Women’s liberation in non-Western contexts

Seeing all this press coverage of
Malala Yousafzai and the plight of women’s education in Taliban-controlled regions in Pakistan, and having recently revisited the sad history of the degradation of women’s rights in Afghanistan after the PDPA was defeated and the Red Army was driven out in 1989, I’ve been pondering the question of women’s liberation in “Oriental” (i.e., traditional non-Western) contexts. Lately I’m reminded of the revolutionary transformations that took place in Uzbekistan between 1920 and the early 1930s, especially with Zhenotdel‘s mass unveiling ceremonies, programs for women’s education, and anti-illiteracy campaigns in the region. All of these activities were carried out in tandem, as religious prejudices, domestic bondage, and illiteracy were to be combated both directly and indirectly — directly through propaganda work, and then indirectly through the removal of economic conditions that give rise to such social ills.

Education and domestic emancipation are more or less uncontroversial. Abolishing reactionary religious traditions is another matter, however. Despite the fact that Lenin was already insisting in 1922 that militant materialism necessarily implied “militant atheism” [воинствующий атеизм, more literally “warlike” atheism], there’s been a great deal of distortion on this score. This has to do with efforts to reinterpret the past to suit the perceived political exigencies of the present. Making the past dance to the tune of the present is a fairly routine procedure amongst certain parts of the Left.

Tashkent before the reforms.

Dave Crouch, writing for the International Socialist Journal, would like to pin all of the blame for antireligious initiatives like the khudzhum [i.e., the mass unveiling campaigns] on “Stalinist bureaucracy.” The fact of the matter is that the women’s division [Zhenotdel] and the Union of Tatar Godless [Soiuz tatarskykh bezbozhnikov] already laid the groundwork for such measures in the early 1920s. Members of either organization cannot be fairly characterized as “Stalinist”; indeed, Stalin had both of these wings within the party disbanded by the end of the decade.

Luckily, Gerry Byrne has already gone through and written a point-by-point refutation of some of Crouch’s more obvious gaffes. A couple points are worth mentioning. In the footnotes, two passing remarks by Crouch are particularly revealing:

It is a pity that Richard Stites, one of the foremost historians of women’s liberation in Russia, fails to see the khudzhum as part of Stalin’s “sexual Thermidor.” Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930. (Princeton, 1978). Pg. 340.

Crouch only says it’s a pity because Stites’ judgment runs counter to the view he would like to promote. Whether or not the khudzhum was a wise policy, a botched and culturally “insensitive” attempt to liberate women from traditional roles and conventions, it cannot be considered even remotely equivalent to the stricter divorce policies, abortion ban, and recriminalization of homosexuality instituted under Stalin’s regime. Stites is here, as usual, a far better historian than pseudo-Trot revisionists.


A few footnotes later, Crouch writes:

In 1922 the 4th Congress of the Communist International corrected its policy adopted at the 2nd congress and endorsed temporary alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism.

If this were actually the case, the Cliffites’ mechanistic anti-imperialism might appear grounded in longstanding revolutionary tradition. Unfortunately, no such “correction” ever took place. Lenin remained adamant to the end that Marxists’ position toward anti-imperialist movements abroad should stress “the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries,” as well as “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” Of course, as Lenin’s injunction directly contradicts the ISO’s general line toward political struggles in the Middle East, it’s omitted. E.H. Carr’s book indicates nothing of the sort, either. See pgs. 254-255 of his book on The Bolshevik Revolution.

For this post, I’ve assembled three excerpts. The first is excerpted from an article in Kommunistka [Communist Woman] by Marie Vaillant-Couturier (mother of the famous French Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who testified at Nuremberg) on women delegates publicly casting off their veils [chadry] and burqas [parandzhi] at the Second International Women’s Congress in 1922. The second is from Louis Bryant, the wife of John Reid and a famous leftist journalist in her own right, in which she records some of Aleksandra Kollontai’s thoughts on women’s liberation, along with a couple of mild criticisms. Finally, I’ve translated an article Kollontai herself wrote about the conference with communist women and labor organizers of the East in April 1921. Moreover, there are some documentary photographs by the extraordinary Constructivist photographer Max Penson, who captured these revolutionary social shifts upon moving to Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1920 (he was Jewish-Belarusian in origin). Penson stayed in Tashkent for the next twenty years. These photos show Uzbek women going from full-body veils (women caught without them were often threatened by men with blades, burning water, and acid, even having dogs sicced on them) to brandishing rifles within ten years.

From the Union of the Tatar Godless, 1920s. Bolshevized women, liberated from domestic slavery and the prejudices of religion, cleaning up the mullahs, mosques, and Korans. So much for the alleged reconcilability of Marxism and religion. Борьба против религии--борьба за социализм!

Bolshevized Eastern women liberated from domestic slavery and
religious superstition, sweeping away mullahs, mosques, and Korans

Unveilings at the Second International Women’s Congress

Marie Vaillant-Couturier

A commotion took place. Black coverings, bright fabrics, headdresses sewn with silk and gold…the women of the East in a narrow line poured into the hall where there were representatives of women workers of the whole world.

Exactingly locked up in gray, stifled with heavy black fabric, the women of the East, mysteriously, came out in front of their western sisters. Their eyes glanced down shyly, unused to bright light; their weak shoulders stooped beneath the triple yoke of the prejudice of sex, patriarchal mores, and the oppression of imperialism. Some of them with uncovered faces were so young and had such surprising eagerness in their whole appearance that they seemed, really, to have come out of another world…

We felt in them the incarnation of the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, the melancholy of the harem, the magical tale of Perrault, and the fascinating stories of travels in Mongolia, the Caucasus, Bukhara, and Persia. We met them as pioneers who were tearing themselves from their difficult, barbaric slavery. The chains still bound them: their veils were not yet thrown off.

The applause did not fall silent. No one could speak; everyone wept with joy. The West opened its embrace to the working women of the East…Would there be sufficient strength to tear away so many sacrifices of age-long oppression?

The veils began to rise, and one of the women in a small, embroidered cap with a haughty profile and blue-black hair braided in two plaits, stepped up to the tribunal. Without doubt, the gesture was purely symbolic. Out of millions of women sentenced to a life of total submission and unchanging labor, a few women had torn themselves away and come to us…But it is important that the movement has begun, and soon from one Muslim countryside to another news of this will be told…the veils were lifted and the women began to see.

Communist Woman
May 1921

Louise Bryant shortly after her arrival in Petrograd, 1918

Louise Bryant shortly after her arrival in Petrograd, 1918

Madame Aleksandra Kollontai and the women’s movement

Louise Bryant

Madame Kollontai proclaimed:

Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties: the state is your home, the world is your country! We must build a new society in which women are not expected to drudge all day in kitchens. We must have, in Russia, community restaurants, central kitchens, central laundries — institutions which leave the working woman free to devote her evenings to instructive reading or recreation. Only by breaking the domestic yoke will we give women a chance to live a richer, happier, and more complete life.

“Women’s congresses,” she told me, “are absolutely necessary in the present state of development. And these congresses are not confined by any means to politics. I have been bringing peasant women to Moscow from all over Russia and we have told them how to take care of babies and how to prevent disease. We have also instructed them in local, national and international politics. A woman who has gone to Moscow from some remote village is more or less of a personality when she returns and you can be sure that her journey is an event to the whole village. She always goes back well supplied with literature and educational posters. She, naturally, stimulates an interest in the whole community in politics and hygiene, especially among the women. Such congresses are the only ones I know that have a far-reaching effect.”

“I have been laughed at,” she said, “because so far I have brought here only a few women from the harems of Turkestan. These women have thrown aside their veils. Everybody stares at them, they are a curiosity which gives the congresses a theatrical atmosphere. Yet all pioneering work is theatrical. It was distinctly theatrical when the audiences used to throw eggs at your pioneer suffragists…How else would we get in touch with Mohammedan women except through women?”

Louise Bryant offering her own, decidedly less radical, opinion: How else, indeed? Other Russian educators have answered the question this way: Through Mohammedan men. It was by educating the Tartar men that the Tartar women became free. The Tartars are mostly all Mohammedans but their women no longer wear veils. Whereas the brave women Kollontai has induced to come to her congresses have been divorced by their husbands and have lost their homes and children.

Mirrors of Moscow, 1923

Revolutionary Bolshevik leader Aleksandra Kollontai, 1920

Revolutionary Bolshevik leader Aleksandra Kollontai, 1920

Conference of communist women and organizers of the East

Aleksandra Kollontai

For the first time — not just in Soviet Russia, but in the whole world — a meeting was held between the communist women [kommunistok] of Eastern nations and labor organizers from the Soviet republics and regions of the East. The meeting, convened by the Division [for work among women within the Central Committee of the CPSU(b)], was held from April 5th through 7th in a mostly businesslike spirit. Questions such as the economic and legal status of women in the East, work among the handicraft enterprises, forms and methods of organization, as well as agitation, propaganda, and training for the First All-Russian meeting of workers and peasants from Eastern nations. On the first day a general political report was briefly delivered.

Forty-five organizers gathered for work among women of Eastern nations. Present were the republics of Tatariia [Tatarstan], Bashkiriia [Bashkortostan], Turkestan, Azerbaijan, Crimea, Kirgiziia [Kyrgyzstan], mountain nations from the Caucasus region, Siberia, and provinces with a number of Turkic or mountain populations.

This conference clearly demonstrated that the influence of our party, led by zhenotdel [the women’s division], now extends to the outermost regions of Soviet Russia — places where, until recently, the enslavement of women prevailed for centuries. Presently, a deep-seated unrest takes shape within the masses of women themselves, expressed not only in the woman of the East removing her veil, but also by the fact she joins in Soviet construction.

The conference demonstrated that the basic principles our party applied to involve broad masses of women in the construction of communism remain vital, and are applicable in the East. Only the particulars need to be modified with respect to local conditions. For example, proceeding from the everyday domestic slavery of female workers, zhenotdel usually begins educating rank-and-file workers in the task of Soviet construction by involving them, first of all, in the provision of maternity care, catering services, and so on. Among the nations of the East, where a woman is primarily enslaved by religious superstitions and vestiges of bridewealth [literally “matrimonial forfeiture of rights”], and attachment to the customs and mores of the past, the focus of work naturally shifts from the outset. On the one hand, it lifts her out of this state through the assistance of clubs, schools, and in fact broader Enlightenment and cultural standards in the development of knowledge. On the other, it brings living custom into line with increased liberties [svobodnymi], protecting women’s interests with Soviet laws. From here, following the example of the Bashkir Republic, the introduction of female deputies [delegatok] among the nations’ judges, involving women’s departments [zhenotdelov] in the reworking of local laws and practices.

Productive labor.

One of the primary forms of participation by the most backward masses of women in public and political life in the East, the conference recognized, consists in the organization of clubs, including charter schools overgrown with crèches, canteens, and all those facilities that can serve as an object lesson in what Soviet power can give women of the East if female workers and peasants from Turkish and mountain populations themselves show initiative. Clubs were acknowledged by the conference as the primary form of gathering masses of women around women’s divisions [zhenotdelov], quite feasible even for nomadic peoples: Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, etc.

The conference also established the principle that women’s divisions [zhenotdelov] should not look for support primarily among housewives, but rather among those elements of Eastern women whose class and living conditions are more able to accept communism — i.e., among wage-laborers and craftswomen. The latter are especially numerous in Turkestan. All campaigning [agitatsiia] by women’s divisions [zhenotdelov] must proceed from the basic position that the legal and domestic emancipation of women can only come  through the emancipation of the entire populace from the remnants of feudalism and organization of the economy on communist principles. The conference devoted plenty of discussion to the involvement of craftswomen in organizing individual workshops.

The lively exchange of ideas prompted the question of convening an All-Russian Congress of Women of the East. The conference determined [that this] would convene on June 20 in Moscow. Much of the preparatory work for the Congress has already been done. And communist women [kommunistki] of the East, even in the distant outskirts, have already held a series of conferences and congresses in connection with this throughout the region, as well as the cantons. The conference passed with surprising cheer and camaraderie; despite all the different nationalities represented, there reigned the spirit of internationalism. The conference sent a telegram in response to the warm greeting it received from V.I. Lenin and working women of the West through the Communist International and International Women’s Secretariat.

This small but orderly meeting is almost certain to yield good results. Not only will it help with preparations for the Russian Congress; it will also become one of the building blocks from which the new, communist society will eventually be established and given shape by combined efforts of communist men and women [kommunistov i kommunistok] East and West, implemented through the dictatorship of the working class.

 Pravda, 4.10.1921

Совешание коммунисток-организаторов женщин Востока

Александра Коллонтай

Впервые не только в Советской России, но впервые в мире состоялось совещание коммунисток восточных наро­ дов и организаторов работниц Востока Советских республик и областей. Совещание, созванное центральным Отделом [по работе среди женщин при ЦК ВКП(б)], состоялось с 5 по 7 апреля включительно и прошло под знаком большой деловитости. Разобраны были вопросы экономического и правового положения женщин Востока, работа среди кустарниц, формы и методы организации, агитация и пропаганда и подготовка к Первому Всероссийскому совещанию работниц и крестьянок восточных народностей. В первый день сделан был краткий общеполитический доклад.

Съехалось 45 организаторов по работе среди женщин восточных народов. Представлены были республики: Татария, Башкирия, Туркестан, Азербайджан, Крымская Республика, Киргизия, области Кавказа с горскими народностями, Сибирь и ряд губерниий с тюркским или горским населением.

Совещание это наглядно показало, что влияние нашей партии, проводимое через женотделы, сейчас уже распространяется на самые дальние области Советской России и что в тех местностях, где еще недавно царила вековая закабаленность женщины, теперь идет глубокое брожение в самих женских массах, не только выражающееся в том, что женщина Востока сбрасывает чадру, но и в том, что она приобщается к советскому строительству.

Совещание показало, что основные принципы работы, применяемые нашей партией в целях вовлечения широкой массы женщин в строительство коммунизма, остаются жизненными и вполне применимыми и на Востоке. Видоизменять, считаясь с местными особенностями, приходится лишь частности. Так, например, исходя из семейно-бытовой закабаленности работниц, женотделы начинают обычно воспитание широких масс работниц в деле советского строительства вовлечением их в первую очередь в работу по охране материнства, по общественному питанию и т. д. Среди народностей Востока, где женщину в первую очередь закабаляют религиозные предрассудки, остатки брачного бесправия, подчинение ее обычаям и нравам прошлого, центр работы, естественно, переносится с первых шагов на поднятие с помощью клубов, школ и вообще широкого просвещения, культурного уровня, на развитие знания, с одной стороны, с другой — на приведение в соответствие жизненного обихода с более свободными, защищающими интересы женщины советскими законами. Отсюда введение, по примеру Башкирской Республики, делегаток в число народных судей, участие женотделов в переработке местных законов и их практики и т. д.


Как одну из первоначальных форм вовлечения самых отсталых женских масс Востока в общественную и политическую жизнь совещание признало организацию клубов, включающих школу грамоты и обрастающих яслями, столовыми и всеми теми учреждениями, которые могут служить наглядным примером того, что может дать Советская власть женщине Востока, если сами работницы и крестьянки тюркских и горских народов проявят самодеятельность. Клубы признаны совещанием первоначальной формой собирания женских масс вокруг женотделов, вполне осуществимой даже для кочующих народностей: киргизов, узбеков и др.

Совещание также установило принцип, что опору женотделы должны искать прежде всего не среди домохозяек, а среди того элемента женщин Востока, которые по свое классовой принадлежности и условиям жизни более способны воспринять коммунизм, т. е. среди наемных работниц и кустарниц. Последних особенно много в Туркестане. Вся агитация женотделов должна исходить из основного положения, что только путем экономического раскрепощения всего населения от остатков феодализма и организации хозяйства на началах коммунизма возможно бытовое, правовое и семейное раскрепощение женщины. Совещание уделило много места обсуждению вопроса о вовлечении кустарниц в организацию отдельных мастерских.

Живой обмен мнений вызвал вопрос о созыве Всероссийского съезда женщин Востока. Совещание постановило созвать [его] 20 июня в Москве 100. Большая подготовительная работа к съезду уже сделана. И коммунистки Востока, даже в далеких окраинах, уже провели в связи с ним ряд конференций и съездов как по области, так и по кантонам. Совещание прошло удивительно бодро и дружно; на сове­ щании, несмотря на различие представленных народностей, царил дух интернационализма. Совещание послало в ответ на полученную телеграмму приветствие В.И. Ленину и приветствие работницам Запада через Коминтерн и Международный женский секретариат.

Это небольшое, но деловитое совещание, несомненно, даст свои хорошие плоды и не только поможет подготовке Всероссийского съезда, но и станет одним из тех кирпичиков, из которых дружными усилиями коммунистов и коммунисток Запада и Востока постепенно складываются и утверждаются начала нового, коммунистического общества, осуществляемого диктатурой рабочего класса.

«Правда», 10 апреля 1921 г.

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