An indigenous language conflict exists in Tajikistan between the dominant Tajik ethnicity and the minority Pamiri population. A loose association of several dozen languages, the term ‘Pamiri’ describes these related dialects from the Iranian language family and the ethnicities that speak them. Isolated in Tajikistan’s autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region, the Pamiris did not develop a written form of their language until the 1920s and remained undisturbed until their assimilation into the Soviet Union in 1929 [Ilolov, M., Ilolova, P., & Yusufbekov, S., 2015]. A Pamiri push for independence during the late 1980s led to a separatist movement that plunged the country into a bloody civil war in 1992. As a result, Pamiris were targeted by the Tajik government and, although peace accords were signed in 1997, tensions remain between the Pamiri minority and Tajik majority [Sobiri, 2017]. Today, the Tajik government does not recognize the Pamiri ethnicity or language, complicating the Pamiris’ ability to use their language in schools, government, and legal affairs.
Inhabiting Tajikistan’s mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan region for centuries, the Pamiri had limited contact with the outside world until the late nineteenth century [Kolga, 2001]. They remained largely undisturbed until the 1920s when the Soviet Union surveyed ethnic minorities on the fringes of its territory [Kolga, 2001]. After World War II, the Soviet government ordered the resettlement of 40-70% of Pamiris living in villages deemed too isolated or lacking in arable land for continued habitation [Kolga, 2001]. Resettlement efforts peaked between 1951-54, with Pamiris deported against their will to farms at lower altitudes. By the 1960s, the Soviet government had transitioned towards single-crop agriculture while discouraging the production of traditional Pamir crafts and crops [Kolga, 2001]. These agricultural policies were ultimately unsuccessful, leaving Gorno-Badakhshan one of the poorest regions in Tajikistan [Minority Rights Group International, 2018]. Additional complications arose as Pamiri languages were not written and were kept out of schools in favor of Russian or Tajik, disenfranchising Pamiri people [Kolga, 2001].
By the 1980s, these policies resulted in a separatist push for Gorno-Badakhshan’s independence [Minority Rights Group International, 2018]. Resentment grew in 1989 with the introduction of a law that would make Tajik the only official language of Tajikistan by 1996, preventing Pamiris from speaking Pamiri in business, government, and education [Open Society Institute, n.d.]. In 1991, a Pamiri political party called Lali Badakhshan rose to prominence in Gorno-Badakhshan as anti-government protests broke out, calling for independence in 1992 [Minority Rights Group International, 2018]. This sparked a bloody civil war between the new Tajik government and the United Tajik Opposition from 1992 to 1997. Pamiris were targeted by the Tajik government as supporters of insurgents, and while a 1993 peace accord gave Gorno-Badakhshan relative autonomy, economic blockades weakened the province while the war continued for four more years [Minority Rights Group International, 2018].
After the war’s conclusion, Pamiris faced discrimination and limited language rights outside Gorno-Badakhshan [Minority Rights Group International, 2018]. In 2012 and 2015, Gorno-Badakhshan saw outbreaks of violence and protests between the Tajik government and Pamiri opposition forces, while the presence of former opposition leaders furthered tensions between Pamiris and Tajiks [Mostowlansky, 2019]. Most recently, the Tajik government has refused to recognize Pamiris as having a distinct language or ethnic identity and associated Pamiri militias with Islamist fighters in efforts to crack down on terrorism, furthering Pamiri resentment [Mostowlansky, 2019]. Additional complaints about Tajiks discriminating against Pamiris continue into the present, with Pamiris claiming they are second-class citizens within their own country [Minority Rights Group International, 2018].
In January 2020, Tajikistan’s parliament agreed to continue building five new schools providing instruction in Russian, a proposition funded by the Russian government and reflecting close ties between the two countries. These schools will provide education for upwards of 6000 students. Under the Soviet regime, Russian language instruction was common at all educational levels, a practice that decreased after the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union, granting Tajikistan its independence. Much of Tajikistan’s remaining ethnic Russian population fled the country during the 1992-97 civil war. Schools began teaching primarily in Tajik, with limited accommodations made depending on the region and requirements of pupils. Despite the lack of an ethnic Russian population and state promotion of Tajik as an official language, the demand for Russian-language schools has increased in recent years. Approximately one-third of Tajikistan’s economy is directly from remittances from Tajik migrant workers in other countries, namely Russia and Uzbekistan, and Russia remains a popular destination for institutions of higher education. Parents believe providing their children with Russian language skills will improve their employment prospects and that Russian schools provide a better quality of education overall. Tajikistan remains one of the poorest former Soviet states, with a high youth population facing low average wages and high unemployment, statistics even higher among Pamiri populations in Gorno-Badakhshan. Due to this, studying in Russian-language schools is becoming increasingly popular, as the language is seen as a chance for a more prosperous future [Najibullah, 2020].
In 2016, Jamila Haider and Frederik van Oudenhoven, a pair of Swedish and Dutch researchers, published With Our Hands, a cookbook featuring a collection of recipes from Pamiri villages in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The book was published in three languages: English, Afghan Persian or Dari written in the Arabic script, and Tajik Persian written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The result is a book that accommodates readers from different languages and cultures while exposing them to Pamiri traditional foods, holidays, and cultural traditions that otherwise would remain largely constrained to the Pamir Mountains and their inhabitants. In an interview, Haider recounts an experience working in Tajikistan where a Pamiri grandmother asked her to write down traditional recipes that she was concerned her children would forget as her language - like most of the Pamir languages - does not have a written form. As a result, Haider and a group of female scientists from educational institutions in Gordo-Badakhshan began collecting recipes in the region that previously only been passed down orally. The resulting book ties in traditional foods from the Pamir Mountains with holidays, religious observances, and cultural practices while preserving Pamiri culture for future generations and external audiences [Oudenhoven, 2016].
A 2012 Eurasianet article tracks the progress of Tajik and Pamiri women attempting to grow their own businesses in a sociopolitical climate that promotes women remaining at home and discourages foreign investment. In 2012, an event called Farah [‘brilliance’ in Tajik] was set up to name the country’s “first female entrepreneur of the year” [Eurasianet, 2012]. Nabot Gomadina is a Pamiri businesswoman who described the difficulties of running a profitable business in Gorno-Badakhshan, where isolated towns, poor roads blocked by snow for months at a time, and a largely impoverished population complicate business activity. Gomadina became the founder of the first micro-loan business in Gorno-Badakhshan and has since began operating workshops helping other women with their finances. Her role is unusual in a country where men make up most of the workforce, often working outside Tajikistan and sending remittances to their wives and families at home. The work of Gomadina and women like her represents a step towards greater gender equality in Tajikistan, as well as a chance for Pamiri communities to improve their economic status [Eurasianet, 2016]. Pamiri families tend to emphasize the role of education for their children, especially girls, who enjoy more freedom and less pressure to marry than Tajik girls their same age. This has a mixed effect: on the one hand, it makes it easier to identify and discriminate against Pamiris; however, Pamiri women benefit from greater social freedoms in a nation that is largely male dominated [Anti-Discrimination Centre, 2017].
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Posted: 19 June 2021
Contributing Analysts: Jill Boggs
Editors: Gareth Rees-White, Elena Galkina