Memories of a flight from Turkmenistan in search of an educationGlobal Voices

Illustration by Kenjaeva Mufiza.

Not everyone can appreciate the virtue of an impartial, unbiased and progressive education. Having the freedom to reason and say what you think can be fascinating, confusing and contradictory if you grew up in Turkmenistan. The deterioration of the country’s education system dates back to the early 1990s, when then-president Saparmurat Niyazov decreed that all Soviet books should be destroyed, in an effort to control the circulation of printed materials. Since then, schools in Turkmenistan have suffered from a shortage of textbooks.

I graduated from high school in Turkmenistan over ten years ago and still remember vividly that only three or four sets of textbooks were available for 30 or more students in each class. Classes were structured around taking notes from books and memorizing, without any analysis.

In 2001, Niyazov decided that our struggles could be made worse and cut 10 years of schooling into nine. As a result, the hours allocated to school subjects were reduced and many subjects such as physical education, statistics and economics were permanently removed from the curriculum. Although my classmates and I are struggling, the authorities have asked teachers to give everyone a passing grade, in order to demonstrate the school’s progress. Secondary schools have become “diploma factories”.

Despite the difficulties, I was still thirsty for knowledge. I took advantage of the opportunities offered by foreign embassies to learn English for free and borrow books from the library. Some of us took extra lessons in history, mathematics, world cultures, English grammar and conversation, taught by foreign teachers who shared their knowledge with young Turkmen people. It was this experience that pushed me to continue my studies.

Yet the path to a university degree has not been without obstacles. Financial, cultural and political obstacles hampered my pursuit of higher education. Education, although free, is still out of reach for the majority of working class citizens. To enter a university in Turkmenistan, a bribe to school officials is customary. Corruption and appalling reforms in the education system have radically changed the nature and purpose of education in Turkmenistan. Today, the majority of Turkmen citizens view education simply as a way to graduate and qualify for higher paying jobs.

A transition fight

My parents lost their Soviet-era jobs after independence because their associate’s degrees were no longer sufficient in the new job market. Despite their bitter experience, they still valued education and sometimes sacrificed the quality of our food and clothing to pay for my English lessons.

My mother told us over and over that we had to study to avoid the financial hardships they had gone through. His advice became deeply ingrained in my mind.

Faced with bad opportunities to study in my home country, I sought sponsorship to study abroad. Foreign embassies had support systems, such as scholarships and tuition waivers for talented Turkmen students. I cried when I got the call I would be fully funded to pursue a bachelor’s degree at an overseas university with a US program. They were the tears of delirious happiness.

My father’s approval was the last hurdle to overcome. In Turkmenistan, the custom is: “Ogul düzde, gyz öýde(“The field is a place for boys, home for girls”). I needed the help of the whole village to convince my father. When he gave in, I thought my life could finally take a new turn.

When it was time to leave, my extended family gathered at the airport to say their goodbyes. After all, I was the first girl in my family to leave the country. I couldn’t hide my excitement amid the worries of my loved ones. After an endless series of hugs, I walked happily towards passport control. I could see a bright future waiting for me, at least that’s what I thought.

After carefully reviewing my passport and student visa, an immigration officer told me in cold blood that I was not allowed to leave the country. He wouldn’t take my questions; instead, he grabbed my arm and kicked me out of the passport control area. I was stunned. It was only later that I learned from the Embassy that the Turkmen government had unilaterally prohibited students from leaving the country to study at certain foreign universities.

Months passed painfully, what I thought was my first semester was already underway, but I was stuck in Turkmenistan. “Why are they fighting us? Was the question I had been asking myself for six months.

During this time, I was regularly “interrogated” by agents of the State Security Committee (formerly known as the KGB). Other students who shared my plight also had to undergo interrogations that actually lasted for hours. State security issues led me to believe that the government had become suspicious of the purpose of the scholarships and decided to blacklist us. Perhaps KGB officers assumed that foreign embassies and universities were preparing future dissidents, who would challenge the regime. Blacklisting has been a common KGB tactic for decades to control society and spread fear. These tactics cultivated anxiety and fear and caused chronic depression, which I still struggle with.

The more I suffered from pressure and coercion, censorship and repression, the more I remembered verses from the poem of the 1960s feminist dissident Annasoltan Kekilova: “Dönmerin öz pikrimden / Atsalarda ýanaryn oda… ”(“ I will not give up my thoughts, and if they throw me into the fire, I will burn ”). I have used his stanzas as a mantra to hold on to my dreams while living under a protracted, cruel, oppressive and totalitarian regime. Mentally, I was ready to go to jail, metaphorically throwing myself into the fire, rather than giving up my hope of an education.

Months of diplomatic negotiations finally lifted the ban on some students, shortening the blacklist. I managed to leave the country and realize my biggest dream of education and even got a masters degree. Yet these events left deep scars on my sanity and soul, which still have not healed even after more than a decade. I am still haunted by the horrors I have endured, in my nightmares, and in reality, every time I have to go through customs checks across the world.

Don’t forget our daughters

Since early 2020, the Turkmen authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban its citizens from traveling abroad. As I read alarming news about school closures either because of the pandemic – although the government still claims the country has not been affected – or the so-called “Dust-19” environmental crisis, sweetheart bleeds for young people, especially young girls. , whose schooling inside the country is generally sacrificed for the benefit of the education of their brothers. After all, girls can be married while boys have to be the breadwinners, according to Turkmen custom. In fact, in times of persistent economic crisis, families opt for child marriage as a way to alleviate economic hardship. The early marriage of girls is an age-old custom used to provide financial security for both the bride and her family. Under such conditions, Turkmen girls will be increasingly excluded from the already limited space of higher education.

This is unless the international community speaks out and begins to pressure the Turkmen government to resume flights and facilitate international trade.

I hope that the remarks of US Vice President Kamala Harris at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on March 16, when she declared that “the status of women is the condition of democracy. Will translate into a renewed international commitment. gender equality, human rights and democratic transition initiatives in Turkmenistan.

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