Gender equality via music

Women stand at the forefront of music in Uzbekistan, a stature rooted in the hujum, a Soviet-era women’s emancipation movement. Women went free of culturally sanctioned, modest attire, and, through music, found “a natural space at the table in the state music conservatory and other institutions,” said Tanya Merchant, associate professor of music.

Associate professor of music Tanya Merchant (left) plays the dutor, a two-stringed lute from Central Asia, with her primary Uzbek musical mentor, Malika Ziyaeva. Ziyaeva visited UC Santa Cruz in 2014 to teach and also perform with the Eurasian Ensemble. Credit: Courtesy of Tanya Merchant.

Merchant’s 2015 book, Women Musicians of Uzbekistan: From Courtyard to Conservatory, draws on her almost 20 years of studying Uzbek music. Her research focuses on the female artists who have contributed to modern Uzbek music, many of whom play the Uzbek dutor (also spelled dutar). A two-stringed lute, the dutor is the only non-percussive instrument traditionally played by women. Because of this, after the fall of the Soviet Union, women continued their prominence with the instrument, rising to positions of power rare in any patriarchal society.

Unfortunately, the current political climate and travel bans make it difficult for Merchant to bring dutor teachers from Uzbekistan to help “immerse” her students in Uzbek musical practices. “Ethnomusicology isn’t about sitting down, listening to sounds, and making assertions,” Merchant said. “It’s best to be embedded in the culture.”

Sukee Bennett