In Defense of Human Rights

Posted on 16 July 2010 by

Central Asia. Two leaders. They risk it all in the defense of human rights, in defense of their beliefs and unwavering commitment to peace, justice, and universal rights.

On the one hand is the director of our partner organization in Kyrgyzstan, Tolekan Ismailova, who is in forced exile (temporary, we hope) as a result of threats against her and her family. She is paying the price for speaking out as a Kyrgyz national for the human rights of the Uzbek population in Osh, Kyrgyzstan that bore the brunt of violence in April and June 2010. Tolekan has been calling for an independent investigation of the tragic events, confident that such an investigation in the midst of a transitional government and a move towards democracy would strengthen and not weaken the state. It would show the state’s evolution and its commitment to “the highest standards of the rule of law, human rights, and development.”

Osh Baazar (cc) eatswords

Osh Baazar (cc) eatswords

This is not the first time Tolekan has risked it all. In summer 2008 she lost her husband, believed to have been killed for his outspoken stance on the need for greater transparency in the government, elimination of corruption at the highest levels, and adherence to the rule of law. Personally shattered, yet professionally undeterred, Tolekan carried on. And she did not stop even when arrested and imprisoned numerous times, and deserted by some family members who could not bear to continue to pay such a high personal price for ideals some consider too lofty and unattainable.

On the other hand is the director of our partner organization in Uzbekistan, Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva, who headed the Tashkent Women’s Resource Center (TWRC), a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting democratization through empowering women in Uzbekistan and enhancing their economic and political status. TWRC is now defunct. The Center was “invited” by the Ministry of Justice to close down in 2006 when the Uzbek government began clamping down on national and international civil society organizations following the May 2005 violence in Andijan. Recently the Uzbek government has permitted service-oriented NGOs to reopen, but rights-oriented work is still prohibited.

Curtailed in her activist work, yet refusing to be silenced, Marfua continues to speak out on women’s human rights in Uzbekistan. She documents progress (and regress) in achieving gender equality over the past century. She recently published The Re-Islamization of Society and the Position of Women in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan and organized a beautiful photo exhibit of women’s work in Uzbekistan in the 20th century.

Marfua and Tolekan, though familiar with each other’s work, met and worked together for the first time at WLP’s first Central Asia Regional Institute for Women’s Leadership held in Kazakhstan in August 2005. The Institute was initially planned for Spring 2006. Following the violence in Andijan in May 2005, prospects for stability and openness in the region did not bode well. Anticipating winds of change Marfua recommended we move up our Institute dates. We mobilized quickly, and compressing ten months of work into two months, held the first Institute of its kind that brought together Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Azeris to learn not from experts but from each other, to share knowledge and best practices, and to engage in an entirely new experience–participatory leadership and decision-making–antithetical to their experiences in the Soviet era.

There is a point in this digression. At the Institute, we documented Tolekan’s experience with advocating for the rights of the Andijan refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan in search of shelter and safety. Tolekan shared their comprehensive advocacy strategy and from there began a close cooperation between our Uzbek partner and soon-to-be Kyrgyz partner.

Stronger ties and bonds of friendship established, experiences shared, and new ideas germinating, Institute participants returned home. On crossing the border from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan, Marfua was invited to meet government officials who suggested that she close down the organization. Amidst the crackdown on all rights-based organization, Marfua stood her ground, refusing for months to accept the “invitation.” Finally, stifled through various government regulations and extrajudicial processes, Marfua closed TWRC operations in 2006.

Tolekan and Marfua continued to work together as possible, meeting annually at WLP’s Transnational Partners Meetings, which were opportunities to exchange new strategies and strengthen ties.

And here we are. Five years later. When a Kyrgyz activist and Uzbek activist, caught in the dilemmas that plague their nations and its (in)actions resulting in injustice for their peoples, speak in unison out of the power of their convictions for rights, justice, and peace. And in doing so, and in risking it all, I am reminded,

That which does not break us will only make us stronger.

In 2003, Marfua was voted “Woman of the Year” by United Nations agencies in Uzbekistan. In 2009, Tolekan received the Human Rights Award of the French Republic.

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