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Gender and Generation in Rural Turkmenistan



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Loomis, Cara 


This thesis seeks to explain the reproduction of gender and generation in desert villages of Gökdepe district, Turkmenistan. More than differences of wealth or class, gender and generation acted as organising principles determining communication between men and women, roles and responsibilities assumed by young and old, and the arrangement of people and structures in space and time. An ideal Turkmen family is a patriarchy centred around feminine, demure young women who are respectful of pious elders. It might be easy to understand the social conservatism of rural Gökdepe as reflecting a “traditionally Turkmen” way of life. However, the people I knew rarely attached importance to practices for their symbolic value as either traditional or modern, Turkmen or Muslim. This theoretical difficulty of encompassing the behaviours of my hosts and acquaintances in terms of explicit projects of identification led me to a theory of habitus as incorporating a sense of practical competence that allowed “traditions” to be practiced without being explicitly framed as such.

Part One addresses the reproduction of gender by looking at the gendered dimension of gift- giving. Taken together, these two chapters sketch out an opposition between men and women in terms of obligations through notions of patrilineal descent between men that disavow the necessity of small transfers of food between women. Seen from the perspective of brothers, fathers and sons, the day-to- day maintenance of relationships through small transfers of food appear inconsequential at best and at worst shade into petty accounting and calculation. However, these small transfers can have significant consequences. In the context of virilocal marriage expectations, sisters, mothers and daughters act to maintain intimacy and interdependence after leaving their natal home through gifts of food and cloth.

Part Two asks if it makes sense to speak of gender as a static quality, given changes that occur with age. These two chapters address how seniority is established through claims that life-cycle events hosted by the older generation are necessary to transform the younger generation into mature adults. Both older men and women develop the skills necessary to assume prominent roles in hosting large celebrations. These events are a public expression of piety and wealth, garnering status for the host/ess from recognised acquisition of these skills. For older men, the central skills concern animal sacrifice and generous hosting. The work of care for their children and particularly grandchildren, built through the myriad transfers of small gifts detailed in Part One, offers an alternative route to fortune available to mothers and grandmothers.

To account for the domestic reproduction of hierarchical relations of age and gender, the conclusion brings together the two themes that have oriented the thesis through the phrase an “actually existing patriarchy”. This means that; firstly, “patriarchy” is recognised as a political project intent on a coherent impression of “father-rule”; secondly, to use “patriarchy” to describe this configuration is necessarily one-sided, offering the impression of complementarity – a harmonious existence – that exists primarily from the vantage point of older men; thirdly, that “patriarchy” can come to be reproduced despite the best efforts, intentions and tensions inherent of men and women.





Sneath, David


Central Asia, Pastoralism, Patriarchy, Post-socialist, Turkmenistan


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge