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Podcast Episode: Meet Naureen Durrani & Helene Thibault

In this episode Dr Christine Ellison meets with Professor Naureen Durrani and Dr Helene Thibault to discuss the work that has been done in the Central Asian region and what challenges still exist in the area.

Naureen Durrani is Professor of Education at Nazarbayev University. Her research interests lie in the social, cultural, political, and economic influences on education, policy formulation and the outcomes of education on identity formation and gender relations. Also at Nazarbayev University, Helene Thibault specialises in issues relating to religion, secularism, gender and the Soviet legacy.

View a transcript for this podcast

Christine Ellison

You recently published a scooping paper which highlighted the real scarcity of political economy analysis in the region. I’m just wondering, why do you think that is, and is there a real need for it?

Naureen Durrani

So in order to understand why the political economy analysis is so scarce in educational research produced on Central Asia, we need to 1st situate the region in its historical context. So you know the Central Asian countries are post-Soviet countries, and in the Soviet Union, science was given a very esteemed position as it was part of the Soviet Union economic policy. Science was considered to find solutions for a range of social and economic challenges the nation was facing the Soviet Union, allocated a good amount of funding to scientific research. However, at the same time, a science was centrally controlled by political elites and it was centralised. The political the research agendas were set by the political elites, however the situation was very different when it comes to social sciences and arts. Where these disciplines were rather used for purposes of political engineering and propaganda. In fact, social science research was often viewed as controversial and provocative because the findings of social science research were often in conflict with the visions of society held by the political elites.

Moving now on to specifically on education, the field didn’t exist in its own rights educational research, so issues that would be considered relevant for education. Those issues were researched by researchers in disciplines like psychology, sociology. And post-independence, all the things have been changing, transformations have taken place with respect to research and development. However, the pace of change, particularly in the area of educational research, is slow. The field itself is in its infancy, although we have seen marked productivity in educational research on Central Asia over the last five years. And this is predominantly because of the establishment of flagship universities and institutions across the region which have more access to resources. Research funding and research expertise enjoy academic autonomy.

Now moving on to your second question, Is political economy analysis of use in the context and I would say yes, definitely. Because since independence profound changes have been ongoing in education systems more…most of these countries are looking now towards the West in policy borrowing and programmes in order to modernise their education systems. However, equity has not been focused in these reforms. These reforms have predominantly, driven by two aims. First of all, disassociate themselves from their Soviet past, and secondly to promote new national identities to promote nation building. So it’s quite a political process in that sense, and the second focus is on promoting a human capital in order to promote economic growth, and that’s why equity you know recent meta reviews indicate that equity or inclusiveness hasn’t not been the focus of most research in education.

What specific advantage? A political economy lens can bring to research, well, you know it can help identify for policymakers the processes through which certain groups become disadvantaged and the specific groups who have benefited the least from these wide ranging economic and educational reforms in the region. As well as to identify the support these marginalised groups need in order to realise the intended goals of the policy.

Christine Ellison

Thank you Naureen. I mean that’s fascinating.

Helene maybe I could ask you about the scoping paper, highlighted recent political changes across the region and how this is impacted expectations of what being a woman entails. Put bluntly, do you think the new political climate has been good for women? Has it been a good thing?

Helene Thibault

Very interesting question. I mean, gender equity  and equality is a is a challenge in in many I mean in all countries of the world. But it has a particular character here given the Soviet legacy. And as Naureen mentioned, the Central Asian states are trying to move away from their Soviet past and they do that by sort of appealing to their national ideologies. so there’s a lot of reliance on national symbols and the historical past that governments throughout the region have been using to define what is the new national identity.

And in it, uhm, you have some aspects that are emphasising traditional gender roles, but I don’t want to give the impression that societies in Central Asia are completely re traditionalizing.  A lot of academic literature focuses on that, but on the other hand, there are sort of parallel processes going on, because in the country where we live in Kazakhstan, women occupy, I don’t know, 40% of the workforce. Women have very much engaged in labour, outside their house. The level of education in all around Central Asia is really high and traditional roles are remain strong within a lot of families, but women also live independent lives and they have a they have apartments. They buy cars they’re very independent. They have jobs. The divorce rate is also very high in Kazakhstan, but even in more poorer countries such as Tajikistan. You have some sort of desire to be more independent to live independent lives.

But maybe one thing that we can say about Central Asia probably applies to all countries is that there’s a strong rural and urban divide as well. So the situation I’m describing here — the westernisation of lifestyles — might be applicable only to the large cities of Central Asia. But the rural dynamics are quite different and in some of the rural areas, for instance of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, you see a lot of retraditionalisation processes going on, so limited access to higher education for women. And women having a very unfavourable position within the family. So what we call the phenomenon of Kelin… Kelin means literally the bride. Yeah, and she is the the daughter of the of the of the sun yeah and many families here live in in multigenerational households, where the the youngest son will take care of his parents and the person who will actually take care of the parents is more likely to be the Kelin. So there’s a lot of pressure on young women to perform to be caring to be obedient so there’s a lot of emphasis put on modesty and obedience within conservative circles. Kyrgyzstan is plagued with a bride kidnapping, so this is something that is illegal in Kyrgyzstan. It’s illegal, but it’s still happening and it’s actually increasing, so this is really a negative return to the so called traditions.

On the one hand, the Soviet legacy is still strong and you have none of the governments that will openly advocate that women should stay at home or not study, so in that sense it’s quite progressive. But on the other hand, there’s also a lot of emphasis put on modesty and obedience. In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. I would say the state has a stronger opinion, has stronger gendered, a stronger gendered identity. So for instance the Ministry of Culture in Tajikistan published a book a dress code for women. With 300 pages, so that’s very big book and it has, uh, identified all sorts of outfits that are appropriate for women to wear for girls and older women.  Jeans are there. There are jeans, but mostly for teenagers, but so it again emphasises no short skirts, no high heels. So this is a direct involvement of the state into micro managing woman. The Ministry of Culture promised to release one for men as well, but it didn’t. Uhm, but men are also under pressure to some extent, to conform to this idea of masculinity as well. So if you are not conforming to that to the heteronormativity then you might find yourself excluded from the community, or harassed or even suffer with some acts of violence, so it’s a I would say a very nuanced portrait. Yeah, nuance is always important, but that’s really the case in in Central Asia.

Christine Ellison

Yeah, and within these kind of, UM, Very broad and all encompassing societal changes. I mean you’ve both kind of mentioned about the value that’s been placed on education Naureen Maybe you could tell us about what you see as some of the implications for education in this context, particularly in terms of what we’ve been talking about and these kind of gender issues.

Naureen Durrani

Yes, uhm, you know, education is always a part of the larger social and political fabric of society. So in a way it reflects and reproduces the society, although it also has the potential to transform society if there is a vision. Earlier, Helene mentioned higher literacy rates and again, it’s a legacy of the Soviet Union. But after independence after a little dip, because these countries were going under tremendous transformation and all of a sudden these countries were on on their own to fund their education systems. And that impacted attendance school attendance for a while, but now even in the low income country in Tajikistan. Until lower secondary education is largely accessible to all, regardless of gender and with the exception of Tajikistan even at upper secondary level, literacy rates across the region are very high, so that is something that is very positive for education.

However, this is the case. As I mentioned earlier, and you know there have been numerous reforms in education countries trying to modernise their education system in order to compete in the global labour market. But at at the larger level, probably gender hasn’t seen that focus because of these high level of literacy, for example. Unlike other contexts like South Asia or some other context, education is widely accessible in this region. Earlier, Helene talked about the necessity of nation building in these new independent States and here we see a large focus on revising curriculum content revising textbooks in order to promote nation building in order to promote national unity, however.

In all these countries there are multiple ethnicities present, although each country has a titular ethnic group and that has implications for including diversity, which also has implications for gender. So everything that Helene mentioned about the intersection between gender and nationhood. It also has implications for curricular content, and it’s not just in Central Asian countries. I want to remind that similar processes are going on in other countries, both developed nations and newly independent. Yeah, post-colonial or post-Soviet context. So from my own research and the very limited research that exists, we can say that the gendered roles that Helene mentioned that’s are circulated in society. Those gender roles also have an impact in the ways gender is portrayed in textbooks, where men are predominantly shown in very masculine roles in leadership position at political level as decision makers as authoritative as the protector of the nation and the nation state.

Women, by contrast, similar to what Helene described are predominantly shown as carers as mothers as reproducers of the nation as compliant as vulnerable and the thing is that these textbook messages can of course be challenged when teachers use them, but unfortunately from my own research with teachers, I know that they have very little understanding of the way these textbook messages are gendered and those Who even acknowledge that they are, they don’t see it as their responsibility to intervene or take action. For them their major responsibility is towards ensuring equal opportunities to learning skills or the curricular content per say. So I think there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of how gender is portrayed in the textbooks in order to support the government agenda of reducing gender stereotypes, I’m not saying that people are adding these gendered messages intentionally, you know textbook writer writers are gendered. Being like ourselves, we all pick up gendered practises from our own socialisation and society, so if the larger social order appears to be natural to someone they would obviously depict those kind of messages in the textbook or through their practises when it comes to teachers. On a very positive note. We don’t find evidence of gender based violence in and around schools, even though domestic violence is quite prevalent and this this speaks again to the Soviet legacy as well as the strong states in society. So as a woman, I find myself very safe in the public domain, and you see that in the way women move about in the public, you know they move with confidence. So there are some very positive outcomes from the context, as well as the historical legacies that are shaping patterns of gender and gender relations in this context.

Christine Ellison

Thank you, Naureen. You’ve already begun to answer my next question, but just to reflect upon gendered roles a bit more, I’m really curious to see how you both find being female academics impacts your ability to ask these, you know, challenging political economy questions in the context that you’re in.

Naureen Durrani

Thank you, Christine. As probably you know, all those who would identify themselves as feminist academics, we know that these are sensitive questions everywhere, not just in the Central Asian context. Uhm, we recently for example. So gender studies departments being shut down in a European country. So I am quite used to raising these sensitive issues in different contexts. Because I am associated with Nazarbayev University, it is relatively easier to raise these sensitive issues, and this is based on my experience exchanging views at different forum. So for instance I was a participant in SDG five event organised at the regional level in Almaty. And there were all these different kinds of discussions going on gender equality and how some women were quite resistant to any idea of change being discussed by saying you know this will break our family practises or traditional practises and all of a sudden and I stood up and I just talked about the gendered messages and textbooks and the ways how education can also be potentially used as a means of social transformation and after I finished talking during the coffee break, many young women came to me and said We are so happy and that you said that because we couldn’t say the same thing, and probably because of my age I don’t know. Maybe Helene as a young person might have a different experience, but right now age is a matter of social hierarchy in this context, and I’m not a young woman. I conformed to the Image of the idealised women held in this society. I’m a married woman. I’m a mother raising children. So in that sense they don’t see me as a threat openly. I I conform to that image, but because we enjoy academic freedom and Nazarbayev University is a flagship university. In this context, people take researchers seriously. At least this is what I have experienced.

Helene Thibault

Yeah, that’s a very good point that unlike yeah, some universities in Kazakhstan we enjoy a lot more academic freedom and so that makes our work a lot easier. Well, I’m not that young, but I have a young lifestyle let’s say. So I don’t conform to the ideal woman. I suppose in the Kazakhstani context. Uhm, but I found that my work here has been quite easy. As Naureen said, it’s a very safe place public publicly for women and if you deal with Gender Studies I’m not the first one to mention that this has been proven over and over in the literature, that being a female scholar is quite convenient because you are not a threat to woman, if you want to organise meetings, interviews with women, in cafes, if I were a male scholar I’m not sure women would agree to meet me alone in a cafe, right? Whereas as a woman it’s perfectly acceptable. And the good thing is that we are also not a threat to men. And again, this might be an advantage as well to to be a woman because, local men also don’t feel they feel they might feel comfortable talking to us. And recently, I do research on issues of polygamy or polygyny in Kazakhstan, and one of my interviewees when he saw me, he didn’t realise at first that I was I we organised a meeting through a third person. And he didn’t realise I was a foreigner. And when he saw me, he said, oh I’m so happy you’re a foreigner it will be easier to talk to you, so that was quite interesting. So sometimes people open up more to foreigners because they, uh, they, they might see that we are not judgmental or I mean we are judgmental but in a different way, right?

There are some things that we might not, we don’t experience the same, such as yeah, fine family dynamics right? Uh, pressure on women to marry to have kids, uh to be a good wife and a good daughter. I mean, even as a as a foreigner, people pressure me. People I don’t know pressure me because I’m not married so I can only imagine, uh, try to imagine, how difficult this is for a young woman to take her place in this society.

Christine Ellison

You touch on so many aspects there of the kind of insider/outsider aspect of researching and you mentioned how being a female can help you feel closer to or more relatable to female participants, but at the same time being a foreigner, gives you that kind of aspect of objectivity, I guess. Do you feel that you can kind of play these roles consciously? Is that a conscious part of your research process?

Naureen Durrani

I mean you have in any context you have to use your social identity strategically in order to get closer to your research participants. The fact that I am myself from a Stan country and a country. I’m originally from Pakistan. As any researcher, I would use these different dimensions of my social identities in order to make my work more effective.

I’ve done this kind of research in the context of Pakistan. However, in this context, particularly when it comes to like discussing policy implications. I often, ah, am very sensitive in the way I have to, you know, package my message. Ah, because I’m not from this context and at that moment I I feel, Uh, a bit of a, you know, a lack of confidence in the way that I I have in the context of Kazakhstan and some sometimes I get responses from people you know. Like they say, OK, so you know what you shared with us in terms of textbook messages are quite an alignment with what goes on in society, So what should textbook writers do? And at that moment, Uh, I turn the table on them and I say look, I’m a researcher. This is what I have found now it’s your purpose. It is your decision to decide. What purpose you want? You want to put education to? Do you want to reproduce societal inequalities, or do you want to use education in order to transform those unequal power relations? It’s it’s the stakeholders who have to make this decision this. This is obviously a debatable question. I’m not in a position to tell you show gender relations in this field. Show gender relations in that way. All I’m doing is giving you evidence of how education is becoming a means of reproducing gender relations and as stakeholders as parents or as textbook writers or teacher educators or teachers. It’s up to you to decide what is the purpose of education and what vision of Kazakhstan you would like to be produced in and through education.

Christine Ellison

Thank you, Naureen, and thank you Helene. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you both today.

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