migration in Tajikistan has had an undeniable and increasing impact on society. One of the major (and overwhelmingly accepted) social costs of migration is associated with human absence. Being away from one’s family and friends is the price many men – and women – pay to support these individuals financially. For those who stay behind, the cost is in the waiting, which shapes their lives and experiences of daily life. Absence and waiting can vary in degree and depth, but as long as they continue family remains the ideal unit of migration – maintaining the social contract of marriage itself. The flouting of social norms that is expressed by men leaving their families is not only tied to mobility, but its degree and density grows as migration increases, making labour migration a marked threat to traditional family structures.

What the expert’s argument made clear – and what the dialectic of “abandoned wife” vs. “nonchalant” or “supported daughter” made explicit – was the underlying patriarchy taken as a given and left unchallenged by all involved. Whether the abandoned woman existed or not, it was the social cost of a weakened family unit that was accepted and worried about by all of the bureaucrats. How to approach the problem depended on one’s epistemology: the solution might lie with the guardian state and the neoliberal logic of self-help; or it might require no action at all, since the woman enjoyed the protection of her natal family. Yet both of these representations of women by the state and NGO bureaucrats positioned them strictly within a relationship to men. By considering them only as “abandoned” or “supported,” these visions failed to articulate any meaningful position for women as full citizens with their own voices, desires, and agency. In both the humanitarian cry for rapid intervention and support and the denial that a woman could possibly be in a financially precarious situation, the women themselves remained voiceless.

The images conjured of women either abandoned or taken cared of, moreover, are embedded in the wider context of gendered representations and articulations of meaning about what it means to be a woman, mother, sister, or wife.[vii] The imagined collective societal ownership of women is at the heart of these representations. When a young Tajikistani artist recently exhibited female nudes in a protest against sexual harassment in Dushanbe, for example, the public reacted angrily. The artist was accused of showing “their mothers” and “their sisters”: the public shamed the artist for exhibiting their bodies.[viii]

Challenging traditional norms. Marifat Davlatova, 2018. [ix]

In Tajikistan, the assumed collective responsibility for and ownership over women cannot be separated from debates over the social costs of migration. Yet the dichotomy that emerges from these debates of women either abandoned or taken care of provides a valuable lens with which to analyze the meaning and perceptions of social change. Ongoing changes in the social contract of a marriage, as well as the impact of migration and its social costs, are dealt with by applying the context and concepts from individuals’ previous “habitus” – their structural frameworks of daily life.[x] The apparent “chaos” is dealt with in a manner and by applying an order that both bureaucrats and experts understand. These experts, NGO workers, and civil servants all attempt to restore this previous order in the new context of poverty and neoliberal unequal accumulation of wealth. The positionality of local subjects, including “women,” has been transformed, producing novel configurations of life trajectories, but their representation remains embedded in the established and shared meanings of what it means to be a woman in Tajikistan. To what degree these concepts capture the complexity of ongoing transformations, however, remains an open question.


[i] See Oyat Shukurov, “‘Dushanbe-Plaza’ – arkhitekturnaia oshibka?” Asia-Plus, November 7, 2015. Online:

[ii] Also see Sophie Roche and Sophie Hohmann, “Wedding rituals and the struggle over national identities,” Central Asian Survey 30, no. 1 (2011): 113-128.

[iii] For more context on this point, see the report “Impact of Labour Migration on ‘Children Left Behind’ in Tajikistan,” UNICEF Tajikistan, 2011. Online:

[iv] V. Das, “The Figure of the Abducted Woman: the citizen as sexed,” in de Vries and Sullivan, eds. Public Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. Das similarly describes the ways in which familial responsibility for women transformed into state responsibility for women, in the case of women abducted during the Indian-Pakistani partition.

[v] Rose, Nikolas. 1996. “The death of the social? Re-figuring the territory of government.” International Journal of Human Resource Management 25 (3): 327-356

[vi] Photograph by V. Smirnov. State Archive of Movie and Photo Documents of the Republic of Tajikistan (TsGKRT), k.ia. R3-30, 0-104180. Courtesy of Isaac Scarborough.

[vii] Following Stuart Hall, “Introduction,” in Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London: SAGE, 1997).

[viii] Liliia Gaisina, “ ‘Eto ne ikh zhenshchiny, a moi’: Marifat Davlatova o svoei vystavke v Tadzhikistane,” Asia-Plus, September 15, 2018. Online:

[ix] See Asia-Plus, “Ee tvorchestvo podverglos’ zhestkoi kritike, a ona prosto risuet nagluiu krasotu,” Asia-Plus, September 5, 2018. Online:

[x] See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).


Summer School in Russian and Eurasian Studies at Nazarbayev University by Amanda Murphy, Nazarbayev University

Summer School in Russian and Eurasian Studies (SSRES) at Nazarbayev University

 SSRES at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan is an intensive academic program that offers students the chance to immerse themselves in the Russian or Kazakh languages and to experience Kazakh and post-Soviet culture in the heart of Eurasia.

In 2019, SSRES will offer an 8-week program (equivalent to one academic year of study): June 3 – July 31

June 3 – Students arrive in Astana. Orientation

June 4 – Proficiency testing and course placement. Cultural program starts

June 5 – Classes start

July 26 – Last day of classes

July 28-30 – Final exams and exit proficiency testing

July 31 – Students leave Astana

The main component of SSRES 2019 will be intensive courses in Russian or Kazakh, offering the equivalent of a full academic year (8-weeks) of in-class instruction in all aspects of the language.

Language courses at SSRES are taught using the communicative method of instruction through linguistic and cultural immersion. Students are placed into appropriate groups, according to their levels of proficiency (as defined in ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines). Courses are taught by professionals, trained in current methodologies and experienced in teaching international students.

Student Tutors: In addition to attending regular office hours held by instructors, students will be able to practice their conversational Russian and Kazakh skills and get additional support from bilingual student tutors.

For students of Russian, SSRES 2019 also offers a free, non-credit-bearing, course “Practical Cultural Kazakh.”

Eurasian Studies Lecture Series

Designed to be broad in focus and accessible to general audiences, lectures on topics related to the culture, history, politics and literature of Kazakhstan are given by the Nazarbayev University professors who introduce students to the most current research in their fields. The Lecture Series is open to the SSRES 2019 participants, as well as to the NU community, including students and faculty.

The list of the lectures for 2019 will be announced in advance.

Eurasian Studies Lecture Series for SSRES 2018 included the following presentations:

Daniel Scarborough “Ethnic Deportations to Kazakhstan and WWII”

Hélène Thibault “Gender Issues in Central Asia”

Gabriel McGuire “Kazakh Folktales and Folklore: Genres, Themes, and Characters”

Alima Bissenova “Fitting into a Secular Society: The Discreet Charm of Kazakhstani Muslim Entrepreneurs”

Daniel Beben “History of Islam in Kazakhstan”

Alexei Trochev “Dealing with Victims of Stalin’s Terror in Kazakhstan”

Caress Schenk “Labor Migration in Kazakhstan and the Eurasian Region”

Nikolay Tsyrempilov “Devils in the Flesh: The Dzunghars and Their Legacy in Kazakhstan”

Zohra Ismail Beben “Environmental Problems in Central Asia”

Ulan Bigozhin “Reinstitution of Tradition: The Kokpar Game in Contemporary Kazakhstan”

Uli Schamiloglu “The New Kazakh Latin Alphabet: Perspectives and Problems”

Student Life

Our program is unique in that it fosters close contact with local NU students. The tutoring program, housing arrangements, and cultural programming all enable SSRES students to feel at home in Astana and forge lasting international friendships, from the time when they are met at the airport their departure at the end of the program.

SSRES 2018 students participated in wide range of activities organized by NU students, including:

  • Dombra lessons
  • Astana city scavenger hunt
  • Ultimate Frisbee competition
  • Talent shows
  • SSRES choir
  • Karaoke

International students live on campus where they share dormitory rooms with NU students, who speak both Russian and Kazakh. A typical room has two beds, two study desks, closets, and a bathroom. Students living in the dormitory also have access to fully-equipped kitchens.

Our modern and well-maintained campus contains everything students need, including a pharmacy, laundry facilities, cafeteria, hair salon, study rooms, cafes, restaurants, and more. The buildings are fully guarded and secured with 24/7 resident assistance.

For information on program fees, please see our website:


 SSRES 2019 is open to graduate and undergraduate students as well as to working professionals. Students must be eligible to obtain a visa to live and study in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev University will provide visa information and support (included in the cost of the program).

For application information, please see our website:

We run our summer program in conjunction with the University of Arizona, who provides transcripts and additional support for students, including health insurance and pre-departure orientation. As a rule, we encourage US students to apply through them. Their website is:

We accept FLAS and most other scholarships.

Deadline for applications is March 1, 2019

Questions about the program should be addressed to:

Amanda Murphy, Program Director (


The Central Eurasianist Current of the 2018 Modern Rivers of Eurasia Symposium by Patryk Reid, University of Pittsburgh

A growing current within Central Eurasian Studies covers water—and for good reason. Scholarly analysis of human-water relationships in such areas as history, culture, and political economy can produce new understandings of the past and the present.  Since ancient times, communities of this region have survived by successfully locating and distributing aquatic resources. Today, this task involves higher stakes than ever: local governments’ continuous mismanagement of rivers over the last century caused the Aral Sea to shrink by 90 percent, along with other untold lesser-known harms; now, climate change and mining are doing away with the very glaciers sustaining Central Eurasia’s precious waterways.

Continue reading The Central Eurasianist Current of the 2018 Modern Rivers of Eurasia Symposium by Patryk Reid, University of Pittsburgh

Securitisation and Mass Detentions in Xinjiang by Rachel Harris, SOAS University of London

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China is home to some 12 million indigenous Turkic speaking Muslims, primarily Uyghurs but also smaller numbers of Kazakhs and others. It is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world. Inhabitants are controlled and monitored to an extraordinary degree and detained in extraordinary numbers. These extreme policies are justified by the claim that China is fighting Islamic radicalisation and extremism.

Continue reading Securitisation and Mass Detentions in Xinjiang by Rachel Harris, SOAS University of London

The Afterlives of Yurt Wall-hangings: Tus Kiiz by Guldana Salimjan, University of British Columbia

Gendering a Tourist Economy

Ölgii, the capital city of Bayan-Ölgii Province, is a small city that one can stroll all over in just an afternoon. Since falconry’s title of cultural heritage was affirmed by UNESCO, the concept of heritage has been widely accepted by locals. Just as falconry became a vital connection to the Kazakh historical past, natural environment, and traditional culture across Eurasia, handicrafts have also allowed Kazakhs to maintain their identity and traditional knowledge as an ethnic minority in Mongolia, and have become an attribute of “authentic” Kazakhness. While Kazakh men take up the iconic image and profit from falconry as part of ethnic tourism and international spectacle, women have quietly become the backbone of a local informal economy, clearly represented by traditional handicraft production. Continue reading The Afterlives of Yurt Wall-hangings: Tus Kiiz by Guldana Salimjan, University of British Columbia