The river encourages multiple and unique forms of both public and covert sociality. Historical sources point out that the river bank has long been the favoured location for conducting business and pastime among Hujandis. Local men would frequent alou-khanas – the guesthouses and places for social gatherings as well as tea houses, which also served as hotels and diners for the locals where they spent many hours on the wooden platforms along the river bank. Bath houses were also usually designated as male-only spaces, while women’s visitation of baths was significantly restricted compared to the counties of the Middle East, for instance.
These days too the public beach on the Right bank is home to a small community of Khujandis (almost exclusively male) who gather here at dawn to engage in physical exercise, to swim in the river, and later drink tea, play chess or backgammon and exchange the latest news. Not far from the beach, later in the day, men meet in the shade under one of the city bridges, where a secret speakeasy is hidden from sight. At sundown one can observe a few lone fishers on the banks of the river, although many complain that their catch is diminishing by the year. Even further upstream, families picnic on the shores of the Tajik sea, men swimming in their underwear, women only going into the water fully clothed. Resorts located on ‘seashore’, which is an artificial reservoir created as a result of damming of the river for the Kayrakkum HPP in 1956, have a reputation as places where prostitutes flock during the summer season. Finally, the river is one of the choices of the province’s and the city’s many suicides, most of whom are women and adolescents. Thus the human-river interactions and access to the river’s many resources are highly gendered.
Gender and swimming
When Mohira Suyarkulova conducted her field work in Hujand during the summers of 2017 and 2018, she noticed that men and women engage with the river differently. One such example of this difference is how different groups enjoy the opportunity to swim in the river.
According to the spoken and unspoken norms of conduct, men can swim without any embarrassment or shame in swimming trunks or even in their underwear, while women only enter the water fully dressed in traditional Tajik gown and undergarments (long pants covering the entire length of the legs). Gendered norms of modesty and chastity for women define the water’s edge as the space where the rules of sexuality and gender are at risk and therefore need to be more strictly enforced. Thus practically all public spaces by the water – beaches, swimming pools and teahouses along the the riverside are viewed as exclusively male spaces. This means that women do not get a chance to learn how to swim, while their mere presence in the ‘forbidden’ spaces may seriously harm their reputation.
Boys on the beach on the Tajik Sea (Kairakkum reservoir), during summer of 2017. Photo by Mohira Suyarkulova