Uzbek women market traders hit back at criticism

Market traders, Tashkent, Uzbekistan Image copyright Togri.uz/YouTube
Image caption Market traders complain of being stereotyped

Women selling fruit and vegetables at farmers' markets in Uzbekistan are up in arms about a government demand that they behave in a "more seemly fashion".

Deputy Prime Minister Elmira Bositxonova caused a stir by telling an official meeting that the female sellers are "unenlightened, and lacking in spirituality", the Togri news site reports.

The newly-appointed minister was addressing a conference about domestic violence when she touched on a number of other topics that she thought required remedial action.

Ms Bositxonova prescribed regular "educational pep talks" for female traders by special teams from the official Women's Committee, which she also took over in June.

In addition, the market workers will have uplifting selections from the Hadith - the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad - as well as readings from the Soviet-era poet Zulfiya broadcast over loudspeakers, as spiritual food for thought.

But market traders in the capital Tashkent are unhappy about this "negative stereotyping", especially from the head of the country's Women's Committee.

'No more pressing problems?'

"There are some rude people, it's true, but we also suffer from being stereotyped," herb-seller Rano told the Repost.uz news site.

"We are mothers and wives - how can we lack moral standards when we bring up children? And as for being uneducated, some of the women here have college degrees, but times are hard and they can't find suitable jobs," said Nadezhda, who sells honey.

Image copyright MinbarUz/YouTube
Image caption Elmira Bositxonova is no stranger to controversy

Her neighbour Dilya, a fruit-seller, is not happy with "bureaucrats getting involved in our business".

"Are there really no more pressing problems to deal with in the country, has everything else been sorted out already?" she asked the reporter.

Another trader suggested a few matters that the government could address instead.

"Go to the mountain areas. There's no gas and no light. Children are studying in schools with leaking roofs. Let them deal with that," she told Togri.

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The reaction on social media has been equally trenchant.

Some acknowledge that there are market traders who could do with being more polite, cleaner, or even more honest, but most agree that broadcasting religious texts and public hectoring is not the way to deal with them.

"If Elmira Bositxonova were a genuinely cultured person herself, she would know how to speak to these women more gently. They have a hard life, and don't work down the market for fun," is one representative comment.

The Women's Committee was stung by the reaction, but remains unrepentant.

It issued a statement complaining that bloggers had taken their chairwoman's comments out of context, and reminded them sternly that "there are rules of behaviour for social media networks".

Although Uzbekistan is seeing cautious political and economic reform under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the government is still authoritarian and keeps the media under firm control.

'Robinson Crusoe's island'

Ms Bositxonova served an earlier term as deputy prime minister and head of the Women's Committee from 2011 to 2016, which was also marked by controversial public statements.

Four years ago, she accused female singers of wearing "provocative outfits", saying that "if they think democracy means doing what you like without regard for public opinion, you're very much mistaken".

"Uzbekistan isn't Robinson Crusoe's island," she warned.

The deputy prime minister backed up her words with actions, too, as three singers were banned from performing on stage or television, and another 11 received formal warnings.

Image copyright Togri.uz/YouTube
Image caption Women are the backbone of the farmers' markets

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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