Gender Issues

Tradition & Society in Turkmenistan
by Carole Blackwell
Curzon, 2003


This unusual and refreshing book conjures up a vision of a paradise where young girls are brought up to be submissive to their husbands, to be silent in front of their in-laws and to put the welfare of their new families before all else. The young would no more dream of arranging their own marriages than they would dream of eating a cat, the author is told by her Turkmen friends, who seem to have forgotten their ancestors’ habit of riding over to the other side of the mountain on great alaman horses to reive Persian girls, who were thought to be even more beautiful than their own.

When her husband was posted to a UN project in Ashgabad, the author, an American folklorist, found herself pitched into a Turkmen community where she spoke not one word of the language and knew nothing of the history or culture. This book tells the rather touching story of her encounters with Turkmen women, who open their hearts to her and teach her their songs. In line with the UN and NGO culture of “gender issues”, men do not figure in her narrative.

The Turkmen found the author as extraordinary as she found them. To the Venus-like Turkmen women, the American aid worker was undoubtedly from Mars. And yet, Blackwell has not only produced some intimate insights into Turkmen family life unknown to outsiders, she has told the world things about the thoughts of Turkmen women of which even their menfolk had no idea.

Turkmen daughters are regarded as transient guests in the family, to be married off as soon as they are of age. The first ones to be born are named after flowers, the moon or pearls but, if there is still no son after three girls, the next one will be named Ogulgerek (A son is needed), or Ogulsabõr (Patience for a son). Girls do not resent these names ­ quite the contrary, for they need brothers to protect them. The author seems to be astonished at how useful Turkmen girls are: not only do they bake bread and milk camels, but they weave the finest carpets. American girls work out.

In a linguistic tour de force Blackwell has transcribed 350 traditional Turkmen women’s two-couplet songs that she found in the Ashgabad library, and, with the help of Yousef Azemoun, who some years ago published an English version of the poems of the Turkmen Makhtum Goli (reviewed in Cornucopia 11), has translated them into English and provided explanations of them. The songs cover hopes and fears about marriage, divination of the future, lullabies and laments. In a culture where women do not speak in front of their elders and where emotions are of no concern to the family weal, a great wealth of feeling is condensed into these little songs of emotional release.

The early chapters set out to describe contemporary life in Turkmenistan, but in a country where the Ministry of Culture decrees that the purpose of culture is to eulogise the President, circumspection was clearly called for. Nevertheless, the author makes a good job of it. Interestingly, she has very little to say about Islam in Turkmenistan, beyond pointing out that, although there is a quiet revival after the years of suppression under the Soviets, most Turkmen prefer to pray at home than go to one of the glitzy new mosques. The Turkmen in Iran are heavily influenced by the Nakshibendi order of dervishes. It would have been interesting to know if their influence persists north of the Kopet Dagi. She also points out the survival of many pre-Islamic shamanistic practices. A beaver for detail, she gives the Turkmen names for plants used to avert the evil eye, but not the English. Yüzerlik is wild rue, but what are dagdan and ylgyn?

Quite apart from the folkloric interest, this book charmingly evokes a society not yet fragmented by the idea of the nuclear family, where the overriding imperatives are duty, respect and hospitality to the stranger. The tensions created by exposure to new ideas in the city are just hinted at. If you are jaded by modern women, dip into this book for a glimpse of a better-ordered world.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 30
  • Connoisseur 30

    Art from Florence and Amsterdam joins the work of a local court painter in Istanbul for two major international exhibitions

  • Painter in the Palace

    The pictures that fired Europe’s imagination with their visions of Istanbul and the Ottoman court returned to the city for the first time in more than 250 years. Philip Mansel looks at the extraordinary paintings of Jean Baptiste Vanmour


  • Fruits of the Earth

    The knobbly tubers stay fresh and crisp, and even become sweeter, if they are left in the ground; after frost and snow, they really taste like apples. Nutritionally, the tuber has valuable properties: as a diuretic, it benefits the kidneys; it stimulates the milk of nursing mothers; and it is considered a potent aphrodisiac.
    More cookery features


  • An American Nomad

    There has been no road map in the life of Josephine Powell. As restless as the nomadic tribes she followed, she has simply let things happen. But along the way, she has become a photographer and an expert on the nomads of Turkey and their textiles. And now she dreams of a permanent home for her exceptional kilims and photographs. Andrew Finkel pays tribute to a remarkable friend


  • Beyond the Euphrates

    Until 1950, no travellers were permitted to cross the Euphrates. Southeast Turkey was simply out of bounds. Among the first to visit when restrictions were finally lifted was the photographer Cafer Türkmen. Travelling by train, truck, Jeep and mule, he discovered a place of dramatic beauty and a way of life barely changed for thousands of years.

  • From Lunacy to Diplomacy

    The Hôtel de Lamballe was home to a doomed princess and an asylum for mad artists before it became Turkey’s embassy in Paris. Patricia Daunt reveals the turbulent past behind its serene facade. Photographs by Jean Marie del Moral



  • Forgotten Corner of a Foreign Land

    Abandoned in Greece at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks of Thrace cling defiantly to their old ways. By Owen Matthews. Photographs by Ashley Gilbertson

Buy the Book
Buy the issue
Issue 30, 2003/2004 Early Journeys
£8.00 / $10.27 / 54.78 TL