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Chic, chèque, choc

Françoise Grange Omokaro
Fenneke Reysoo

Seductive consumption. The influence of pornography on marital sexual demands in Tajikistan

Colette Harris

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Sex and gender

1Human sexual behaviour is to a very large extent informed by gender norms that prescribe, and indeed proscribe, certain types of conduct. That this occurs as much in the privacy of the bedroom as in more public settings is shown by the enormous pressures towards appropriate performance that exist even among more permissive societies such as those of north western Europe, as the bombardment of email spam regarding penis size and erection capabilities suggests.

2In Tajikistan, pressures to conform to a considerably narrower set of gender ideals have been seriously constraining even for the most emancipated. For those who feel they have little choice but to conform – a category into which the vast majority of my acquaintances fall – the options are few. Failure to perform correctly, whether in bed or out of bed, can result in serious social penalties that may far outweigh personal preferences (Harris 2004).

3While it appears that men enjoy more freedoms than women, in many ways this is illusory. They may have greater physical and sexual mobility but the pressures to conform to gender norms are no less intense, as this paper will demonstrate.

The background

4Until 1991, Tajikistan was one of fifteen union republics of the USSR, a setting in which public discussion on sex had been banned for decades (Kon 1995). Sex is still not easily discussed in former Soviet Central Asia, despite the arrival of hard and soft forms of pornographic videos from Russia and blatant sexual displays in television programmes broadcasted even during prime-time viewing hours (Goldschmidt 1999).

5When I first arrived in Tajikistan in 1994, members of a women’s movement warned me off the subject of sex on the grounds that the subject matter was completely unimportant and only we, Western feminists, thought otherwise. Despite this attitude coming from educated women, large numbers of less educated Tajiks of both sexes seemed eager to discuss the sexual issues troubling them (see Harris 2004; 2005a; 2005b).

6This paper is based on work I carried out in Tajikistan from 1994 until 2001, first as a researcher and later as a development agent. In 1997, I founded an NGO to provide grassroots transformative education in rural communities. Eventually, our work expanded to include sex education and the training of sex-education teachers for schools, as well as sexological training for psycho-social counsellors and medical practitioners.

7Placing this context in relation to the theme of this volume, it is hard to think of Tajikistan as having much to do with chic, although there are slight manifestations of it in central Dushanbe. Chèque has certainly become a very important issue in these post-socialist times and choc unfortunately even more so, although in perhaps a different sense from that intended by the editors of this volume. The end of the post-Soviet period in Tajikistan produced a significant shock, not only because it ended the still high levels of social and economic stability, but also because it ended a form of protection from the outside world. Once the barriers came down, all kinds of influences flooded into Tajikistan, along with the material infrastructure through which to relate to them, such as video-cassette recorders (VCR) for watching movies, particularly pornography, the subject of this paper.

8My discussion on the influence of pornography on marital sexual relations in the republic starts with the story of Sitora and Haydar, and proceeds to a history of sex in the Soviet Union and Central Asia, in order to set the scene for a discussion on the effect of pornography on relationships in Tajikistan today.

Sex in the Soviet Union

Sex in Soviet Tajikistan

9By the time we met in 1994, Sitora was elderly and living alone but seemed to welcome the chance to discuss her sex life. While reminiscing about her early-married years, she spontaneously brought up her marital relationship.

10She told me that on her wedding night she had known nothing about sex despite having lived in the country and seen animals performing such acts. Before proceeding to deflower her, Haydar apologetically explained that it was an obligatory part of the wedding ritual. Sitora said the experience was most painful, and the following day she felt dreadful and could hardly walk. Gradually she got used to sex, although she still did not like it and found it unfortunate that Haydar wanted it so often. As time went on her opinion did not change; she only put up with sex because of her love for Haydar and the fact that her mother-in-law had told her that if she did not comply with his demands, he might go to other women.

11They had been married some three years when Haydar overheard his Russian workmates discussing how to turn a woman on in bed. One of them was talking about what a man should do for his wife to enjoy sex. He said the woman had to climax first and only then should the man let himself go. Haydar confessed that he had never given any thought to his wife’s pleasure. The Russians were amazed that she had allowed such behaviour. Haydar said they had not known a woman could enjoy sex so it had not occurred to his wife that she had been treated unfairly.

12That afternoon, Haydar went home and attempted to try out what he had learned. Sitora became furious, accusing him of having a lover and of practising on his wife the tricks he had learned with his mistress. “Don’t treat me like your whore!” she shouted. Haydar protested his innocence but Sitora wouldn’t believe him. Every night he tried to give her pleasure in bed and every night she refused to allow it. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it any longer and told her where he had learned these new actions, but she still didn’t believe him.

  • 1 A longer version of this story can be found in Harris (2004).

13Sitora was so upset, she went to get help from a Russian friend who explained that men discussed sex amongst themselves and that Russian men were much better informed than Tajiks. Realizing that Haydar had probably been telling the truth, Sitora went home and apologised for misjudging him. Only then did she allow him to show her what he had learned; once they got the hang of it, she thought it was great! After that, they never again had sex without him making sure that she was enjoying it as well and they began to have a wonderful time in bed, greatly improving their relationship1. This was a beautiful memory Sitora had of her marriage and one she had never before been able to share. She could not discuss such things even with her sisters or close women friends.

14This may seem strange for anyone who has spent time in other Muslim countries where it is possible to speak relatively openly about these issues, at least with friends and acquaintances of the same sex. However, Sitora and Haydar lived in the confining setting of the former Soviet Union, a place with its own specific approach to sex.

A sexual history of the Soviet Union

15In the early days after the October Revolution (1917), there was considerable sexual freedom in Russia. Among the first laws the Bolsheviks passed were ones making marriage a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, thus facilitating the legalisation of divorce; abortions also became easier to obtain. Even beyond this, a movement began to condemn the sexual restrictions of the previous bourgeois lifestyle (Carleton 2005, 3). For instance, Alexandra Kollontai, the most powerful woman among the Bolshevik leaders, claimed that under socialism sex would be as simple as drinking a glass of water and this opened the doors for all kinds of extra-marital relationships (Kon 1995, 51ff).

16The supposed aim of these Soviet policies was to allow women more say in their sexual relationships, but because no attempt was made to equalise gendered power relations, men very much retained the upper hand. As a result of the laxness of social as well as political control over sexuality, men found themselves in a position to impose themselves on women even more than previously. Since resources were now supposedly held in common, in some circles this was taken to include women, conceptualised as belonging to men rather than as partners with them. In some cities, women were declared public goods to be shared among all male inhabitants (Shtern 1979, 24). This led to the development of a concept of free sex as essential to the socialist movement, which in turn allowed men to justify forcing women to participate in all kinds of sex acts. A refusal could result in their being labelled bourgeois anti-socialist reactionaries, a term with significant negative consequences. It was particularly difficult for younger women such as students to resist pressures to give in to male demands; many had abortions or ended up with unwanted babies while others, abandoned upon pregnancy, committed suicide (Geiges and Suvorova 1989; Hohmann 1990; Kon 1995).

17These new sexual practices raised government concerns for providing reliable means of birth control. As a result, researchers in the Soviet Union started to develop contraceptive technologies at a time when in North America it was a criminal offence even to advocate their use (Coliver 1995; Kon 1995, 178).

18From the mid 1920s, however, after Stalin became Secretary General, a more conservative tack was taken on sex. Aaron Zalkind published books and articles for the use of the proletariat on the “sexual question”, stating among other things that the sex act should take no longer than two minutes in order not to distract people’s attention from building socialism, a statement repeated for years afterwards (Kon 1995, 57ff; Shtern 1979, 134). In the mid 1930s, with Stalin’s persecutions in full swing, laws pertaining to marriage were considerably tightened. Divorce was made difficult, abortion outlawed, and all mention of birth control suppressed. From then until perestroika in the mid 1980s, the public discussion of sex was strongly discouraged. Almost the only writings about sex could be found in samizdat – illegal, home-produced publications circulated under the counter (Kon 1995). The only person I ever met who had actually read any of these was from Novysibirsk, the famous university town, where during his student days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, samizdat sex manuals had been available, consisting mainly of Western book translations.

19Soviet parents were discouraged from giving their children information about sex and even the mention of it to a student could lead to a teacher’s dismissal. A few foreign doctors working in the USSR published accounts of their experiences there. They speak of a very significant level of sexual problems resulting from almost total ignorance. Among issues they addressed were a lack of sexual satisfaction to the point where the majority of Russian women were said never to have experienced an orgasm, considerable brutality around the sex act, and extremely high abortion rates, with a lifetime rate of over twenty-five abortions per woman not uncommon (Grey 1991; Kon 1995; Shtern 1979, 139).

  • 2 According to a letter from the chief gynaecologist of the USSR addressed to the chief gynaecologist (...)

20Even in the late 1980s, it was official policy of the Ministry of Health in Moscow that contraceptives were far more dangerous than abortions, and that non-medical professionals (i. e. women) were not to be trusted with them2. At the same time, stories abounded on extraordinary sexual practices, particularly in larger towns. For instance, it was said that people were having sex with total strangers in public places, including while riding the metro and buses in Moscow. The large numbers of multiple partners among some social groups was evidenced by correspondingly high rates of STDs, and sexual harassment was common (Kon 1995). I myself witnessed this last aspect both within the Academy of Science buildings in Moscow and on the metro. In addition, I was told that Party officials frequently forced young women into sexual relations; it was also said that most women in high positions in the Communist Party had slept their way there. However, this last allegation may well stem from a sexist underestimation of women’s ability to attain promotion through their own efforts.

A sexual history of Central Asia3

  • 3 Where not otherwise attributed, materials in this section are taken from Harris (2004; 2006).
  • 4 Drawings of women wearing such cloaks and veils (faranja and chachvan) can be found in Harris (2006 (...)

21While such reports were common in both Russia and Tajikistan, lifestyles differed significantly between the two republics. At the time of the October Revolution, in the sedentary plains regions of what are now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, girls and women lived largely in seclusion. They could only leave their homes accompanied by a family member and wearing a long cloak over a thick horsehair veil, without even eye holes4.

22At that time, the region was just coming out of a state of extreme isolation. Once thriving from the traffic of the Silk Road, between around 1500 and 1830, the region had since been largely cut off from the outside world. The situation changed considerably in the late 19th century after the region’s conquest by the Tsarist Empire, which opened the door to travellers from Europe and the United States as well as to large numbers of Russians who had accompanied the army or were working on the railroads.

23This openness to the outside world ended with the Revolution. After 1917, Central Asia was once more largely cut off from contact beyond its southern borders. In the mid 1920s, the region was divided into republics; the Republic of Tajikistan in its present form came into being in 1929.

24Although males and females were not allowed to mix, in pre-revolutionary Central Asia some form of sex education seems to have been provided, for males at least. A Russian officer stationed in the region in the early 20th century remarked that “The problem of sex is thoroughly explained to boys only eight years old, who are also taught the rules of married life, warned of possible diseases and instructed in preventive and curative measures in explanations as detailed as any to be found in specialized and scientific works on the subject in the West” (Pahlen 1964, 42). I have no idea whether this was also provided to girls, or if the information given to males included anything about female sexuality or women’s sexual pleasure.

25The sexual revolution that took place in Russia never manifested itself in Central Asia, which only came under full Bolshevik control in the mid 1920s. While the Russian rulers tried hard to persuade the Central Asians to modify their gender identities and bring them closer to those of the Slavs, largely by forcing them to abandon veiling, seclusion and other related customs, they did not succeed in significantly moderating the underlying gender norms. One way these were manifested was in strict control over female mobility, especially of unmarried girls, something that continues to this day.

26The suppression of all talk on sexual issues was extended to the Soviet Union as a whole and in Tajikistan at least was accompanied by a fear of even mentioning sex, especially in front of girls, in case this would encourage experimentation. This was largely because the worst that could happen to a man was for his daughter to be unable to demonstrate her virginity on her wedding night, a form of shame so great that in earlier times men could only regain their place in their community through their daughter’s death and, in later times, by clear proof of her disgrace through her repudiation and removal from effective family membership.

27In such a climate, it is not surprising that parents became completely paranoid about their daughters. The messages they gave them about what would happen should their hymen somehow become ruptured before their wedding night so frightened those with whom I have discussed the issue that they fetishised what they had between their legs to the point of freezing all feeling in that area, for most. That thin membrane became the most important part of their bodies since it was the font of their fathers’ and brothers’ honour (and by extension that of the entire family). Irrespective of cost, it had to be preserved until the wedding night. As a result, fear of tearing the hymen dominated mothers’ attitudes towards daughters from birth; girls were restrained from the slightest movement that might possibly damage the hymen, such as participating in sports, jumping, cycling, and so on. It is hardly surprising then that brides were rarely ready to explore their sexuality. Most women with whom I discussed the subject said that all they knew in advance about the marriage bed was that the experience would be painful and that they would bleed. Some had not even heard of sex and related the bleeding to menstruation.

28Thus, it was not uncommon for contemporary Tajik women’s experience of their wedding night to be even worse than that of Sitora, with a consequent loathing of anything to do with sex. Among the majority of those with whom I discussed the matter, those who said to have later experienced arousal claimed that this only happened after years of marriage, usually upon reaching their thirties. How much this delay was a function of earlier repression and how much a function of their husbands’ lack of attention to their sexual needs, I do not know but both no doubt played a role. Few men seemed to make any particular attempt to arouse or satisfy their wives. This was true even for some who claimed to want their wives to respond sexually (Harris 2005b).

Sex and gender in post-Soviet Tajikistan

29When I first arrived in Tajikistan in 1994, sex was still a taboo subject. I never heard of anyone being informed about it except immediately before marriage but even this was rare. During the late 1990s, I worked with many hundreds of teenagers in the villages of southern Tajikistan and they all claimed never to have received any information on sex from an adult. In fact, most of the adults I knew barely understood anything about sex themselves. Parents would tell me they couldn’t explain anything to their children because they had no information to give them.

30While a refusal to provide sex education is understandable in regard to daughters, owing to fears of their possible loss of virginity, one would expect it to be different for sons, but this does not appear to be the case. One man told me the only mention of sex he received from an adult was when his grandmother said to him on his wedding night “Go in there and show you are a man”. He said that luckily he was experienced so he knew what to do but when men were not, or if they had problems functioning, no help was at hand. Teenage boys we worked with in a number of villages told us their uncles (in Tajikistan it is uncles and aunts rather than parents who traditionally advise young people about sex) had advised them deliberately to hurt their brides on their wedding night in order to ensure that they would be frightened by them and would thus always obey them, but supplied no further details. A young man who had not been able to consummate his marriage after several months consulted one of our NGO staff. He knew he was supposed to do something, but did not know what; nor did his wife. He had been too embarrassed to ask a family member but felt that our staff members were so approachable that he felt emboldened to speak. In other words, most boys are expected to know what to do with little if any information or help.

31While girls must bleed on their wedding night or face disgrace or worse, boys must be capable of penetrating their brides in order to make them bleed. One who cannot do so has equally failed in his obligation towards his parents, although this is rarely talked about since it is even more shameful than a girl losing her virginity. In some families a sheet is still placed underneath the bride for her to bleed on, but very commonly it is the groom who blows the whistle if his bride does not bleed. If he does not even manage to penetrate her, he obviously won’t know her status, so he may just keep quiet like the young man who consulted our staff member. Conversely, he may try to find a way to put the blame for his impotence on his bride.

32One young man who had participated in our NGO’s sex education sessions which among other things taught men to respect their brides and give them pleasure, told us after his wedding that his bride had demanded he just get on and do what he had to immediately. She did not seem to welcome the chance to build some kind of emotional relationship first because she had been told that real men just went ahead with their business and she was determined not to allow her husband to fall short of this ideal. When another young man had serious problems with premature ejaculation, his wife saw him as having failed in his performance of masculinity and therefore despised him.

33Thus, women may also be rigid in their expectations, even when this would seem to be to their disadvantage. I have met quite a number of Tajik women who, like these two, find it more important for their husband to be admired for his manliness than to have a better relationship with a softer, gentler man who may cause them to be mocked by friends and relatives for his failure to conform. The fact that in these particular cases the events were taking place within the privacy of the marital bed did not provide sufficient excuse for the inappropriate performance of gender, according to these women (Harris 2004).

Sex and knowledge

34Thus, the pre-revolutionary discussion of sexual issues seemed largely to have vanished during Soviet times. In the course of our NGO work, we came across instances of men with so little idea of female anatomy that, not knowing where the vagina was located, they had attempted rather violently to make extra holes in their brides, who had subsequently to be rushed to the hospital pouring with blood.

35The need for information and support on such issues was clearly so great that I ended up training a group of medical professionals to provide sexological counselling for both men and women. We were able to work with women in the Women’s Centre we established in Qurghonteppa town in 2000, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. However, no donor displayed the slightest interest in funding a centre to support men’s needs. This seemed short-sighted since men’s problems inevitably impact women but it did not seem to fit the development ethos of the time.

Pornography rears its head

36Glasnost marked the start of a new sexual revolution in Russia. The pressures on enterprises to be financially viable acted as a stimulus for both the publishing and video industry to produce pornography. For the first time since the 1920s, it was permitted to speak openly about sex. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this intensified; many Western pornographic movies were dubbed into Russian and by the mid 1990s, had become easily available (Goldschmidt 1999).

37Our NGO worked in the Qurghonteppa region of Khatlon province, mainly with the Gharmis, a religiously conservative group that had supported the Islamic opposition during the civil war of 1992-97. Tajikistan had been the poorest of the Soviet republics and its economy had been hard hit by the break-up of the union. The civil war was the final blow to employment prospects for the majority, especially in Qurghonteppa, where it had been fought most fiercely. By the late 1990s, large numbers of adult men were working as labour migrants in the Russian Federation. Upon their return, they brought with them new commodities, at that time unknown in Tajikistan. It was in that manner that the first video-cassette recorders came to Qurghonteppa, almost inevitably accompanied by pornographic movies.

38Their religious beliefs did not seem to stop Gharmi men from flocking to watch these movies. Those who had never set foot outside Tajikistan seemed especially bowled over by them and eager to try out the new practices shown. In the early days when only one or two men had VCRs, they would invite all their friends round to watch. I remember in one village the shocked tones in which I was informed by a woman that one such viewing had occurred the previous evening. Apparently that particular movie had put an emphasis on anal sex because later that night many viewers had attempted this with their wives. The next morning there was almost a riot as young wife after young wife told her mother-in-law she would leave her husband if he ever again tried to force on her such unnatural and repulsive acts.

39Another movie showed women on top. After its airing, one of my friends told me the men in her village had become lazy. They wanted their wives to do all the work. The women didn’t see why they should. It was their husbands’ job to perform sex.

40Besides desires to experiment with unfamiliar positions, pornography gave men other kinds of new expectations. One of these was the issue of female pleasure. Nothing in the movies (at least in those I have seen) showed a realistic picture of how to pleasure women. Indeed, the clitoris was largely presented as a male turn-on rather than a source of female delight. True, the actresses writhed and moaned, but in such a way that suggested this was largely for male titillation rather than their own pleasure. The least experienced of the Gharmi men saw it differently. They wished their wives would behave in bed like the porno actresses.

41Pornography had not existed in the Soviet Union, at least not openly, and before the late 1980s hardly anyone had even seen a pornographic magazine. To many men, these movies simply reflected the lives of ordinary people in other countries. Indeed, I have seen this elsewhere. When I was in Indonesia in the mid 1990s, people seemed to think that “B” movies from the United States represented “normal behaviour” and that in the streets of the USA, women in various stages of undress would regularly make themselves available to any man who so desired.

42The men in our villages seemed to have much the same idea. Many of them did not seem to realise that the videos were staged rather than representations of real life. Thus, they felt cheated when their wives behaved so differently from the women in the movies. At the same time they knew underneath it all that this was not appropriate behaviour for a Tajik wife. In other words, the men were confused by their contradictory desires. They were torn between a longing to participate in the kinds of scenes they were viewing in the movies and the disgrace of having a wife who might react in the same way as the women in the movies.

The female body

43Another issue that raised concerns among the men was the images of the female body they saw in the movies. They were amazed by the differences between the bodily presentations of these women and those with whom they shared their beds.

44Since this was a rural area, their wives worked not only in the home but also in the fields and with livestock. At night, they were often smelly and too tired even to wash, especially when, as was often the case, this first entailed fetching water and the added effort of finding clean clothes to change into. Moreover, they often lacked the money even to buy soap with which to wash properly.

45Many women’s bodies were misshapen from multiple pregnancies, poor diet, and hard labour. Furthermore, the local traditional dress is intentionally aimed at loosely covering all body parts precisely to prevent male titillation. Some of the younger men went so far as to bring back sexy garments from Russia and ask their wives to wear them in the privacy of their bedrooms to try to get them to look more like the movie actresses. However, the women often could not face dressing up in them. When the men complained, the women simply claimed exhaustion.

46Several men’s groups raised this issue in the NGO’s educational sessions. In order to have them think through some of the implications, NGO staff would ask them to carry out the “24-hour activity” exercise dear to development practitioners where men compare their workloads to that of their women. This often resulted in the former deciding to take on some of their wives’ tasks, as far as this could be done without contravening the parameters of appropriate masculinity, in the hope that this would grant them greater sexual access.

47While this could reduce their wives’ exhaustion levels, it could not change their shapes. The men complained so much about this that some of the women came to me in despair asking for help to make their bodies more beautiful. Among other things, they asked to be trained in gymnastics. However, these approaches did not fit with their lifestyles. Their bulky clothes, lack of support bras, and poor footwear made it difficult for them to do most physical exercises. They also found it difficult to find the time or the privacy to exercise and very soon gave up.

Male pleasure

48Some women also wanted to learn how to please their husbands sexually. Those whose husbands had second wives in Russia in particular told us that the men had accused them of being boring and they wanted to know how to change. Could we please help them do whatever necessary to keep their husbands happy, especially in bed?

49This put us in a quandary. What exactly did these women want of us? The idea that we were being expected to teach our Gharmi women to behave like the women in the porno movies was mind-boggling! How much did they understand of what it was their husbands were demanding of them? Were we to have sessions where we showed the movies and helped the women emulate the actresses? Obviously, this was unlikely to be what the women really wanted. They would very likely have been disgusted by the pornography, and no doubt by us for showing it to them. The very idea of encouraging the women to sacrifice themselves still further to please their men and in this particular way was a very poor fit with our aims of helping the women gain greater self-esteem.

50Another and obviously preferable option was to help the women enjoy sex by supporting them to explore their feelings towards their husbands and in their erogenous zones. However, for most of these women who seemed never to have experienced sexual arousal let alone fulfilment, this was a tall order. Moreover, it would require lengthy and patient cooperation from their husbands, few of whom would be likely to go along with this.

51Elsewhere I have written about Zebo, who came to me for help when her husband was on the point of divorcing her because he was so fed up with her lack of response during sex. It took months to get her to the point of experiencing arousal and still longer for her to become capable of receiving sexual satisfaction through intercourse. It was worth it for her since in the end this not only saved her marriage but also brought her emotionally close to her husband for the first time (Harris 2005b).

52The majority of our rural men, however, would be unlikely to cooperate in such a venture. While they would complain to our male staff that they did not enjoy their wives “laying there like logs” in bed, they were none too sure they really did want them to enjoy sex. It was unclear whether they really wished their wives would act like the women in the movies or whether they just would have liked to be in bed with someone different and took it out on their wives that they were stuck in the village with them. Whatever the case, they seemed to pay little attention to their wives’ feelings.

53Our staff members tried to explain that it was unrealistic and unfair to expect real women to behave like film actresses or indeed like the prostitutes many men claimed to have visited in Russia. Those men who had long-term partners in Russia insisted they enjoyed sex much more with them than with their Tajik wives. When asked whether they did anything different in bed, the men reluctantly admitted that the Russian women had showed them how to please them and that they had learned to enjoy sex in that way. Our staff then suggested they might be able to solve the problem by trying to please their Tajik wives in the same way. However, most of these men categorically refused.

54They insisted that if their wives started to enjoy sex they would probably want it all the time. However, the men were forced to spend long periods away from home. It was only the fact that their wives did not like sex that allowed the men to believe they were most probably faithful during their long absences. This allowed them to feel like real men in proper control. The slightest suspicion within the village that their wives were cuckolding them would lead to disaster.

55It was different in Russia, the men explained. There, masculinity was not defined in the same way. Nobody would laugh at them if their partners were seen talking with other men, but should that happen in Tajikistan, it would destroy them. Even their peers would regard such incidents completely differently depending on where they occurred. Moreover, in Russia it was the women who had the upper hand, since they had more money and in many cases the men were living in the women’s homes. For another thing, everyone knew that Russians were far more lax than Tajiks, and that it was quite common for Russian men not to control their wives. It was therefore acceptable for Tajik men to emulate them in regards to Russian women but only in Russia, not back home in Tajikistan. In other words, these men had learned to perform two quite different varieties of masculinity, both strongly tied to sexuality, but they were careful to keep each to its appropriate setting.

56This made it impossible to resolve the situation to anyone’s satisfaction. It was quite clear that as long as the men put their masculinity before all other considerations including both their own pleasure and their marital relationships, there could be no happy solution. The men therefore continued to feel bored and the women to feel inferior because their husbands seemed to want it both ways – they wanted their wives to behave like well brought up Gharmi women and like porno actresses at the same time, to satisfy them sexually while supporting their performance of masculinity in and out of bed.

57Some of the worst situations occurred at the time of marriage. Men who had never had sex before or who had never had it with a “good” Tajik woman would have completely unrealistic expectations of their brides, which the women could neither understand nor cope with. Women with no knowledge of sex were being expected to act like porno actresses and to be turned on by whatever their husbands did to them, irrespective of how unpleasant or painful this might be. This sometimes produced very strong reactions. Some women ran away on their wedding nights. Others would never willingly allow their husbands to touch them again. Some men even sent their brides back to their parents in disgrace for repeatedly refusing sex.

58I should state here that most of these couples had never set eyes on one another before their wedding day. Although Sitora and Haydar managed to marry for love many decades ago, this remains unusual among Gharmis, for whom it is still normal for two complete strangers to have to go to bed together without having the chance even to get acquainted. They may dislike each other at sight, be in love with someone else, or be totally unprepared for marriage and, even if attracted to one another, will have had no opportunity to build a rapport to help them through the difficult moments. The bride may know nothing about sex and/or be terrified about what is going to happen. Traditionally she is supposed to be totally passive and the groom is supposed to be in charge. A woman who reacts too sexually would be considered experienced and penalised for it even if she had demonstrated her virginity by bleeding.

59Thus there are acute contradictions between women’s expected behaviour before marriage, their reactions on their wedding night and the subsequent pressures on them to behave sexually in bed. These are compounded by the fact that their husbands either know nothing about female sexual arousal or do not wish to arouse their wives. They just want to have a good time in bed without considering their feelings. This virtually amounts to men treating their wives like prostitutes. Women’s desires, their experiences of pleasure or of pain become irrelevant. While clearly not every man behaves or thinks like this, all too many seem to do so, judging by the number of horror stories told to the members of our NGO. If the men were heroin addicts, something increasingly common in Tajikistan, the problems were greatly compounded. The appearance of pornography added an extra few layers of male expectations and consequent pressures on wives.


60The insistence of those in the Tajik women’s movement that sex was unimportant was exposed as false both by my ethnographic research, for instance, my work on the lives of Sitora and Haydar, and by the Gharmi women and men we met through our NGO work. Indeed, both showed sex to be as central to marital relations in Tajikistan as it is elsewhere, an improvement in the one usually resulting in an equivalent improvement in the other. Perhaps a remnant from the Soviet period, the women’s movement member attitude, therefore, seems detrimental to themselves as well as to other women.

61The lack of meaningful sex education in Tajikistan, in part resulting from the Soviet heritage, together with the total silence around sex, was compounded by the arrival of pornographic movies, which provided false and misleading information on female sexuality to men with no other means of information and learning. Even those men who had some understanding of female sexuality were generally unwilling to try to satisfy their Tajik wives sexually for fear that this would prove an obstacle to their maintaining appropriate norms of masculinity. In fact, the insistence on conformity to gender norms turned out to be the greatest barrier to sexual and emotional satisfaction for both men and women, with or without the influence of pornography.


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1 A longer version of this story can be found in Harris (2004).

2 According to a letter from the chief gynaecologist of the USSR addressed to the chief gynaecologists of the union republics, shown to me by one of its recipients.

3 Where not otherwise attributed, materials in this section are taken from Harris (2004; 2006).

4 Drawings of women wearing such cloaks and veils (faranja and chachvan) can be found in Harris (2006, 25).


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