Normative and Emotional Spaces of International Development: Women’s Empowerment in Soviet and Post-Soviet Tajikistan

Karolina Kluczewska

The most basic, technical definition of international development includes a transfer of funding and infrastructure from donor to recipient countries, either free of charge or on concessional terms. Within International Relations there are many ways to look at this process. For example, from a realist perspective, international development can be viewed as a geopolitical field, an arena of power struggles in which donors aid certain parts of the world to advance and safeguard their strategic interests there. In a global governance take, in turn, international development is conceptualised as a multi-level architecture composed of actors – donors, international organisations, recipient governments, non-governmental organisations and beneficiary communities – with structural relations and principles regulating cooperation. Critical approaches, such as postcolonial theory, denounce a neo-colonial logic of foreign-funded development interventions; they view international development as a discourse which cherishes a specific, linear vision of progress and modernity that is deeply rooted in the experience of European Enlightenment, and criticise the expansion of Western rationality to countries and communities which have different development trajectories. This is not an exhaustive list of possible analytical approaches. Moreover, the few lenses sketched out here are not mutually exclusive. However, one important dimension which deserves more attention from International Relations (IR) researchers concerns normative and emotional interactions taking place within the international development system.

This micro-level, bottom-up approach, largely stemming from the anthropology of development (Olivier de Sardan 2005; Lewis and Mosse 2006) and emotional geography (Clouser 2016), pays attention to the dynamics on the ground. Ultimately, this is where donor-funded development interventions are enacted and negotiated in everyday practice. From this perspective, international development can be seen as a constellation of international, national and multiple local spaces characterised by heterogeneous normativities, i.e. value systems and beliefs, ideas and ideals, forms of learning and knowing, and ways of doing (practices). Emotions are part of this picture because interactions which bring two social words into confrontation involve processes in which the various involved actors make sense of each other and position themselves towards each other, which is unavoidably laden with affect. While IR researchers often overlook this aspect of international development, seeing it as impressionistic and anecdotal, it needs to be recognised that any interaction taking place on a very local level within the donor-recipient framework is normative and emotional by definition. This happens irrespective of the field, either social or technical, because the identification of core problems and preferred solutions cannot be the same among all involved actors. Yet as I became convinced in the course of my own long-term field research in Tajikistan, some of the most complex and emotional international-local interactions arise around programmes and interventions which target the very social fabric, and particularly gender relations.

Overlapping normative spaces

The field of women’s empowerment in Tajikistan – a Central Asian, post-Soviet Muslim-majority republic, illustrates such a normative and emotional interplay. Over the last hundred years, this country has been subject to two very different models of women’s empowerment, both of which were promoted from outside: the statist Soviet and the liberal international. In different time periods, using different rhetoric and means, these two models have aimed to reshape the local gender order. But in the absence of either legitimacy or means to do so, both models needed to find ways to coexist with the local order, paving a way to a certain normative hybridity on the ground.

The first external campaign to enhance the situation of Tajik women, framed as the ‘liberation of the women of the East’ (osvobozhdenie zhenshchin Vostoka), was launched in the mid-1920s, with the establishment of the Soviet power in Central Asia (Northrop 2004; Kamp 2011). The Soviet Union justified its expansion in the region by putting an end to feudal labour relations and promising decent employment for all. Moreover, given that in the Marxist-Leninist tradition religions were seen as the opium of the people, this campaign also aimed to save local women from religious oppression which, according to the Bolsheviks, justified early and forced marriages, bride price and polygyny. The Soviet women’s empowerment model was violent, especially in its early stages in the 1920s and 1930s. Among other measures, it included highly symbolic unveiling campaigns which were voluntary in theory, but often mandatory in practice. In later decades, however, the mass-scale Soviet modernisation project proved deeply transformative and largely participatory (Kalinovsky 2018) – it relied on what in today’s development language we might describe as building of ‘local ownership.’ Under the banner of fostering socialist subjects, women, equally with men, were provided with literacy, education, vocational skills, secure employment and vast welfare. Nevertheless, the reception of this campaign on the ground was ambiguous and the degree of ‘success’ of the Soviet project varied across time and space. Throughout the more than sixty years of Soviet statehood in Tajikistan, Soviet women’s empowerment encountered resistance of local population, particularly in rural areas. It took various forms, starting from insurrection campaigns by Muslim traditionalists who belonged to the Basmachi movement, through more mundane, hidden forms of resistance taking place in individual households, which tried to safeguard the socially and historically established forms of gender power relations.

The second external women’s empowerment model started being promoted in Tajikistan after the country’s independence following the collapse the Soviet Union in 1991. This happened with the influx of foreign aid to the country, in the context of a breakdown of the centralised command economy and an acute economic crisis, which was additionally aggravated by local power struggles and which culminated in a civil war (1992-1997). In those turbulent times, international, mainly Western-funded women’s empowerment projects aimed to support local women by fostering gender equality and women’s integration into a newly established market economy (Simpson 2006). These projects sought to free local women from multiple ‘evils’: communism, poverty and patriarchy which foreign donors associated with Muslim, collective lifestyles. They were guided by an underlying neoliberal rationality which implied an understanding of women’s empowerment through the prism of individual rights, and also individual – rather than collective or statist – responsibility for wellbeing. The means to achieve such empowerment involved provision of basic social services, accompanied by information campaigns raising women’s awareness about their rights, and also more controversial methods, such as promotion of microfinance as a way to increase women’s economic independence. These measures have not been customised for Tajikistan, but rather are standard solutions promoted by donors in the so-called developing countries. While the capitalist underpinnings of international women’s empowerment fundamentally differ from the Soviet socialist model, local resistance to these interventions has been formulated along similar lines. Like in Soviet times, contemporary donor-funded projects are often perceived as undermining local family structures and criticised for disrupting the social organisation of family, neighbourhood and society, which is based on gender and age hierarchies.


Brokerage and emotions

Bringing together two normative models with fundamentally different foundational ideas – the external and the local one – is not an easy task and can be carried out only by development brokers (Lewis and Mosse 2006). These are individuals or social groups who find themselves at a crossroads: they understand the logic of both models, enjoy legitimacy among promoters and supporters of both, and are able to bridge conflicting demands in everyday practice. Brokering is emotional in that it requires a high degree of self-reflexivity, ability to control one’s emotions and simultaneously to evoke emotions in other people in order to mobilise support. It demands creativity and ability to improvise. But also, it implies a constant stress, pressure and exposure to critical attitudes, including doubts about loyalty on the part of donors and accusations of betrayal by community members. Brokers are held responsible for normative frictions.

In Soviet times, such brokerage in the field of women’s empowerment was performed by members of state-promoted civil society organisations: the Soviet youth organisation (Komsomol), and from the late 1950s onwards also women’s councils (zhensovety) and girls’ unions (sovety devushek). As part of this grassroots work, young people were tasked with mainstreaming the Soviet ideology locally, often in the same communities where they grew up, and which frequently resisted the Soviet modernisation. Illustrative of difficulties of such brokerage is Hasan Arbakesh, a 1965 Tajikfilm about the establishment of the Soviet power in Tajikistan in the 1920s and 1930s, directed during the Khrushchev Thaw by Boris Kimyagarov. One of the characters in this story is Sadaf, a young woman who liberates herself from parents who are planning her forced marriage to a rich, old man. Sadaf educates herself and soon starts teaching children at a newly established school in the village. This is a somewhat idealistic representation produced by Soviet cinematography, yet it is representative of social ostracism and threats of violence which Sadaf and other Komsomol members were exposed to, particularly in early Soviet times.

After Tajikistan’s independence, normative brokerage in the field of women’s empowerment became the task of the newly established local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). By implementing internationally-funded projects, they started to navigate between international donors and local communities, just like Komsomol members used to do between the Soviet power and the population. Often, these NGOs were founded by the former Komsomol members who have adapted their previously developed skills to the new, post-Soviet reality. In the course of conversations which I had with leaders of women’s NGOs during my fieldwork, many admitted that they aligned with the international women’s empowerment agenda because they wanted to safeguard the achievements of Soviet-era women’s empowerment, fearing the increasing role of religion after the Soviet collapse. Just like Sadaf back in the first years of Soviet power, in the 1990s the new brokers faced threats of violence from the Islamist opposition in the Tajik civil war. Although the religious fraction gradually disappeared from the political scene once the war ended, the women’s NGO leaders are still confronted with problems of legitimacy among the local population, that often perceives internationally-funded projects as disconnected from local reality and loosening the family, which for many is the only safety net against the precarity resulting from the market economy. 

International development is a highly normative and emotional enterprise. This is particularly the case on the very local level, in spaces where divergent visions of local order are negotiated – in villages, Komsomol venues and NGO offices. Zooming-in to these spaces offers IR researchers a new, bottom-up lens to think about international development interventions through the eyes of participants of these processes.


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Kamp, Marianne (2011). The new woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, modernity, and unveiling under communism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Northrop, Douglas (2004). Veiled empire: Gender and power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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