Kamila Rustambekova and Kamilla Akhmedova explore the status of women in present-day Uzbekistan. Using a photo shoot styled with clothes by local designers as a means to tell a story, they speak about the need to respect any kind of choice—regardless of whether or not it meets the criteria of “progressiveness.” This is the first contribution to EastEast's new Community section, which will feature texts and projects independently initiated and carried out by our readers.
Kamilla Akhmedova:Recently, discussions have started regarding the status of women in Uzbekistan—for example, there was a loud campaign #вместеобольном#вместеобольномLiterally in Russian “on what hurts.” in which girls debunked patriarchal stereotypes. But it was interesting for us to show not only those who are actively fighting for their rights, but also more “traditional” girls. I wanted to make a project that would make it clear that any choice should be respected: whether you want to stay single or get married, live with your parents or on your own, make a career or take care of your family, wear a hijab or not—it's all about your choice. On the one hand, this is a fashion shoot, on the other—a social project.
Kamila Rustambekova: Together we came up with a story about three girls who in reality could be living on the same street, in one mahallahmahallahThe traditional name of urban neighborhoods in Muslim cities.. They have different destinies and different values, but all strive for the highest goals and find their own way to express themselves. Each has an occupation where she reaches self-realization.
Sitora is a married woman. She does household chores, works in the field, and raises her children. She likes being involved in all household chores and she does them well, in her free time she reads.
Elina is a Muslim. She covers her head, fasts, and prays. Her choice does not prevent her from expressing herself with the help of makeup and clothes in the family environment. Moreover, she takes care of the garden and grows flowers—her daily contemplation of beauty.
The third protagonist—Dina—found the courage and strength to file for divorce, take her child, and start a new life—she met a girl with whom she now lives in a Boston marriage. Dina makes a living by embroidering traditional suzanisuzaniA traditional sewing technique that in Persian translates to “sewed by a needle.” Also common in Turkey, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran..
KA: When we were getting ready for the shoot, we learned that suzani craftswomen were often relieved of their household duties, as their craft was highly valued and they were the family breadwinners. So, this is not just beautiful applied art, it also has a feminist agenda.
KR:Among some references for the shoot, there were both classic fashion shoots and documentaries. For example, pictures of the Soviet photographer Max Penson, who worked a lot in Uzbekistan.
KA:For our project, I chose clothes from local designers. I did not want to borrow outfits from Turkish and Chinese stores, which we have here at every turn, but to support our artists and show people their work instead. All the brands you can see in our shoot are local except, perhaps, J.Kim, who has long gone international—but still we took Zhenya's collection inspired by Uzbekistan. The shoot includes items from Anor Couture, Dildora Kasimova, Elena Milberger, Fugu, Moel Bosh, NNAM, Tais & I, Holmuradov Design jewelry, and Uzbek vintage. We talked with the designers and told them about the project and its message in detail—making sure that everyone shared our concept.
As a stylist, I needed to take into account the nuances associated with religious norms in clothing. For example, in Orthodox Muslim families women are not encouraged to wear bright clothes and makeup outdoors so as not to attract too much attention. Also, their hair should not be revealed. However, in foreign fashion shoots, Muslim women wear trouser suits and bright prints. According to our concept, Elina stays home so as not to hurt the feelings of believers.
In general, it is very interesting to study the interpretations of the Koran in relation to modern fashion: for example, it turns out that Muslims cannot wear counterfeit brands, since theft is condemned in the Koran. It is also advisable to wear clothing made of recyclable materials and produced in decent conditions. In theory, religion does not support labor where women churn out low-quality items for 2 USD an hour. One way or another, today there are no clear interpretations of Sharia law, thus each interprets them in their own way, depending on one’s environment.
We did the shooting in the mahallah—a neighborhood, a kind of a small community, where everyone knows and helps one another. There are still some traditional old houses left around, and some residents are ashamed of them, often assuming that “European-style” renovation looks better.
KR: After every day of shooting, we were impressed by how open the locals were and how willingly they offered help. In every house we were welcome. They offered us melon and tea, invited us to dinner—it made us feel like a part of one extended family. Once we were filming in the field and the land-owner ran after us to present two watermelons. Everyone, young and old, was helping and fussing around, apologizing for the mess in the courtyard where we wanted to shoot and arranging special cleaning.
We tried to convey Uzbek culture not only through the setting and clothing, but also with the help of small elements we are familiar with. For example, a can of sour milk and fresh flat bread appear in the shot—an incredible morning delight that every Uzbek knows perfectly well. Figs, often homegrown, are a real taste of summer. Vegetables grown in their own kitchen gardens or fields are what kids often enjoy the most, stealing and eating them between games.
KA:Also, in the pictures you can see woad—a plant that is traditionally used for the growth and dying of eyebrows. Now it can be bought both at bazaars and as an ingredient of eyebrow dyeing products, ready-made, in Arabic packages.
KR:I remember my grandmother smearing woad when I was a little girl—collecting, drying, and then squeezing it. Children also often shaved their heads so that later their hair would grow better. So, that was how we walked around—bald and green-eyebrowed.
KA: I am very glad that Kamilla and I succeeded in bringing this project to life despite the various obstacles that came with our first shooting being cancelled due to a sudden quarantine. It was very important for me to take a step towards myself and my roots. I really want our women to not limit themselves in any way—neither in the choice of clothes, nor in the choice of a life partner. I would like them to dispel the illusions and fears imposed by society. I myself come from a traditional Uzbek family, where all the traditions and rules were highly respected, and I felt like a hostage to this. I realized I did not want to live like this, to be comfortable, good, right for everyone. It is important to live for your own happiness, whatever way you define it.
Concept: Kamila Rustambekova and Kamilla Akhmedova
Photo: Kamila Rustambekova
Style and design set: Kamilla Akhmedova (“7/1 Bureau” agency)
Models: Dina Makhmudova, Sitora Mamadrizaeva, Elina Brunkovskaya (NN Models), Seva
Makeup: Ruslan Dominov
Clothes: Anor Couture, Dildora Kasimova, Elena Milberger, J. Kim, Moel Bosh, NNAM, Tais & I, Fugu, Uzbek vintage
Jewelry: Holmuradov Design
Kamila Rustambekova is a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Her work has been featured in publications such as i-D, Calvert, Buro Kazakhstan, Novastan, Bird in Flight, and Klassiki. She has participated in exhibitions including "Baesianz presents KIN" at the Guts Gallery in London, UK, and the "New East Festival: A Celebration of Contemporary Photography" at IDEAL Barcelona in Spain, among others. Kamila is a member of Women Photograph since 2023.