Third Congress of Comintern (1921). Alexandra Kollontai (right) alongside Clara Zetkin

Veiled lessons

Yassamine Mather spoke to Anne McShane at a Hands Off the People of Iran meeting. Given the recent wave of arrests in Iran and new legislation reinforcing the wearing of the hijab, the experience of the Soviet Union’s Zhenotdel in the 1920s is of particular relevance.

AM: I want to talk about the work of the Women’s Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party - the Zhenotdel - in particular in Uzbekistan, my main area of study, though I have also looked at Azerbaijan.

The veiled women of Uzbekistan were viewed as profoundly oppressed and the veil was seen as emblematic of their oppression. It was a total covering, with a paranji (a long veil) and a chachvon (facial covering). The practice actually became more predominant during the middle part of the 19th century. There was resentment of the tsarist regime and fear of Russification.

When Russian Zhenotdel activists first went to central Asia in 1920, they described a society which was dominated by large, patriarchal families. Women were separated from men, apart from husbands, brothers and male children. They were allowed to unveil when they were among female relatives in particular and immediate male relatives. They were not, however, allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone and rarely ventured outside as a result.

When Alexandra Kollontai wrote on the question in 1920, she argued that the liberation of veiled women had to be achieved by these women themselves. They would have to take their lives into their own hands. At the first conference of activists of the east she argued that the forms of organisation had to be suitable for the material circumstances. Rather than having delegate meetings, which would involve working with men, they needed to set up women-only establishments. They formed women’s clubs, where women were to be taught skills like weaving, shoemaking and carpet-making. There were literacy classes, medical consultations with visiting doctors and all kinds of cultural activities too.

Childcare was available. So children were looked after and educated, while the women joined in the activities of the club. It was a community hub. The model was the Ali Bayramov club in Baku, which was very successful. However, in contrast to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan was slow to make progress. It was not until 1923 that things began to move under the leadership of Serafima Liubimova, who was a follower of Kollontai. She had attended her lectures at Sverdlov University in 1921.

The main challenge for Liubimova was how to build a self-sustaining organisation and financially sustainable clubs. The New Economic Policy had led to major cuts in Zhenotdel funding and the organisation was strapped both financially and in terms of staffing. It was not possible to make money from the goods made in clubs. Indigenous women were not allowed to go to markets to sell them. And the cooperative organs ignored requests to assist and sell the goods on their behalf.

Then in 1924 there was a breakthrough, when an Uzbek-language journal, Yangi Y’ol (New Path) was launched by Zhenotdel. With it came the proper involvement for the first time of Uzbek women in large numbers. The editors were connected with the Jadid movement, which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century, seeking to reform Islam and advocating an active engagement with modernity. There was a strong anti-clerical element about it too.

The initiative was then taken to organise working class and peasant women in cooperative shops. What was important about them was that they were self-sustaining. Women would bring their produce and sell it and also buy what they needed. So, rather than having to be accompanied to a market by their husbands, they could go into an environment where they were among other women and felt free but did not put them on a collision course with their families and community.

The coops were also social and educational centres. There were readings of Yangi Y’ol, literacy lessons and medical consultations. The staff all spoke Uzbek. All the facilities that had been planned to be provided in the clubs were now be provided in these coops.

Russian leaders of Zhenotdel were really happy with these developments. It meant that collective organisation was taking root and indigenous women were fashioning the shops according to their own needs. They were small in number - a reported 27 in total by 1927. But they were popular.

Although Zhenotdel activists wrote about the veil in very disparaging terms, they did not campaign for its removal. They wanted to educate and empower women, while also winning over working class and peasant men to support the project. They were very aware of the lack of a viable alternative to the patriarchal family during that period. Women who rebelled could be disowned by their families. Unless the Zhenotdel was able to absorb them into its projects, they would be homeless and destitute, often ending up in prostitution.

It is interesting that the veil was used in opposition to threatened Russification. That is similar to the current situation in the Middle East - not only in Iran. The way that the west has presented itself as superior to the Islamic world has actually increased the number of women wearing the veil.

Could you expand on the relationship of the Zhenotdel to the Communist Party?

AM: The Zhenotdel was created as a department of the central committee, but it involved many non-party women. Its leaders wanted to recruit to the party, while at the same time providing a voice for women in general within the party. So it had a dual approach, which challenges some views of it as an obedient adjunct of the CC.

From the very beginning it demanded autonomy. Kollontai and another leader, Konkordiia Samoilova, planned a non-party conference of eastern women to be held in April 1921. Its agenda was circulated at meetings of women throughout the east in 1920 and early 1921. But the party leadership postponed the conference to June - and then cancelled it on the basis of food shortages in Moscow. That was while allowing the Comintern congress and the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM) conference to go ahead … along with numerous other events associated with Comintern. This suggests to me that eastern women were not viewed as a priority.

A group of these women who turned up for their planned conference in June actually ended up on stage at the CWM event. They were greeted with enormous enthusiasm. This was widely reported as its most inspiring moment. But the truth was that these veiled women were not there to be on show: they had come to Moscow for the purposes of organisation.

That they were not able to do that was a big setback for the autonomy of the movement in the east, which had initially been enthused by the revolution. However, while the lack of real support from the party leadership and the local branches caused a lot of difficulties, it did mean that there was little interference with its work. The Zhenotdel in Uzbekistan overall had significantly more autonomy than in Russia for example.

What happened once Stalin came to prominence? How did that change the situation in Uzbekistan?

AM: After Stalin had solidified power around himself in 1926, he decided to do something about the prominent role of the clergy in the east. The Central Asian Bureau of the party was ordered to launch a campaign to break the hold of religion. This was called the Hujum (‘assault’). The most prominent aspect of this campaign was the plan for the mass unveiling of women.

During the summer of 1926 meetings of the Zhenotdel were addressed by leading members of CAB. They were instructed to lead the Hujum. Liubimova is reported as having objected, saying that she believed it would incite reactionary elements. But despite such protests, a Hujum commission was set up, with indigenous women given a leading role. They were told to organise mass unveiling events in the cities of Uzbekistan on March 8 (International Women’s Day). And there were mass demonstrations, with a reported 70,000 women unveiling and burning their veils. An order had been sent out to party members to send their wives and daughters to unveil.

There was too enthusiastic participation from young Jadid women. They saw the Hujum as striking a blow against the old society. Reports in Soviet papers immediately afterwards claimed that this was a new revolution against the clergy and the hold of Islam. There were predictions that the women of the east would be totally unveiled by the 10th anniversary of the revolution in October 1927.

But very quickly it became clear that the Hujum was a stunt that had gone badly wrong. A wave of opposition came from both the clergy and Uzbek men, including many party members. Hundreds and possibly thousands of unveiled women were attacked - some actually murdered. Those who escaped the physical backlash were forced to stay at home.

The Hujum was relaunched again on May 1, with a similar result. Almost all of those who took part ended up revailing.

What was the role of the Zhenotdel in the Hujum?

AM: It appears to me that there was little enthusiasm for the campaign. There was no mention of the Hujum in their journal Kommunistka until July 1927, and this was in an article which criticised activists for not doing enough. The Hujum meant the obliteration of the Zhenotdel’s advances in Uzbekistan. Reports in Kommunistka were of clubs closing down. No women could attend them in safety, and it was the same with cooperative shops - they were closed down by the general cooperatives, with the claim that there was no need for them any more. Zhenotdel members were really angry, especially as the cooperative shops had been closed down without them being even notified.

In 1928 Nadia Krupskaya, then the editor of Kommunistka, initiated a debate on the Hujum. This was a brave move on her part, given that criticism of the party leadership was effectively prohibited by this stage. During the debate a general view emerged that the Hujum had been a very superficial campaign, which meant little without women having real economic and social independence. There was also a lot of criticism of the fact that there had been no thought of protecting unveiled women, so they could continue to attend clubs and shops. It was apparent that, despite the proclamations of party leaders, the Hujum was not about emancipating women.

Criticism of the central committee were not made directly, but the implication was obvious. I think it would have been impossible for them to write in direct terms. There was condemnation of male party members who were described as worse than non-party men in their reactionary attitudes towards women, and their eagerness to close down the shops.

Because of the Hujum indigenous women were losing their access to society. Zhenotdel members argued that unveiling women by dictat was completely counterproductive. Seeing a woman’s face did not mean she was any freer overall. The choice had to be theirs alone and in a context where they were safe to make it. Of course the Hujum was a softening-up exercise, aimed at bringing Uzbek society under central control. It was part of the war on religion launched in 1926 under Yemelyan Yaroslavsky - by then one of Stalin’s henchmen. It also needs to be understood in the context of the moves to initiate the first five-year plan in 1928. The party leadership knew from the Zhenotdel reports that indigenous women were becoming more autonomous from the family and that many wanted more freedom. It manipulated that genuine desire for its own purposes but as a result the indigenous women were left in a far worse position than before.

Debates in Kommunistka led to new demands being raised. One was for complete independence from the party. In Kazakhstan an autonomous society had been set up to campaign against polygamy and arranged marriage, which included men and women. Similar moves had been taken in Azerbaijan, and were being discussed among activists in Uzbekistan. Some of those who favoured breaking away from the party argued that being autonomous meant that you could work with men who were actually in favour of change - as opposed to local party members, who often undermined their work.

Complaints about men in the party was a constant theme - not just in Uzbekistan, but throughout the Soviet Union. There had been moves in 1925 to set up a separate organisation. Zhenotdel’s leadership managed to prevent a breakaway. However, now that the Zhenotdel’s painstaking work of building organisation among indigenous women had been destroyed virtually overnight by the party, calls for independence grew even louder. Liubimova, while being against a split, nevertheless defended the Zhenotdel in Kazakhstan against accusations of feminism. The organisation included men too. She also supported a call for a ban on the veil, which had been raised by many indigenous women following the Hujum. Yangi Y’ol campaigned for such a measure. They believed that a ban would give more confidence to women that they could rely on the Soviet government to defend them. The party leadership was still calling on women to unveil, but did not want to institute a legal ban.

At a conference of activists in the east in December 1928, Krupskaya took up these questions in a speech which was published in Kommunistka. She opposed the creation of separate organisations, while being sympathetic to the women who wanted to break away because of their frustration with the party. She argued that it would be even more difficult to make progress without having a presence within the party and trying to act without its authority.

Her sharpest criticism was directed at those who wanted to “impose a dead level” on eastern society. She argued that a ban on the veil could perhaps be a normative measure, in the same way that bans on arranged marriage or polygyny worked. They sent a progressive signal to society. But the bases of such practices were economic as well as social and were deeply rooted. She included in her critique bans on religious baptisms and coming-of-age ceremonies. She argued it was foolish to suppose that religious customs and beliefs could be eradicated immediately by the state. The peasantry and working class of the east had to be won over, not forced to deny their religion.

In making this stand Krupskaya was directly opposing the central committee’s war on religion, led by Yaroslavsky. And he was at the conference to oppose her stand. In his speech he condemned the calls for autonomous organisation as a petty bourgeois, feminist deviation. And he made it absolutely clear that the Hujum would go on, despite the Zhenotdel’s criticisms and the devastating effect it had on work among women. The Hujum would now be used as an opportunity to “cleanse the party”.

The Zhenotdel was instructed to lead a purge of “alien elements in the party” - those party members who refused to unveil their female relatives, or continued to practice ‘kalym’ (bride-price) and polygyny. The hold of religion had to be broken. Yaroslavsky was joined by regional leaders in demanding loyalty from the Zhenotdel. They were clearly disturbed by the dissenting voices within its ranks and were determined to silence them. A resolution on autonomy was voted down, and a ban on the veil promised at some time in the future.

Kommunistka was devoid of open criticism on the Hujum in the following year. Krupskaya remained editor, but her promotion of discussion was superseded by a drive to implement the first five-year plan.

This was having devastating consequences in Uzbekistan, as the population were corralled into collective farms and large production plants. Moves to force women to unveil continued in this new environment. Various writers did condemn their low status within the new mass workforce. They often did the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. They also had to work alongside men and this caused huge tensions and put them at risk. One suggestion was that male Komsomol members accompany unveiled women in public to prevent attacks.

In March 1930 the Zhenotdel was closed down, and Kommunistka ceased publication. The decision was made by Stalin, and the article announcing its demise was published in Pravda before it was printed in Kommunistka. The official reasons were numerous and contradictory. One was that there was no need for the organisation any more. Women’s equality had been largely ‘achieved’! Another was that the Zhenotdel had become too sectional and the question of women’s emancipation needed to be taken up by all party members. But all party members dealing with it meant that no organ of the party had a real commitment to the question. A temporary form of women’s organisation was allowed to remain in Uzbekistan because of the many problems which I have described. But it was completely under the thumb of the party.

The closure of Kommunistka meant the silencing of an important voice for women party members. It had had authority with Krupskaya as its editor and a proud history of open criticism and self-criticism.

The experience of the Zhenotdel in Uzbekistan is very relevant to my view of the left in Iran, Turkey and other parts of the world, where veiling continues. What would you say is its legacy?

AM: Overall I think the experience is an important one, as it shows what can be done in a situation where there is a commitment to women’s liberation as part of building socialism. It shows how important it is to be sensitive to religious culture, and how successful you can be if you create avenues for political and social involvement.

The Zhenotdel promoted the involvement of women without demanding that they unveil. Veiled women took part in demonstrations on International Women’s Day and were applauded for having the courage to march publicly. Photos in Kommunistka show both veiled and unveiled women at various events. Some activists did believe that the veil had a bad effect on women’s health because of the lack of light and the inability to converse freely with others outside the home. But, by creating women’s spaces, they gave women the ability to educate themselves, learn from each other and gain self-confidence.

The Zhenotdel did not directly attack Islam, but found ways to work with Muslim allies in spreading the values of solidarity, secularism and socialism. So Uzbekistan in this period provides an example of what works and what does not. Through culturally sensitive methods the Zhenotdel managed to connect with indigenous women in a real way - although the Hujum destroyed all of that.

Today many academics argue that the Zhenotdel was completely under the control of the party leadership and was part of this mass attack on religion in 1927. However, if you read its journals in a systematic manner, you will see that this is not true at all. What is true is that the leadership was made up of committed party members who considered themselves to be putting the ideas of Kollontai and Zetkin into practice. This was what Marxism meant to them - making formal equality, substantive equality.

I agree that there needs to be sensitivity, but you do need to take action against the clergy. We have seen how Islam is not easily defeated and continues to present a real problem for the left in places like Iran. It cannot be wished away.

AM: I completely agree. You have to confront it, but how you do so really matters. My view is that you need to be able to reach out to people in order to educate them. Krupskaya, for example, proposed the use of theatrical events, which were very popular. In Azerbaijan, Zhenotdel members would veil themselves and attend weddings and other events. When the women unveiled in their own quarter, they could have debates on all sorts of issues, and sometimes the bride would make donations towards their work. They would go to the women’s bathing houses and have discussions with them there. Initially in Uzbekistan they visited women at home.

So religious society and its oppression of women was being challenged, but in a way that sought to integrate those ideas with women’s lives and allow them the opportunity to get some economic independence.