Kelins and Bride Schools in Uzbekistan

by Rano Turaeva

From my observations living and researching in Uzbekistan, social gatherings of the kind Sayora organizes are exceptional. There are other kinds of institutions (Kelinlar Maktabi/Brides school) which are mainly for unmarried young women and usually offer private courses in cooking, baking and sewing. But Sayora manages to organize private gatherings for young women to discuss everyday problems, offer solutions, and raise consciousness about Islam. The participants are usually young unmarried women who would like to learn how to become a good kelin (daughter-in-law, bride) and learn from the experiences of such an exemplary kelin as Sayora.

Sayora is a woman in her early 50s who has two daughters and a son. She was a gynecologist by profession until she got married. She was the fifth kelin in a huge family with seven sons. A few words about the social status of any kelin are necessary here. A kelin is a young woman who has a mother-in-law and does not have her own daughter-in-law. A kelin has a very low – if not the lowest – status, not only in the family and kinship networks but also in her neighborhood. She is never called by name and only recognized as the ‘kelin of so and so’. Later when she lives separately from her in-laws, she will be called the wife of so-and-so. The low social status of the kelin can also be seen in regard to labour distribution at family and other social events. Kelins usually do most of the serving work and do not join the guests, but rather stay in the kitchen. Only after she has already married off her own daughters and sons, and has become a mother-in-law herself will she finally be called by her name, and given full social status.

The events Sayora organizes are considered ‘extraordinary’ activities considering her status as a kelin. The events involve young unmarried women but are also open for newly married women who get together for tea and discuss problems. As a kelin herself Sayora manages well with a ‘very strict’ (juda qattiqqol) mother-in-law and living together with ‘very different’ women (other six kelins in the family) under the same roof. She is an ‘exemplary’ (obraztzoviy) kelin and respected for that. She is well educated, open-minded and very active in organizing social life with the people around her. Her experience of being one of many kelins and learning diplomacy to ‘keep peace’ in such a big family has given her much of the knowledge she later chose to share with other young women. As a result, she initiates social gatherings of young girls among her relatives and friends to talk about different matters that are of primary concern for any present and future kelin. Parents – especially mothers – are very happy to send their daughters to attend those social gatherings organized by Sayora. Firstly, girls get to know each other better and secondly, they are noticed by families of ‘good standing’, such as Sayora’s in-laws. Being seen in ‘good or elite/higher class’ circles of families and learning such ‘important’ matters opens good chances for a successful marriage.

Sayora is also interested in enhancing her reputation among the parents of the girls, which gives her recognition as somebody more than just a kelin. Besides being recognised as more than a kelin, her new social engagement also gives Sayora incentives to spend her free time in a more interesting way than merely sitting at home and serving her parents-in-law, deprived of her job. In addition, she had not have children of her own for more than ten years, which made her freer than others who are busy rearing children from the first year of their marriage.

The case of Sayora shows that despite the negative sides of being a kelin, women often strive to become a good kelin. Becoming a kelin in a respectable family is the dream of many girls in Uzbekistan, comparable to the early dreams of becoming a princess of small girls in the West. One often observes how attractive a kelin of the neighborhood seems to small girls. Sayora’s story also shows that there are kelins who become innovative and make the best of their situation.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Rano Turavea holds a PhD from Marthin Luther University in Halle, Germany (2010; in co-operation with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology). She currently teaches at Marthin Luther University and is an associated researcher at the Max Planck Institute. She works on a book titled: Identification, Communication and Discrimination: Khorezmian Migrants in Tashkent. She has published on various topics including migration, agricultural policies, traditional singing and bahshis.