"Marziya," 36, is hiding at Samarkand's only women's shelter, a private home tucked behind an unmarked iron gate. Her husband began beating her in 1992, at the height of Uzbekistan's economic turmoil. Although the Qur'an prohibits alcohol, "he would come home after drinking and beat me very hard," Marziya says. "One time he crushed my ovary." She ran to her brother's house, "but he also drank and got violent," she says. So she and her 5-year-old son fled in search of safety.
The shelter is as hidden as Uzbekistan's domestic-violence problem. There are only a handful of women there now, but over the past year more than 100 have passed through. Since Uzbekistan gained independence more than 10 years ago, what locals call "traditionalism"--a moral code based on Islam--has flourished. And for many Uzbek women, that code makes the few social guarantees of the Soviet regime look good. The Soviets not only banned traditions like forced marriage and wearing veils but also extended education and jobs to women; the traditionalists--who stress family values instead of communist ideals--consider domestic violence a legitimate way for a man to keep control in the family. "The traditionalists tell us, 'We don't need cultured women'," says Uzbek writer and feminist Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva. "Girls are getting married as young as 15. [The traditionalists] tell them that they shouldn't look at those girls in short skirts going to the university." Samarkand imam Fakul Melikzoda says Uzbeks are having trouble finding their moorings. "There is a return of Islamic spirituality but also confusion," he says. "Men still drink vodka and then they beat their wives."
Uzbekistan has no specific law against domestic violence. In fact, a survey conducted in the late '90s showed that more than 60 percent of female respondents considered violence in the home a normal part of life. The only time an abuser faces immediate legal action is if he drives his partner to suicide--something that happens with increasing frequency. In 1998, 1,560 Uzbek women committed suicide, most often through self-immolation or ingesting poison. At least one fourth of the women who committed suicide last year are believed to have been victims of domestic violence.
In the Soviet era at least, there were places an abused woman could turn to for help. She could appeal to the local party committee where Soviet officials would assist her in getting a divorce. Now the government and the police seem to consider such involvement interference in the private lives of citizens. To obtain a divorce, a woman must endure government indifference, social ostracism and kilometers of red tape. Not surprisingly, the divorce rate in Uzbekistan is under 10 percent.
It doesn't help that divorced women have little or no social standing. A new bride generally lives with her husband's family, and her in-laws make decisions such as whether she will work and when she can visit her parents. "Even if I was sick, I was forced to work," says Amenia, 27. "My mother-in-law would not allow me to finish a computer-programming degree at university." Conflict with in-laws can be a catalyst for domestic violence. But Amenia was lucky. "When my husband supported me, his family disowned him."
For the most part, change is slow in coming. Farogat Shokirova, chief representative of Samarkand's Women's Committee, believes that a man is the head of the family and that problems should be resolved at home. Shelters for battered women "create mistrust between husband and wife," she says. "Besides, there is no such thing as domestic violence here." Someone just forgot to tell Marziya's husband.