Sarvinoz Ruhulloh is no stranger to the hardships women face in her country, having focused much of her reporting for RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, on women and gender issues. Nor is she one to shy away from a controversial subject, but even she was surprised by the slew of negative reactions to her recent story on a female Tajik artist who paints nude portraits of women.
The artist, 25-year-old Marifat Davlatova, held an exhibition of her portraits in Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe, and though many visitors praised her work, in the deeply conservative muslim majority country, it also touched a nerve.
Ruhulloh's report on the exhibition generated hundreds of negative comments directed at both the artist and the journalist. The attacks ranged from the boorish to the abusive. “If you want to walk around naked, go to Europe, whore,” spewed one commenter.
Ruhulloh tells Lady Liberty that the repercussions of her report on Davlatova are ongoing. She says she has been accused by her readers and also her friends of promoting Western culture and an immoral image of the Tajik woman and mother.
“My aim was to show the art and the work and dedication that went into creating these paintings,” Ruhulloh said. “This report was very costly to me.”
The price was also high for the artist, who received death threats. Davlatova said she was inspired in part to paint nude portraits of women after experiencing harassment and unwanted comments about her own body. She said she wanted to “present the female body as something normal.”
“At first glance it was just an art exhibition in which the artist exposed the outer and inner world of a Tajik woman,” Ruhulloh explains, “yet the reactions to my video report proved once again how much our society is not ready to accept anything new and unusual that challenges the traditional mentality.”
In her work for RFE/RL, Ruhulloh draws attention to the unfair social burden Tajik women bear from birth, telling personal stories about their struggles to obtain an education, the job they desire, the independence to choose who they marry, how to live, and even what to wear.
Sarvinoz Ruhulloh explains what sets Radio Ozodi's coverage of women's rights apart from other media.
“The discussion of women’s themes on Radio Ozodi is centered around the problems facing women in our society and women’s own aspirations,” said Ruhulloh. “We publish women’s unique, deep, and sincere stories in their own voices, while most media in Tajikistan discuss these problems from the view of experts.”
Radio Ozodi’s reporting on women’s stories often gets the attention of officials and has led to legal action. The most striking example is a prison sentence given to a Tajik man for inciting his young wife’s suicide by berating her about her virginity. The charges were brought against him after Ozodi told her story.
Radio Ozodi’s features on survivors of domestic violence raise awareness about the problem and set an example that other local media have begun to follow with their own reports on domestic abuse.
As disputes over the Tajik artist’s subjects continue to rock Tajikistan and reveal rifts in public opinion about the role of women in society, Ruhulloh notes that at least one outcome is certain: the exhibition was a sellout.