Art against harassment, violence, stereotypes

Interview with Marifat Davlatova, feminist artist (please do not use the female form of artist)

– What is the situation with employment for women in Tajikistan?

– I obviously knew that banned professions exist in Tajikistan, but I didn’t know that there are 362 of them! These bans are clearly unjust, because women have always done arduous work: in our villages, women chop firewood, graze cattle, build fences, work in cotton fields, which is arduous and hot. If both the man and woman work, then the household chores fall entirely on the woman. Many women can’t find work: employers don’t hire them because they fear maternity and sick leave. So they can write that they’re only looking for single women.

– How do stereotypes prevent women from overcoming inequality?

– There are a lot of these stereotypes in Tajikistan, and society restricts women in many ways under their influence: women are told how to dress, when to return home, how to speak. Girls are shown their place from a very young age: “What kind of girl are you if the house isn’t picked up yet? No one will marry you.” Their upbringing is aimed at marrying them off, they’re not allowed to study. The law prohibits early marriages, but girls can be proposed as a wife as early as 5. If you haven’t married by the time you’re 25, you “have a defect” or you’re “loose” or “lazy.” You can only end up an old maid or a second wife (this is illegal, but marriages following nikah rituals happen frequently). Take me. I’m 25, and everyone is telling me that I need to get married as quickly as possible, but I think that everything is just beginning. I don’t think marriage is obligatory. In Tajik families, restrictions mainly affect women. But why is that? You’re a person too, just like the man. You perform more functions, but there are more bans for you.

– Tell us about what you do and how you ended up doing it?

– I studied to be a visual artist and a painter. I’ve been drawing since I was seven. I started studying the nude genre and have been working in that area. I saw people’s reactions: “this kind of thing shouldn’t be created in our society, young women can’t do this.” No one has any complaints about men who work in this genre, but I’ve always received criticism. The most offensive thing is that this criticism comes from both men and women.

– Have there even been threats?

– In August 2018, I had an exhibition in Dushanbe devoted to women. I wanted to show the beauty of a woman’s body, of a woman’s soul as a protest against harassment on the streets, violence, stereotypes. I depicted women in national costumes. I received positive reaction, but also negative criticism along the line of “this girl is sick, she didn’t get married like her parents told her to and now she’s gone mad.” There were also verbal threats that I needed to be burned alive or hung. These threats even came from women, and they were real. People threw stones at me on the street several times when they recognized me. One of the main complaints against me is that I depict actual women: “these are out sisters, daughters, and future mothers, and you’re disgracing them.” My models are very brave. Like me, they have also had problems.

– Were you prepared for this kind of reaction?

– I didn’t think that people would talk about this in remote villages of Tajikistan or beyond the country’s borders. I have been sent words of support and words of disdain from CIS countries. I was shocked for the first few days, but in general I was prepared, because I knew what kind of society we have and what I was presenting to it. But my relatives’ relationships towards me changed for the better after the exhibition.

– Did the reaction to your exhibition influence your current project on anti-discriminatory education for women and girls?

– Yes, after the exhibition I became convinced that I need to work more in this area. If nothing is done, then women are always going to suffer. I went to a conference where I met a group of activists, and now we are going to advance the topic of equal rights for women. We have achieved the adoption of a law against violence, which happened in the summer of 2018, and there have already been cases where people have been held responsible (fines, community service). I would like to do some sort of project on domestic violence, suicide as a result of early marriages, when girls are given away in marriage without asking their opinion, while they have no education or understanding of how to live or who to turn to for help. I would like to have an exhibition to show that all people, including LGBTI people, have equal rights.