DUSHANBE, Tajikistan: Wearing blue overalls, trainee mechanic Marjona Abdulloeva carefully examines a car chassis at a government-run training centre in Tajikistan, an ex-Soviet republic hit hard by the recession in Russia.
The 20-year-old hopes to be the first woman to earn a car mechanic’s diploma at the Dushanbe centre, as a growing number of women seek work to help make ends meet in the socially conservative and impoverished country.
Undeterred by the social stigma of shedding their traditional home-based role, the women are stepping into jobs left vacant by menfolk, many of whom moved to Russia to find work.
“Repairing cars is considered man’s work, but I do not care what my friends think about my choice,” Abdulloeva told AFP. “The work you do should interest you. I want to make a life for myself.”
Historically heavily reliant on Russia, the Muslim-majority nation of some eight million has been hit by the two-year recession suffered by its ex-Soviet masters.
At least 860,000 Tajik citizens — the vast majority men — are working in Russia, according to Russian migration authorities, sending back good wages to provide for their families at home.
But many have been thrown out of work as Russia’s economy was hit by plunging oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
The collapse in the Russian ruble’s value has also left a sharp dent in the money they send home.
In 2015, the amount of money transferred back to Tajikistan fell to $1.3 billion from $3.8 billion a year earlier when remittances represented nearly half of the country’s GDP, according to the Russian Central Bank.
‘Don’t look back’
To make ends meet, women have had to find new sources of income.
Women make up about 60 percent of the new enrollees at the Dushanbe training centre, said its director Shukhrullo Salomov.
“Many of them choose typically male professions, successfully complete their courses and don’t look back,” he told AFP.
Even with a qualification, the job market is tough: although Tajikistan has significantly reduced poverty in the last decade, unemployment remains stubbornly high.
“Of the 130,000 young people that finish school every year, more than 60,000 enter the ranks of the unemployed,” Saimuddin Dustov, a Moscow-based Tajik analyst, told AFP.
In theory this could prompt women like Abdulloeva to head abroad too.
But they could face a double stigma if they leave the country to find work: both xenophobia, which Tajik men say they suffer abroad, but also suspicions about exactly what kind of work they are doing.
“Young women migrants often find themselves targets of (Tajik) society’s suspicion if they find work abroad, because some female migrants fall into prostitution,” said researcher Alla Kuvatova, who studies gender issues in the country.
Even at home, Tajik society “doesn’t welcome” women taking up work that is usually done by men, she added.
A 2010 census, whose data was published in 2013, showed that about 1.1 million women in Tajikistan work, most of them in agriculture.
In his December address to the nation, veteran President Emomali Rakhmon summed up the sentiment, deploring that women were “more often than not doing heavy, physically taxing work”.
Rakhmon, who came to power during a ruinous five-year civil war in the country during the 1990s, called on the service industry to employ more women instead.
Taxi driving has drawn some of Tajikistan’s unemployed but few women have been able to get into the business.
“Behind the Wheel”, a 2013 award-winning short documentary film, tells the story of a Tajik woman, who quit taxi driving after repeated arguments with male clients, preferring to fix tyres instead.
“Of thousands of taxi drivers in the major cities — Dushanbe, Khujand and Kulyob — probably fewer than 10 are women,” said analyst Dustov.
Despite grim employment prospects across the board, however, many women graduates from the Dushanbe training centre don’t regret their choices to attend courses.
Zarina Nabieva, who trained as a plumber, said her new skills had already helped her save money on handymen.
“We are not looking to take anyone’s place,” the 47-year-old said.
“Everything we do, we do for the well-being of ourselves and our families.”