Polish women do not often become the heroines of media reports in Central Asia. In February 2020, however, it was different. The story of Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a journalist, “heated up” the headlines of local news portals. More importantly, “between the lines” she talked a lot about contemporary Uzbekistan and the role of women in politics.
Apparently “Gossiping” information
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, as she writes about herself, is a freelance journalist from Poland. She studied in the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation. As she reports on Twitter, she is currently the only English-speaking journalist permanently based in Uzbekistan. Well-known foreign media use her work, among others. They include: Al Jazeera English, The Guardian, The Diplomat, Eurasianet. Pikulicka-Wilczewska’s research interests include “politics and societies of the post-Soviet space, South Asia and the Middle East”, the changes taking place in Uzbekistan, social and environmental issues in Afghanistan. She is also interested in ultra-right movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Pikulicka-Wilczewska, 2021a).
The person of Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska in Uzbekistan became particularly notorious after her posts on social media. On the first of February 2021, the journalist informed via Twitter that after six months, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan ultimately rejected her application for accreditation. Despite the fact that, as she claimed, it had two months to do so according to the law. The official reason for the negative decision was that she had worked for other media outlets, not just those for which she was accredited. Pikulicka-Wilczewska went a step further when talking about her relationship with the local Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She recounted that in 2020 she was accredited and assigned a contact person at the MFA named Rustam. As she wrote on Twitter: “He seemed helpful at first, but it soon became clear that he was interested in more than just work. He tried to kiss me and, despite being rejected, kept sending me messages with offers to meet. He continued to send me messages that I didn’t want to receive, so after a few days I politely explained that I wasn’t interested in any contact outside of work. His response: why? do you have a boyfriend?” (…) “After the sexual harassment ended, the pressure started. At first, Rustam asked a journalist to write “a positive article about the quarantine because ‘there is too much negative news’”. However, this one was out of the country and refused. In August 2020, he again urged her to write a positive article. However, the journalist recognised the many problems facing Uzbek society at the time and decided not to fulfil this expectation. Rustam allegedly accused her of lacking objectivity and of not being a journalist. She instead informed him that she would write a complaint against him, which she did a day later (Pikulicka, 2021b).
The diplomacy of the penis
Pikulicka-Wilczewska took a lot of risks when deciding to go public on social media. Her messages received huge publicity. They became an inspiration for meme creators. Rustam’s question about whether she had a boyfriend was included in the “balloon” of a graphic. This hilarious meme showed A. Pikulicka-Wilczewska with Polish national colors on her dress, sitting next to a man in the shape of a penis. He was holding an accreditation in his hand (Pikulicka, 2021c).
The journalist noted on Twitter that individuals, lawyers, organizations and embassies had offered their support to her (Pikulicka, 2021b). According to the Uzbek service RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Hugh Williamson – Human Rights Watch’s director for Europe and Central Asia – and Tim Torlot – the British ambassador to Uzbekistan – have been involved in the journalist’s case (RFL/RL’s Uzbek Service, 2021). Interestingly, this problem of Pikulicka-Wilczewska was widely commented on by the Uzbek media. Among them, the following portals are worth mentioning: kun.uz, gazeta.uz. The podrobno.uz portal even decided to conduct an interview with her. The Uzbek authorities did not remain indifferent either. The first lady of Uzbek politics, the chairwoman of the Senate and the Committee on Gender Equality of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Tanzila Narbayeva, played a leading role. As early as the second of February she communicated on her Telegram account that such an incident “is absolutely unacceptable both in Uzbekistan and in any other country”. She stated that Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska had shown her courage by reporting the case and that the incident would be thoroughly investigated. She assured that appropriate measures would be taken and the guilty punished. At the same time, she noted that the case should not negate all the reforms that have been carried out in the republic in recent years (Narbayeva, 2021). Narbayeva’s words were followed by actions. The Pikulitskaya-Vilchevskaya problem had a positive solution. The press service of the Uzbek foreign ministry reported that on the third of February 2021, the journalist was accredited as a correspondent for the Al Jazeera television channel (Qatar) in Uzbekistan. The day before, a meeting was held between the press secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs A. Khoimetov with Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska. The journalist was apologized to for the incident and was also informed that the aforementioned MFA employee had been expelled from its structure (AsiaPlus, 2021).
Changes in Uzbekistan also have a woman’s face
Under Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s presidency (which began in the second half of 2016), the role of civil society and the media is gradually improving. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Uzbekistan was ranked 156th. In 2017, it ranked 169th. In comparison, Poland dropped from 54th place to 62nd (Reporters Without Borders, 2021a, b). It is rather unlikely that under Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, the Pikulicka-Wilczewska scandal could have been so widely covered by the Uzbek media. An analysis of media reports clearly indicates that many reforms have been carried out in Uzbekistan in recent years at various levels. In late 2019, The Economist awarded Uzbekistan the title of “country of the year”. As the magazine wrote at the time, after the dismissal of the head of the state security service in 2018, reforms were launched and accelerated. The Uzbek government largely ended forced labor and the notorious Jaslyk prison was closed. Foreign journalists were allowed to enter the country. An editorial in The Economist highlighted that Uzbekistan still has many challenges ahead, but no other country has come as far in 2019 as it has (The Economist, 2019). The actions of the authorities in the international arena are particularly evident. Uzbekistan has undoubtedly improved its relations with its neighbors and is trying to encourage foreign tourists to travel through this remarkable country. It is a fact that more and more well-known foreign brands are visible there and entrepreneurs from different countries are deciding on new projects in Uzbekistan. As the data of the UNCTAD World Investment Report 2020 shows, the inflow of foreign direct investment into Uzbekistan has gained a lot of momentum. FDI inflows in 2019 were almost 266% higher than the year before (United Nations, 2020).
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska’s case shows that Uzbekistan still faces many challenges. A change in foreign policy priorities is apparently not the same as a change in official mentality. The fact that the chairwoman of the senate, Tanzila Narbayeva, was quick to speak out on this issue shows, however, that “at the top” there is an awareness that “opening up the country to the world” requires a remodeling of ways of doing things. Tanzila Narbayeva made an excellent move with her quick reaction to the journalist’s problem. At the same time she showed why women are important in politics. No male politician could have handled this scandal better. Tanzila Narbayeva is a unique figure in Uzbekistan. In 2019, she became the first woman in the country to sit as Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament. She thus became the second most important politician in the country after the president (Турдимов, 2019). This shows that during Mirziyoyev’s presidency, the need to raise the profile of women in the country’s socio-economic life was recognized in Uzbekistan. However, the fair sex still lags far behind men in most areas outside health and education. Official figures show that less than 12% of judges and heads of corporations are women – and for members of government alone, the figure drops to 5% (Morgan, 2020). Shortly after Tanzila Narbayeva took office, the Senate approved the Protection of Women from Violence Act, and the Commission on Women and Gender Equality was created. Live broadcasts of meetings were also resumed (Repost.uz, 2020). In early 2020. Uzbekistan’s National News Agency elected her “Man of 2019”. Narbayeva was recognized in the category – “The most active state activist” (uza.uz, 2020). In December 2020, as a representative of Uzbekistan, she participated in the historic event of the first meeting on the establishment of the Dialogue of Women Leaders of Central Asia. Tanzila Narbayeva was elected President of this informal association for 2021. The initiative itself, on the other hand, became “a brand new consultative platform for the development of regional cooperation” (Gazeta, 2020).
In an exclusive interview with the repost.uz portal, when asked about the difference between women politicians and men, Tanzila Narbayeva stated that such a difference exists “only at the psychological level”. According to her, a woman “values peace, order, stability. She is more sensitive to social problems. Global politics requires flexibility and diplomacy, patience and willingness to compromise. All these qualities are characteristic of women to a much greater extent than of men.” (repost.uz, 2020). It is impossible to disagree with the above statement.
What exactly is the purpose of politics? Is it to achieve one’s own benefits, maintain power, or perhaps solve pressing social and economic problems? It seems that from the point of view of the average citizen it would be best for politics to be a prudent concern for the common good. The case of Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska has shown that although politics is generally male-dominated, and not only in Uzbekistan, women should have more say in it than they do at present. In the scandal described above, it was two women who played important roles. The Polish woman signaled the problem and the Uzbek woman probably did not allow the matter to be ‘swept under the carpet’. Perhaps this is precisely because, thanks to their innate greater tendency to empathy, women are able to see problems that men do not seem to recognize as important.
Translation: Karolina Piotrowska, Michelle Atallah
Magdalena Sobańska-Cwalina Central Asia analyst, member of the Board of Directors of the Michal Boym Institute for Asian and Global Studies Foundation, PhD in economics (topic of doctoral dissertation: "Institutional determinants of the activity of Polish companies of the building materials industry in eastern markets"). Privately, she is passionate about classical music.
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