An imposing statue of Ismail Somoni, a ninth century ruler considered the “father of the Tajik people,” stands over Freedom Square in the center of the capital Dushanbe. Its presence is a pointed replacement of the statue of Lenin that was moved to a less conspicuous perch two decades ago; moved, but not put away.

Photo credit: Ibrahimjon Rustamov/Wikicommons

Such is the sense of the lingering legacy of the Soviet era to a first-time visitor in Tajikistan. Vestiges of Soviet influence are also visible in the block-style architecture, in the continued use of Russian as an official language, and in the education system.

A short walk from Somoni is another enormous statue, framed by a huge metal arch, of classical Persian poet Rudaki. It serves not only as another testament to Tajik national identity but also as a marker of the Persian cultural and linguistic ties that distinguish Tajikistan from the other four Turkic-language speaking former Soviet republics of Central Asia. It is this confluence of cultural, ethnic and religious influences that continue to shape the Tajik nation and that underpin the complexity of some of its contemporary security challenges.

Among these security challenges is the exposure of young Tajiks to radicalizing ideas and groups and the potential for their involvement in violent extremism. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sponsored a two-day seminar in Dushanbe in June that brought together international experts and key representatives from Tajikistan’s government and civil society to explore this issue and specifically discuss the role that women can play in preventing radicalization to, and involvement in, terrorism. 

The discussions highlighted the different cultural identities, foreign influences, and gender roles in Tajik society that may contribute to radicalization and terrorism but also provide unique opportunities for prevention.

Since the days of the Silk Road, Tajikistan has been a crossroads of religious and cultural influences. Although the practice of religion was outlawed during the Soviet era, Islam has experienced resurgence in the region. Many Tajik representatives at the seminar expressed concern that the proliferation of loosely regulated, foreign-sponsored religious schools and inadequate awareness of mainstream and moderate teachings of the Islamic faith have allowed radical interpretations of Islam to take a foothold in certain communities.

Although radical religious beliefs do not translate directly into extremist violence, it has become clearer that this unregulated influence, sometimes coming from abroad, has provided recruitment opportunities for militant and terrorist groups. Women in Tajik society are quick to identify the restrictive effect of radical interpretations of Islam in their own lives. Political representation and literacy rates of Tajik women remain very high in spite of poverty and limited economic opportunities. Tajik women benefitted from Soviet work and education policies, and many were empowered by their roles as heads of households and caretakers during the five year-long civil war in the post-Soviet era.  

More recently, men have been significantly absent from Tajik homes, as many travel abroad in search of employment. More men migrate from Tajikistan to Russia for work than any other former Soviet republic, and remittances from abroad make up the largest portion of the country’s GDP.  

As is the case in many places, however, the role of women in this society is beset by contradictions. Many at the OSCE seminar described a pervasive male-dominated system that extends to autocratic decisions by fathers and husbands not to educate their daughters or allow their wives to work outside the home. In this complicated dynamic, it can be hard to identify ways in which women can contribute to the prevention of extremist violence.

Nonetheless, the seminar showcased how Tajik women in civil society are currently working to leverage a variety of social identities and roles in ways that can influence youth at risk of radicalization. By harnessing the power afforded them by their education and political status, tapping into their influence in their families as mothers and wives, and working to develop the skills and awareness to recognize and understand the drivers of radicalization, women in Tajikistan are poised to play powerful roles as preventers of violent extremism.

Georgia Holmer is a senior program officer in USIP’s Center for Gender and Peacebuilding and leads a project on women preventing extremist violence.

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