Keeping the Community Together: Migration and Kinship Networks in Tajikistan

clip4By: Anabelle Suitor ’16

In recent years Tajikistan has become one of the largest sources of migrants to the Russian Federation and maintains the most migrant dependent economy in the world.[i] However, localized kinship networks continue to be very important in Tajik society. Tajik communities along with communities in a range of other migrant-sending nations pursue migration as a security measure. Migration does not divide, but rather strengthens Tajik sense of community by reinforcing the gendered and cultural norms that exist within that community. Despite pressures from outsiders to “modernize” the country, Tajikistan arguably remains one of the most socially conservative post-Soviet countries. How do kinship networks in Tajikistan facilitate the migration of Tajik men to Russia, and how has this migration been accepted and reinterpreted under the community’s own cultural and gendered assumptions to address the economic instability of the post-Soviet era? The central argument is that Tajik migration has become common enough that it is both accepted and reinterpreted within the dominant Tajik cultural and gender model to solidify kinship organizations and gendered hierarchies.

A wide body of literature details how migration affects countries’ kinship relations, gender, culture and society; but there is a limited amount of literature regarding migration’s impact on gender and society in Tajikistan. Nonetheless, there are certain studied patterns of migration that are relevant to Tajik communities. The idea that migration has “freed” gender relations and changed social organizations has become a dominant trend within the field. For example, scholars like Peggy Levitt argue that “social remittances” – the societal norms brought back home by migrants– can often decrease reliance on traditional gender and economic norms and free women from traditional gender roles.[ii] Yet, this assumption has recently been challenged. [iii] Migration has become a common trend throughout the world and migrant-sending countries have very different historical and cultural migration experiences. Tajikistan is unique from many other migrant-sending countries as it experienced a concerted 70-year effort by Russians (now the dominant group of the receiving society) to enforce their cultural, gendered and kinship values upon Tajikistan. However, despite the cultural and historical differences, similarities exist between the methods Tajikistan and other societies utilize to make sense of social and political turmoil and the act of migration. This paper will rely on literature published on migration about both Tajik communities and other communities to illustrate that just as Soviet-style education and social control failed to impose Russian values on Tajiks[iv], globalization and migration have failed to reconstruct or impose the values of the receiving society upon Tajik society.

Economic History of Tajikistan

The collapse of the Soviet Union subjected Tajikistan to an unstable independence. Previously, Tajikistan’s economy had a structured dependency on the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, Soviet policymakers divided Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in a way that Tajik urban centers were lost to Uzbekistan – leaving Tajikistan a mostly rural and mountainous republic. Although Tajiks are traditionally agrarian, only seven percent of the land of Tajikistan is arable .[v] Since the creation of Tajikistan, there have been few domestic industries for Tajik citizens to work in.[vi] The nation achieved independence in 1991, and only months later a civil war broke out across the country. This civil war came to an end after five years, and destroyed much of the already underdeveloped infrastructure, uprooted communities, and disrupted the structures that had held Tajik society together. Vast segments of the population were dislocated. Among a population of about six million Tajiks, 500,000 people fled to Afghanistan and 600,000 people were internally displaced.[vii] After the war, Tajikistan’s domestic economy was severely handicapped and the Tajik state found it difficult to compete in the post-Soviet neoliberal economic order of the region.[viii]

Ever since the days of the Soviet Union, unemployment has been high in Tajikistan. The destruction of Soviet modes of welfare, infrastructure, and the economy increased the poverty rate dramatically.[ix] As the state lacked the infrastructure and capabilities to support a competitive economy and social services, the Tajik population had to look for economic and social security elsewhere. Thus, they decided to find employment abroad. As a result, today remittances from labor migrants make up 47% of the GDP of Tajikistan. This makes the Tajik economy more dependent on remittances than any other economy in the world.[x] Migration has become an integral part of life for Tajiks.

Economics of Tajik Migration

The neoliberal approach looks at migration as a device solely for economic gain, but this is not a relevant view for Tajik migrants. In most societies where migration is pursued by large segments of society, migrant families often live in better conditions than non-migrant families. However, studies conducted by The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in  Tajikistan reveal that most migrant families do not earn significantly more than non-migrant families.[xi] In other migrant societies, the wealth of the migrant family is usually apparent from the appliances migrant families attain, the education levels they reach, or the houses in which they reside.[xii] In Tajikistan, migration is not an effective way to increase one’s relative wealth, rather it serves as a survival mechanism for communities that suffer deep-rooted poverty. Where migration often serves to advance someone in a community, Tajik migrants receive only enough wealth to keep their position in the community and for men to keep their position in the household.

Neoliberalism  also seeks to explain migration through individualism.[xiii] However, individualism has not historically been a strong aspect of Tajik society. Tajik migration cannot be understood as an individual effort. Instead, it is a financial, social and emotional one pursued by the collective unit of the community.[xiv] Tajik migration has more in common with Douglas Massey’s Social Capital Theory than the prevailing neoclassical model. Massey describes social capital as “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintances and recognition.”[xv] The possession of social capital allows people to reach material goals – to have economic or social support or to be introduced to other networks that can provide such support. As time goes on and migrant communities create stronger transnational ties within the receiving country, this social capital becomes more lucrative. To acquire social capital, one needs to engage within these networks. Kinship bonds among Tajiks, both those who live inside and outside the geographic location from which the kinship communities originate, facilitate the migration and as more Tajiks migrate these bonds become more and more important.

Role of Kinship Networks

Kinship networks – the ties of local residential communities, biological and non-biological – form the basis of Tajik society. The unit of the extended family and the local community, both in rural and urban Tajikistan, serve as the main form of security and identity for Tajiks. The mahalla, local villages or neighborhoods, serve as the prevailing form of kinship community. The mahalla, though co-opted by the state at times, has traditionally served as a self-functioning independent body that monitors “unofficial” legal and social functions.[xvi] Interactions within the mahalla are organized around lines of gender, age, wealth and patronage. To keep one’s place within the community and to receive the benefits of the semi-official structures of the mahalla, one has to sustain the norms of the community, and accept and contribute to the hierarchy.

The mahalla is conceptualized as a traditional organization, and because it has semi-official mechanisms and incorporates close-knit communities, it possesses the legitimacy to provide social order, defined as “the structuring and structured processes of social reality.”[xvii] The community and the semi-official organs of the mahalla have the power to dictate ‘ontological security,’ defined as “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.”[xviii] When Tajiks felt the order of their surroundings disrupted by the Soviet Union, civil war or market integration, many relied on their local community and the semi-official elements within it for not only economic, but also psychological security. In periods of state weakness, the networks established within the local community are able to be the primary providers for the population.

Within the mahalla are extended family units. Each residential family unit traditionally consists of a large nuclear family, elders and often the wives and children of sons. The Soviets encouraged more compact nuclear families, and created smaller apartment units for Tajik families to occupy. However, despite the residential separation, most Tajik family members continued to keep close relations with and control over other family members.[xix] Particularly in rural communities, it is important for men and women not to deviate from the gender norms and hierarchies within the mahalla. Gossip permeates any rural community, and in societies where a woman’s honor is deeply tied to her husband’s honor (like in many of the Central Asian and Caucasian states), it becomes necessary for women to conform to the norms of the community. This is especially true when a woman is most vulnerable in times when her husband is away.[xx] Likewise, it is very important for men to maintain their roles in the household. A male heads each family unit and is granted the “right” to decide what is best for his family.[xxi] Tajik men function as breadwinners and heads of their households.

For a man to play this masculine role in a liberal economy, he must work. In Tajikistan, a country that lacks the infrastructure for men to work domestically, men must migrate. Although the number of female migrants has been on the rise, migration in Tajikistan is mostly a male phenomenon.[xxii] Migration must also be viewed as a device to guarantee the perpetuation of socially defined notions of masculinity. Ideas of gender exist as an important foundation for Tajik society, where there exists a strong distinction between masculine and feminine space. The maintenance of these gender norms becomes one of the only ways the community can uphold a sense of stability in these periods that are characterized by uncertainties. Although counter-intuitive, migration becomes necessary for the coherence of communities that have been economically, socially or physically dislocated by war and market integration.

The migration of Tajik men is primarily paid for by their family and kinship networks. In an International Organization of Migration (IOM) study in Khatlon – one of the poorer regions of Tajikistan – only 11% of migrants report financing their trip on their own, while 85% of migrants were supported by friends, family members or neighbors.[xxiii] Another IOM study of migrants who have returned after losing their jobs abroad revealed that 73.9% of migrants receive funds from families, friends and neighbors for their trips.[xxiv] This is distinct from migrations in other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose association of former Soviet states, in which migrant trips are reported to be mostly self-financed. For instance, in Moldova 44% of migrants rely on friends or family members to finance their trips, while 50% of migrants finance their trips on their own.[xxv] While the more prosperous CIS states have the avenue of self-finance, it is necessary for Tajiks to receive financing from family members, community members, neighbors or friends. In order to receive financial support from the community, these migrants must receive acceptance from the community. To do so, they must conform to the standards of the local community.

Kinship and family ties are important networks from which Tajiks can receive benefits or jobs, especially in Russia. Colette Harris describes in her ethnographic study of gender and youth relations in Tajikistan that “since most Tajik citizens are working illegally, they usually only manage to gain employment through connections. Thus, people from one Tajik village are likely to work in the same Russian town, having all been recruited by the same person.”[xxvi] The “illegality” that many Tajiks experience in Russia often leads Tajiks to depend more heavily on the ties of the community as a means of decreasing their vulnerability.

It is clear that maintaining kinship relations is necessary for the sustenance of migration in Tajikistan – as kin are both the financiers of migration and often the employers or providers of assistance to migrants. Because migration networks are so heavily dependent on kinship networks, it must be understood that migrants are required to conform to the dictates of the community when abroad in Russia. Remitting to the home country has been demonstrated in studies of other migrant communities as a way in which one can maintain their place in the household. International migration expert and George Washington University professor Natacha Stevanovic Fenn describes the position of Bangladeshi migrants, who despite the pressures of the global financial crisis, were obligated to remit due to a commitment to their families and kinship communities.[xxvii] By migrating, they are able to reassert their masculinity and assert themselves in the household as sons, husbands and as male community members. This is also the case with Tajik migrants. Remitting back to the community is essential for migrants, as it allows them to place themselves within their communities’ culturally defined hierarchies.

Islam and Migration

In Tajikistan, Islamic religious and a set of localized cultural norms intersect to create a strong emphasis on kinship and on sending back to the community. 72.1% of migrants send home remittances to consistently or occasionally support relatives that live outside the household.[xxviii] Besides foodstuff, the second largest Tajik remittance expenditure is on family celebrations such as weddings and circumcision ceremonies.[xxix] Although providing foodstuff for relatives is essential, as it allows a man to serve his role as the provider, large ceremonies are an integral part of Central Asian Muslim societies. Paying for these ceremonies allows men to assert to the community that they are doing their duty providing within their household, providing patronage, and maintaining hierarchies within the community.

Migration and Gender Norms

Because migration relies so heavily on kinship norms, it cannot deviate strongly from gender norms. Rather, migration supports gender norms. Men assert their manhood by serving as the breadwinners of the family. The majority of Tajik migrants are under the age of 34,[xxx] around 82% of the migrant pool is married and a large number of them have families.[xxxi] This migrant pool interviewed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) expressed that its biggest motives to migrate were the inability to find work in Tajikistan, or inability to receive a salary that could sustain themselves and their families.[xxxii] Although these motives are spoken of in economic terms –they cannot be viewed as purely economic. In another study, 89% of those remitting cite the reason to remit as to provide basic consumption goods.[xxxiii] It is clear that migration becomes another way young men can assert their position as men in the household and provide for their families. In a country in which the domestic industries have been wrecked by war and market integration, migration becomes the only way a man can fulfill the duties that define his masculinity. The breadwinning migrant utilizes migration as a means by which he can situate himself in his culture and society.

In societies in which migration is perpetuated by the growth of social capital, a culture of migration eventually develops. Douglas Massey describes a culture of migration, “At the community level, migration becomes deeply ingrained into the repertoire of people’s behavior, and values associated with migration become part of the community’s values.”[xxxiv] This does not imply that values of the receiving society become ingrained within the sending society’s values. Rather, this implies that communities are able to reinterpret migration amongst their own values to address social disruptions. The meanings of the community’s cultural values are not transformed  . Migration has become so common in Tajikistan that it affects each community and has gained acceptance within Tajik society as something natural and necessary. It becomes a rite of passage for many boys who seek to assert their masculinity in the community and within the household. A culture of migration has come into being in Tajikistan and this culture overlaps and reinforces the culture of Tajikistan.


Although counter-intuitive, migration is necessary for the coherence of communities in Tajikistan. After a period of social, economic and physical dislocation it has become necessary for Tajik men to migrate as it allows Tajiks to normalize the situation in which they live. Reconstruction efforts, like migration, help to further consolidate group identity. Communities in Tajikistan, during and after the Tajik Civil War, have faced social or physical dislocation from violence and economic turmoil. Market integration has also caused economic and social dislocation. Yet the social order and power hierarchies within communities and families have not been transformed in Tajikistan. The economic and physical landscape of the country has changed drastically, but traditional community organization, family networks, gender relations and social ties have gained importance and been reinforced in these times of turmoil. Migration has allowed for these communities to find security and gain social capital. What could once be achieved with domestic employment now must be achieved by the migration of the head of household. Although many communities are dislocated by migration, this dislocation in Tajikistan is necessary to ensure the persistence of social norms and the ontological security of kinship communities and families.


[i]       Trilling. D. “Tajikistan Tries to Hide Embarrassing Remittance Data.” Last Modified July 26,2013.

[ii]      Levitt, P. and D. Lamba-Nieves 2011.“Social Remittances Revisited.” In Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37(1): 1-22.

[iii]    De Haas, H. 2007. “Remittances, Migration and Social Development: A conceptual review of the literature.” UNRISD: Geneva: 20.

[iv]      Nourzhanov, K., Bleuer, C. 2013. Tajikistan: A Political and Social History. Canberra: ANU E Press., p. 76

[v]    International Food Policy Research Institute. 2011 GHI – Fact Sheet: Tajikistan Case Study. Last Modified October 11, 2011.

[vi]      Harris, C. 2006. Muslim Youth: Tensions and Transitions in Tajikistan. Boulder: Westview Press., 27

[vii]     Ibid., 32

[viii]    Harris, C. 1998. “Coping with Daily Life in post-Soviet Tajikistan: The Gharmi villages of Khatlon Province.” in Central Asia Survey, 656

[ix]      Ibid., 38

[x]      Trilling. D. “Tajikistan Tries to Hide Embarrassing Remittance Data.”

[xi]      UNICEF. 2011. “Impact of Labour Migration on “Children Left Behind in Tajikistan.” Final Report. November, 35.

[xii]     De Haas, H. “Remittances and social development: A conceptual review of the literature.” 11.

[xiii]    Massey, D., J. Arango, G. Hugo, A Kouaouci, A. Pellegrino and J. E. Taylor. 1999. Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. Oxford: Clarendon., 18.

[xiv]    Mughal, A.G. 2007. “Migration, Remittances, and Living Standards in Tajikistan.” Dushanbe: International Organization for Migration., 96

[xv]     Massey, D., J. Arango, G. Hugo, A Kouaouci, A. Pellegrino and J. E. Taylor. 1999. Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. Oxford: Clarendon., 42.

[xvi]    Nourzhanov, K., Bleuer, C. 2013. Tajikistan: A Political and Social History., 81.

[xvii]    Boboyorov, H. 2013. The Ontological Sources of Political Stability and Economy: Mahalla Mediation in the Rural Communities of Southern Tajikistan. In: Crossroads Asia Working Paper Series, No. 13., 2

[xviii]   Ibid., 1

[xix]    Harris, C. Muslim Youth: Tensions and Transitions in Tajikistan., 27

[xx]     Menjívar, C., and V. Agadjanian. 2007. “Men’s Migration and Women’s Lives: Views from Rural Armenia and Guatemala.” In Social Science Quarterly, 88(5): 1252

[xxi]         Harris, C. Muslim Youth: Tensions and Transitions in Tajikistan., 76.

[xxii]    Olimova S. and Bosc. I. 2003. “Labour Migration from Tajikistan.” Dushanbe: International Organization for Migration., 27

[xxiii]   Mughal, A.G. 2007. “Migration, Remittances, and Living Standards in Tajikistan.” Dushanbe: International Organization for Migration., 96

[xxiv]   Umarov. K. 2010. “Tajik Labour Migration During the Global Economic Crisis: Causes and Consequences.”     Dushanbe: International Organization for Migration., 14.

[xxv]    Cuc, M., Lundback, E., Ruggiero, E. 2005. “Migration and Remittances in Moldova.”, Washington DC: International Monetary Fund, 23.

[xxvi]   Harris, C.. Muslim Youth: Tensions and Transitions in Tajikistan., 96

[xxvii]  Stevanovic Fenn, N. 2014 (Forthcoming). Gendering remittances: Contested Masculinities among Bangladeshi Muslim Male Immigrants in New York City. Invited chapter for Migrant Remittances in South Asia: Social, Economic and Political Implications, Palgrave Macmillan– Edited by Tan Tai Yong, Md Mizanur Rahman and AKM Ahsan Ullah Palgrave & McMillan.

[xxviii]  Olimova, S. and Bosc, I. 2003. “Labour Migration from Tajikistan.”., 104.

[xxix]   Ibid., 103.

[xxx]    International Labor Organization. 2010. “Migration and Development in Tajikistan- Emigration, Return and Diaspora.” ILO Moscow, 6.

[xxxi]   Ibid., 8-9.

[xxxii]  Ibid, 10.

[xxxiii]  Mughal, A.G. 2007. “Migration, Remittances, and Living Standards in Tajikistan.” 79.

[xxxiv]  Massey, D., J. Arango, G. Hugo, A Kouaouci, A. Pellegrino and J. E. Taylor. 1999. Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. Oxford: Clarendon., 47

The Globe Staff

Author: The Globe Staff