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19 June 2023




In Uzbekistan, there has long been a sharp division in the access to public spaces based on gender. Public spaces, which are associated with politics and power, have traditionally been reserved for men, while women are largely limited to their private realm. This has contributed to a gender stratification in the region, where women have less mobility and are confined to their homes or neighbourhoods, with their ability to move around determined by the type of work they do. Despite these limitations, women continue to play critical roles within their community and exercise agency in appropriating, negotiating, and using public spaces.

One such space that is actively used by both men and women (although separately) are hair salons. In a patriarchal context where women have very limited access to public spaces, beauty parlours hold significant importance. These spaces act as safe havens, where emotional and mental health can grow and thrive through a continuous interchange of experiences with other women. Given the limited resources for traditional mental health assistance in most regions of Uzbekistan, beauty parlours provide a much-needed opportunity for women to vent and seek refuge.

In an effort to challenge the existing gender dichotomy, I started an ongoing project called Sartaroshxona, which means "barbershop" in English. The project aims to allow me, as a woman, into male-only spaces and explore whether the cultural dynamics in Sartaroshxona's are similar to those in female-only beauty parlours. The project also seeks to document the historical and cultural importance of barbershops, which have acted as time-honoured cultural institutions where expertise is often passed down from one generation to another.

Sartaroshxona's are environments where identities are manifested, projected, shaped, and negotiated through the establishment of certain ideas of masculinity. These spaces go beyond mere grooming purposes, serving as a social hub where men can socialise and discuss important topics, given the restricted availability of social spaces. The social dynamics that take place in the barbershops help create a sense of camaraderie and community that is unique to these spaces.

However, globalisation and western cultural hegemony pose a threat to this cultural code. Sartaroshxona's are being gradually replaced by modern, almost identical barbershops, with the loss of Sartaroshxona's representing more than just a change in architecture and style. It signals the erosion of a distinct cultural code and a way of life that has been historically established in the region. The rise of western-style barbershops and the use of unfamiliar terminology threatens to erase the unique cultural characteristics that have long been associated with the traditional Uzbek experience.

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