Unveiling Uzbekistan: The Photography of Umida Akhmedova

by Kiki Gray

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

The Turkestan Album was one of the first photographic collections depicting life in Central Asia in more than 1,200 photos. 50 years later, in the Soviet period, photographers like Max Penson and Georgi Zelma captured the Soviet transformation throughout the new USSR, from urban cities to collective farms. Photography reveals how Central Asia has experienced “transformation” in the 19th and 20th centuries as the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union attempted to modernize (and colonize) the region. One of the most significant indicators of transformation is the role of women in Central Asian society. 

Umida Akhmedova, one of the first female photographers in Central Asia, is known for her work on capturing modern Uzbek society, including its challenges. Much of Akhmedova’s photography focuses exclusively on women, demonstrating various aspects of poverty, seclusion, and violence that continues to affect women throughout Uzbekistan and the region. Recently, Akhmedova has been accused of tarnishing the image of Uzbeks to global audiences. As Ellen Barry wrote in The New York Times, Akhmedova is said to have photographed “people with sour expressions or bowed heads, children in ragged clothing, old people begging for change or other images so dreary” that would have any foreigner understand that Uzbekistan is a “backwards” country still stuck in the “Middle Ages.”

Photo by Umida Akhmedova

This idea of “backwardness” has important historical connotations, as it was one of the leading justifications for colonial intervention in both the 19th and 20th centuries with the Russian Empire and Soviet Union’s aim of modernizing Central Asia. The concept has continued to provoke the insecurities of political leaders of independent Uzbekistan as the nation has worked to set itself up as a regional leader with a “defensive self-reliant” foreign policy. It is immensely important for the Uzbek regime to maintain a positive image of Uzbekistan, especially for foreign audiences, and thus any visual representation that has a large enough platform could pose a great threat to the regime’s narrative and attitudes of anti-backwardness that reek of colonialism. 

It is important to reflect on the trends that ultimately guided these photographers in their work. Photos from the Turkestan Album are heavily colored with Russian colonialism and imperialism, whereas Soviet photography is of course influenced by Soviet propaganda and politics. There are three periods of photography to consider here: first, the ethnographic colonialism of the Turkestan Album era; second, the high modernist propagandized photography of the Soviet era; and third, the contemporary (and “controversial”) photography of Umida Akhmedova in independent Uzbekistan, which reveals the lives of women in the countryside. 

The veil as a symbol

Central Asia in the 19th century had more clearly designated roles women—faithful, domestic and veiled—which gave easy ammunition for Soviet colonialists to campaign for the emancipation of these women through the initial hujum campaign that began in 1927. Hujum, meaning “attack,” was a Soviet campaign to unveil and emancipate Central Asian women from the shackles of Islam and so-called “backwards” traditions (including bride price and multiple wives); it often consisted of forced unveiling. The veil became equated with Islam, backwardness, and oppression, and through the hujum campaign, it was aggressively demonized in public. Women were terrorized by local men for unveiling, as the act was seen as an attack on local culture, tradition, and religion; women were also terrorized by Soviet men for not unveiling, as it was seen as being anti-socialist, anti-Soviet, and anti-modern. 

Photos by Georgi Zelma (left) and Max Penson (right)

New modern women in Soviet Central Asia were meant to be working professionals: educated, unveiled, and engaged in politics and socialist activities. Soviet leaders throughout the 20th century had been “committed to the ideal of women’s liberation” in order to place women on “an equal footing with men in all aspects of economic, social and political life, while simultaneously providing them with full moral and material support for fulfilling their role as mothers.” However, the Soviets were not the only nor the first to consider women’s transformation in Central Asia. Before 1924, the Jadids were a relatively small grassroots group of intellectuals who wrote about and actively criticized Central Asian society around the turn of the century as it was falling under increasing Russian (and later, Soviet) influence. Jadids were especially concerned with women’s exclusion from society, and their ideas included education reform to allow women and girls to attend schools, as well as the public unveiling of women, long before the Soviet hujum campaign began

Photos of women from the Turkestan Album are therefore supposed to be the most traditional and the most “backwards,” while women in Soviet-era photography are meant to be more modern, more developed, and more liberated—at least in a superficial manner. As the veil became too controversial in the 1930s and onwards, it was even more important for Soviet photography to depict unveiled women in public spaces, behaving like the modern, transformed women that the Soviet project had aimed to distill. The shift in representations of these women in photography from the 19th to the 20th century emphasizes clothing and social interactions to demonstrate the external transformation of women’s role in society; however, there are still remnants of 19th century fashioning, such as the veil, that remain prominent even in Akhmedova’s contemporary work. 

Photo by Umida Akhmedova

Although the veil (and its removal) became important during the Soviet period as a representation of backwardness and emancipation, this piece of clothing continued to be present in women’s lives despite the attempts to politicize and demonize it. The veil dominated political ideology as the sole indicator of women’s transformation in Central Asia, but, in reality (or at least the reality reflected in photography), we can see how women’s lives have actually changed with, or without, the veil. Political and social constructs surrounding the veil existed in the minds of men who attempted to police how women should appear and function in society. Women in photos from these periods show how they balance themselves between these opposing and contradictory worlds as collectively faithful, modern, domestic, and liberated. Women in Central Asia have had to fit a precarious role between tradition, modernity, motherhood, society, and faith, which is still in constant debate and re-fashioning today.

Umida Akhmedova’s women

Akhmedova’s work is seen as problematic by the state, as she has been consistently accused of slandering and insulting the people of Uzbekistan due to her work’s association with perceived backwardness and unappealing images of rural life in Uzbekistan. The women in Akhmedova’s photography are seen still holding a balance between faith, modernity and tradition, as well as new waves of feminism that have materialized in art, collective projects, and campaigns throughout the region. A feminist collective based in Kazakhstan, FemAgora, has regularly praised Umida Akhmedova’s work and has been inviting her year after year to present at their annual festivals. Clearly, Akhmedova’s work has resonated with regional feminists, as she has given visual meaning and attention to the lives of women in Uzbekistan alongside this on-going struggle for “transformation” against a perceived “backwardness.” 

Photo by Umida Akhmedova

The conceptualization of “backwardness” that emerged with the Turkestan Album era continues to linger in contemporary Uzbekistan. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the attempts to transform and emancipate women from this “backwardness” drove the political and social discourse of regimes that otherwise promoted diverging ideologies. This balance between tradition and modernity continues to hold women in a stagnant position in society. Much has changed around women—the environment they live in looks and functions differently than it did 100 years ago. However, the internal transformation that was meant to truly liberate and emancipate women appears more incomplete.

The transformation of women in Central Asia has been re-imagined again and again. A portrait of a woman from the Turkestan Album, from the Soviet Union, and from contemporary Uzbekistan collectively reveal a singular woman: she is trapped in time as she continues to balance tradition and modernity, while her veil serves as a symbol of her apparent “backwardness” and faith simultaneously. This woman appears the same in these periods of photography—although she is stuck in this contradiction, she is still a woman in seclusion, remaining where she has been for the past century and more. The so-called “transformation” of women in Central Asia has only touched the surface, stopping at the veil—at the top of the head. But as new feminist movements and artists like Akhmedova continue to take the stage, there is hope that women can speak for themselves in the advocacy for their own self-proclaimed transformation, on their own terms. 

Kiki Gray is a researcher, writer and, translator specializing on Central Asian history and culture. Her work examines the representations of women in photography, art, and literature in historical and contemporary contexts. She is currently writing her dissertation on women’s poetry in Uzbekistan.