Veiling garment (paranja), womens, embroidered cotton/ metallic ornaments/ buttons, made by Tajik woman in Russian Turkestan, c. 1900
Robes with false sleeves like those on this woman's paranja have a long tradition in Central Asia, and over time have been worn by both men and women. While this style of garment probably did not originally denote adherence to Islam, by the end of the nineteenth century paranjas were mandatory street wear for the urban Muslim women of Central Asia. Uzbek and Tajik women, from young girls to elderly matriarchs, always wore the paranja with a horsehair face veil called a chachvan when venturing outside the walls of their homes. Lord Curzon, writing in 1886 of a visit to Central Asia, declared himself unable to comment on the beauty of the women of Bukhara because 'not only were their features hidden behind a heavy horsehair veil but their figures were loosely wrapped up in big blue cotton dressing gowns.'
As with this example, the paranja is generally lavishly ornamented with embroidery, tassels, buttons and other trinkets, especially around the edges, front, arm openings and 'sleeves'. The embroidery is usually quite stylised floral or geometric designs, many of which have ancient symbolic meanings. Typically, paranjas are lined with two different ikat fabrics, the more expensive being used around the hem and front openings where it may be glimpsed as the wearer passes by.
After the Communist takeover in Central Asia, women were required to work in the factories and for a while were prohibited from wearing their paranjas and chachvans. In those years, many were burned publicly and by 1959 had all but disappeared. Nowadays, the paranja and chachvan play a purely symbolical role in the ritual life cycle of the women of the region - particularly in relation to marriage and death. Although the production of paranjas has long ceased, many were stored safely away and have thus survived.
Robes with long vestigial sleeves, worn over the head and shoulders, have a long tradition in Central Asia. A garment with very narrow long decorated sleeves was amongst the finds in the 2500 year old grave site at Pazyryk in Western Siberia. Evidence of similar costumes can be found on some bas reliefs and sculptures at Persepolis, on the Oxus treasure and on terracotta figurines from Afrasiab (ancient Samarkand). As this style of garment predates the Arab invasion of the 8th century CE, it also clearly predates Islam in the region.
Early (19th century) paranjas were quite sober in appearance, being mostly made from blue or silvery-grey and finely-striped cotton fabric like this example. With the availability of new materials, paranja design became rather more adventurous and a fashionable woman might wear one made from bright ikat, velvet or brocade. The form however remained very much the same. Decoration also changed as tassels, buttons, metallic ornaments were lavished on the paranja to enhance the simple black braid and black embroidery of earlier times.
Unlike other items of women's dress, the paranja was not made at home but was commissioned from women who specialised in their production. It appears that the measurements were standardised. The black embroidery is hand done, and is worked through both outer cloth and lining. The zeh (or dziyak) edging is worked in place on the robe itself, and was an independent craft.
During the 1800s the Russians promoted the cultivation of cotton and mulberry trees and, until the Soviet regime was established in the 1920s, the production of silk and cotton fabrics was run as a cottage industry with a clear division of labour. Women were responsible for the rearing of the silkworms while men actually produced the silk fabrics. Women were also the embroiderers.
Paranjas were worn by urban Tajik and Uzbek women in Russian Turkestan in conjunction with a face veil (chachvan) whenever they left the confines of their own home. The broad collar band rested on top of the head from where the cloak hung down in heavy folds to the ground, with the edges meeting at the front. Underneath the woman wore her regular dress of kurta and drawstring trousers, coat, cap and scarf. Although the paranja and veil were more a symbol of modesty and respectability than one of strict segregation, a good Muslim woman could not leave her home without wearing both articles of body cover.
After the Soviet revolution, women were encouraged to burn their parajas and chachvans as symbols of oppression. However, as abandoning veiling was viewed as radically immodest and a slight against Islam, some two thousand women were killed by their male relatives. Many women continued to wear the paranja and ultimately the authorities were unable to enforce the decree. At Krushchev's request, an anti-veil campaign was carried out by the Communist Youth League between 1955 and 1959.
Purchased by Christina Sumner from a woman vendor at the Urgut Sunday market during an overseas-on-duty visit to Central Asia in October 1999; subsequently sponsored for the Museum collection by the Oriental Rug Society of New South Wales.