Field Notes

Man? Woman? Two-Year Old Child?: Reorienting My Identity in Dushanbe

This post originally was published on the Berkley Center website as a part of their Junior Year Abroad Network, which can be found here.

Honorary Male Status: n. A phenomenon where a female is granted male privilege and through this is then freed from her position and expectations as a female, becoming “one of the boys.”

Upon reading my acceptance packet for Dushanbe, I discovered that I would be granted honorary male status. As a cisgender female, I finally would be able to enjoy life on the other side of the gender spectrum, and I wondered if I would feel more equality as an American female living in Tajikistan than I do in the United States. Three weeks in, I find this multi-dimensioned question to be best answered in two parts: life inside the family and outside on the streets.

Inside, I sometimes try to figure out with which family member I most identify as a way of determining my status. As I live at the intersection of three generations, there is a wide spectrum to which I can compare myself.

Some days I believe I identify most with the grandparents. When I was first introduced to the family and fed breakfast, I was told to sit on the couch as opposed to the floor. Baba (grandfather) even gestured for me to sit in his spot, which is at the head of the table. Additionally, their grandson was introduced to me as Basir. In these past weeks, I have realized that I, aside from the grandparents and the father, am the only one who calls him Basir. Both the mother and older sister refer to him as Basir-jon, adding jon to the end, which roughly means “dear,” as a sign of respect. Furthermore, this is not something that usually is added to my host sisters’ names.

Other days I most identify as a visiting aunt. Although I am treated with the utmost respect as a guest, I am still seated just below the uncles. This suggests that I am maybe somewhere in the middle of being a woman and a male, or maybe am a young boy.

Most days though, I feel most in solidarity with the two-year old, Mariam. Being too young to fully understand the complexities of etiquette, she can do whatever she pleases. We both are allowed to sit wherever we want and are not required to help clean up after dinner.

On a greater scale, being located outside of a tradition means that I am allowed to do certain things for almost the same reason as Mariam: I simply do not really know any better and the effort of explaining these rules to me would be more effort than they are worth.

This disconnect from their culture also translates to my life on the streets. This past weekend I was walking home at night when a policeman stopped me. Usually, when the police pull someone over, a casual slip of some somoni is enough to convince them to turn a blind eye, but being a foreigner this method is not the most reliable, since they can arrest you for bribery. After being pulled aside we commenced in having a very disconnected dialogue from which the only understanding came through using our hands. Eventually, he let me go, realizing that it was not worth expending all the effort required to communicate with me.

The same phenomenon occurs in other street scenarios. Running around in my exercise gear may receive a few strange looks, yells, or the typical objectification. Another girl in the program has even been spat on. But these responses are as brief and effective as my host mother smacking Mariam’s hands away from her chopping board: in the moment it may stop us, but we do not fully understand why and will probably continue our actions in the future.

In the months counting down to the trip, I often found myself pondering this “foreign” concept of being an honorary male, only to realize it existed here at home: specifically, during my childhood as a “tomboy.” I remember being frustrated by the label because it stripped me of my identity as a girl in order for me to be considered “in” with the boys. Here in Tajikistan, I am not completely positive that my honorary male status is any better. Instead of being equal, I am pigeonholed into my own separate category that shifts in regards to the context. While it may allow me to continue acting in ways that I take for granted in the United States, I would not say that I am equal to a man.

UPDATE: Within this past week, I learned that jon is usually added to a child’s name if named after a relative. They are also addressed with shoma (the formal “you”) as a sign of respect. I also asked my host family at dinner one night about this and, after a look that suggested this was far too complicated of a subject to explain using my limited Tajik vocab, they said jon was a name from Allah. They also said it was added to Basir’s name because he is a boy and to Anora’s name because she is the eldest. So my deductions were not completely wrong.

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