Finding My Way on an Inconsistent Path

Shaartuz is a melting pot where Uzbeks are the majority, Tajiks have a presence, and Russians are most notable in their absence. It is common in the city for conversations, and singular sentences, to utilize all three languages. Most of the Tajik population was relocated here in the 1950’s from an overcrowded, mountainous region in the Rasht valley. History documents the move as a forced relocation; the collective memory of the people, as communicated to me, recalls it as a better choice for the future. “My Uncle came first, he sent word that there was land and a way to make a living here, the rest of the family followed.”

In the city of Shaartuz it’s hard to know who is Tajik and who is Uzbek, most people in the city are fluent in both languages. Many people have one parent that is Tajik and one parent that is Uzbek. But, in Tajikistan there is no grey area for ethnicity (there is no mixed race option), ethnicity is a paternal trait plain and simple. I am learning that Shaartuz is unique from the surrounding rural areas where the majority of villages are predominately, if not totally, populated by a singular ethnic group.

This week I was busy helping to facilitate youth meetings in some of the communities where Mercy Corps’ Tajikistan Stability Enhancement Program is working. On Friday we had two youth meetings, one in the Tajik village of Tojikobod, and one in the Uzbek village of Hooshodi. These villages are 3 kilometers apart, but have drastically different cultures. Tojikobod’s Tajik inhabitants are originally from the mountainous Rasht region which is known for its religious conservativeness. This conservative tradition travelled with the population to the Shaartuz region in the 50s.

Initially there were 31 people in attendance at the youth meeting in Tojikobod, all of them were men. When the village leadership was asked if any women would be attending, two older women were collected to participate, initially they sat in the back of the classroom. I was surprised by this, because it was distinctly different from the 7 previous youth meetings we had facilitated in other TSEP villages.

As an American woman I can be self-righteous at times, especially when it comes to gender issues. I had to suppress my internal instincts, and instead of judging all the men at the meeting, I invested energy in thinking of how to work within the community as it is, I opened my mind and eyes and what I found surprised me. When the larger group was broken up into smaller groups, I found the two women at the meeting to be engaged and respected within their group. All of the groups identified issues specific to women that they wanted assistance with in their community: a sewing course and center for women, as well as, a gynecologist. I observed the village leadership to be the strongest among any of the communities I have visited. The village was supported by TSEP in installing two transformers instead of one, because the community contribution for the infrastructure project was 49% of the total cost.
Pictured above are two of Tojikobod's village leaders

Since the leadership is strong in Tojikobod, the strategy is clear, to engage young women, we will need the assistance of the village elders. When we asked if it would be possible to hold a second youth meeting only for women, both the male and female elders were supportive of the idea. We were assured that young women would attend, and be excited for the opportunity. I am also excited for the opportunity!

Our next meeting was 3 km away in the Uzbek village of Hooshodi. We arrived early, and were let in to the school where our meeting took place. I was extremely surprised when 23 young women walked in to the classroom, they were early too. Very few of the girls spoke a basic level of Tajik, some spoke a basic level of English. Our mutual curiosity led to an impromptu English/Uzbek language class before the meeting commenced. A complete gender reversal from the previous meeting led me to the conclusion that each youth group will be different in every village, even if they choose the same project template as a starting point
The youth meeting in Hooshodi

We have set the goal for TSEP youth groups to have a minimum representation of 30% for the minority sex, whether that is male or female. As I learn more, flexibility is clearly the most important characteristic for engaging communities and youth in the Shaartuz region. The second characteristic is continuing to study Tajik, and expanding my language studies to include basic Uzbek, because when I leave the “city” ethnic identity and language use is more distinct.


  1. Kudos Ali! You have given a beautiful and well articulated explanation about your experiences and observations. Thank you for taking the time to share them with us!

  2. Keep up the good work ali! Do you feel like being a woman in these situations has a different impact? Are men as receptive?

  3. I think that being a foreigner has the most significant impact. As a foreign woman I do not feel like I am expected to follow the traditional cultural norms. And yes, men and women have both been equally receptive. It has been a great experience meeting people and listening to their ideas.