Mahallah

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Mahallah
Informal practice commonly found in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan map.png
Map of Uzbekistan, where Mahallah commonly takes place.
Uzbekistan flag.png
Flag of Uzbekistan.
Entry written by Rustamion Urinboyev.
Rustamion Urinboyev is affiliated to Department of Sociology of Law, Lund University.

Original Text: Rustamjon Urinboyev, Department of Sociology of Law, Lund University

Derived from the Arabic mahali, meaning ‘local,‘ the term mahalla is formally used in Uzbekistan to mean neighbourhood, local community, or state administrative unit. There are today some 12,000 mahallas in Uzbekistan, each of which consists of anything between 150 and 1,500 households (Micklewright and Marnie 2005:431)[1].

‘Photograph depicting dinner at a Mahallah. Photograph by Rustamjon Urinboyev.’

However, the word’s rich cultural roots mean that mahalla has multiple meanings and definitions. In Uzbekistan it is also used by local people to describe community-based, informal economic practices (Sievers 2002; Urinboyev 2013)[2][3]. In this sense, mahalla denotes the means whereby people obtain access to public goods, services and social protection while bypassing the state. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between the ‘administrative‘ (formal) and the ‘social‘ (informal) functions. For example, the term informal mahalla may be used to refer to mahalla-based welfare and redistributive practices.

Typically, mahalla practices include monetary and labour exchanges, rotating savings and credit initiatives, mutual assistance and non-compensated labour, housing construction and contributions to charity, all carried out within the local community. A hashar (non-compensated community project) is the commonest mahalla practice, where local residents cooperate with one another by the reciprocal exchange of labour, money, material goods and services. Mahalla residents arrange hashar for a variety of purposes, such as constructing irrigation facilities, cleaning streets, asphalting roads, building houses or mosques, organising weddings, funerals and circumcision feasts, and many other services not provided by the state. Sievers notes that, ‘In modern Uzbekistan, few weddings, emergency medical operations, university matriculations, house repairs, or funerals take place in the life of the average mahalla resident without some community financial support’ (2002:129)[4]. Similarly, Seiple (2005)[5] depicts mahalla as a means by which neighbours look out for one other by collectively parenting children, providing labour for repairs to houses, connecting friends and family to jobs, and distributing funds to needy families.

The origin of the practice dates back to the 11th or 12th centuries when Islamic empires dominated Central Asia. In the pre-Soviet period, mahallas were usually communities of several hundred people, organised in accordance with Islamic rituals and social events. A group of elders known as oqosoqol (‘white beards‘) acted as administrators, providing advice and direction to the local community (Geiss 2001; Dadabaev 2013)[6][7]. According to Olga Sukhareva (1976)[8], a Russian anthropologist specialising in the study of mahallas in medieval Bukhara, mahallas gave residents access to services and infrastructure that were not accessible to non-residents. These included mosques, teahouses, bazaars, cooking areas, and water supplies.

Photograph of Nosir Rahmon breaking bread with fellow men in a Mahallah.

During the early Soviet period, the authorities attempted to eliminate the mahalla as an institution; these attempts were abandoned after it became evident that they would provoke social unrest (Abramson 1998)[9]. As a result, the Soviet authorities changed their strategy and tried instead to use mahallas to disseminate communist ideology by integrating them into the state and party structures. As a result, mahallas continued to serve as local village councils throughout the Soviet period (Bektemirov and Rahimov 2001)[10].


Photograph representing a group of men joining for food at a Mahallah.

After Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, the authorities expanded the role and responsibilities of mahallas (Koroteyeva and Makarova 1998; Louw 2007)[11][12]. The mahalla was transformed into the basic administrative unit of local government. Mahallas are now hybrid institutions, operating both as part of the formal system of public administration (formal mahalla) and as an informal, community-based welfare system (informal mahalla) (Sievers 2002; Urinboyev 2011, 2013, 2014)[13][14][15][16]. One may distinguish between ‘formal‘ and ‘informal‘ mahalla by looking at their functions and regulatory structures: formal mahallas take the form of committees headed by a state-salaried chairman (rais) and act on behalf of the state; informal (social) mahallas are founded on moral ideas of solidarity and mutual help and are led by an oqsoqol chosen by residents.


Given the existence during the Soviet period of an all-encompassing social protection system, people in those days felt less need for a mahalla-based welfare system. But cutbacks in state welfare support in the post-Soviet period mean that mahallas have now become primary providers of social welfare. Sievers (2002: 103)[17] notes that, ‘The economic significance of mahalla has shifted from a vehicle through which to amass additional or disposable wealth to a vehicle for basic survival.’

Since 1991, the Uzbek authorities have portrayed the mahalla as an Uzbek national brand, but analogous institutions may be found in Islamic areas stretching from Central Europe to Southeast Asia. Similar traditions persist in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan (Trofimov 1995; Coudouel et al. 1998; Sievers 2002; Louw 2007)[18][19][20][21]. Other examples may be found in the Balkans, dating from that region’s Ottoman (Islamic) past (Choleva-Dimitrova 2002)[22].

Mahallas embody moral ideas of solidarity and mutual help. But while this mahalla-based solidarity is based on ties of kinship, reciprocity and good neighbourliness, it may also contribute to the emergence of initial elements of nepotism, cronyism and patron-client relations. According to informal norms of mahalla, the individual is expected to share his or her economic resources and political influence with his mahalla (family, relatives, neighbours). These mahalla norms shape the behaviour of individuals when they engage in public administration, business and social life. State officials frequently find themselves compelled to choose between, on the one hand, loyalty to their kin and mahalla, and, on the other hand, honesty at work. Therefore, upholding respect and loyalty for kin and mahalla networks often comes at the expense of the formal structures, thereby leading to an omnipresence of clientelistic relations in state institutions (Urinboyev and Svensson 2013a)[23]. In this way, mahalla structures undermine the rule of law and good governance initiatives by promoting alternative versions of how people should behave.

Notes

  1. Micklewright, J. and Marnie, S. 2005. ‘Targeting Social Assistance in a Transition Economy: The Mahallas in Uzbekistan.’ Social Policy and Administration, 39 (4), 431-447
  2. Sievers, E. 2002.’ Uzbekistan’s Mahalla: from Soviet to Absolutist Residential Community Associations.’ The Journal of International and Comparative Law at Chicago-Kent 2: 91–158
  3. Urinboyev, R. 2013. ‘Living Law and Political Stability in Post-Soviet Central Asia. A Case Study of the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan.’ PhD Dissertation, Lund Studies in Sociology of Law. Lund University, Lund
  4. Sievers, E. 2002.’ Uzbekistan’s Mahalla: from Soviet to Absolutist Residential Community Associations.’ The Journal of International and Comparative Law at Chicago-Kent 2: 91–158
  5. Seiple, C. 2005. ‘Uzbekistan: Civil Society in the Heartland.’ Orbis Spring 2005: 245-259
  6. Geiss, P. 2001. ‘Mahallah and kinship relations. A study on residential communal commitment structures in Central Asia of the 19th century. Central Asian Survey, 20 (1): 97–106.
  7. Dadabaev, T. 2013. ‘Community life, memory and a changing nature of mahalla identity in Uzbekistan,’ Journal of Eurasian Studies, 4 (2): 181–196
  8. Sukhareva, O. 1976. Kvartal’naya obshchina pozdnefeodl’nogo goroda Bukhary: Vsvyazi s istoriei kvartalov. Moscow: Nauka
  9. Abramson, D. 1998. ‘From Soviet to Mahalla: Community and Transition in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan.’ PhD thesis, Indiana University. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services
  10. Bektemirov, K. and Rahimov, E., 2001. ‘Local Government in Uzbekistan’ in V. Popa and I. Munteanu (eds), Developing New Rules in the Old Environment. Local governments in Eastern Europe, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Budapest: Local Government and Public Service Reform Initiative, Open Society Institute Europe: 469–520
  11. Koroteyeva, V. and Makarova, E. 1998. ‘The Assertion of Uzbek National Identity: Nativization or State Building Process?’ in T. Atabaki and J. O’Kane (eds), Post-Soviet Central Asia. New York: I.B. Tauris
  12. Louw, M., 2007. Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia, Central Asian Studies Series. London: Routledgew
  13. Sievers, E. 2002.’ Uzbekistan’s Mahalla: from Soviet to Absolutist Residential Community Associations.’ The Journal of International and Comparative Law at Chicago-Kent 2: 91–158
  14. Urinboyev, R. 2011. Law, Social Norms and Welfare as Means of Public Administration: Case Study of Mahalla Institutions in Uzbekistan. The NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy 4 (1): 33–57
  15. Urinboyev, R. 2013. ‘Living Law and Political Stability in Post-Soviet Central Asia. A Case Study of the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan.’ PhD Dissertation, Lund Studies in Sociology of Law. Lund University, Lund
  16. Urinboyev, R. 2014. ‘Is There an Islamic Public Administration Legacy in Post-Soviet Central Asia? An Ethnographic Study of Everyday Mahalla Life in Rural Ferghana, Uzbekistan. Administrative Culture, 15 (2):35–57
  17. Sievers, E. 2002.’ Uzbekistan’s Mahalla: from Soviet to Absolutist Residential Community Associations.’ The Journal of International and Comparative Law at Chicago-Kent 2: 91–158
  18. Trofimov, D. A.1995. Islam in the political culture of the former Soviet Union: Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Hamburg: Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik
  19. Coudouel, A., Marnie, S., and Micklewright, J. 1998. ‘Targeting social assistance in a transition economy: The mahallas in Uzbekistan’ in J. Freiberg-Strauss and K. Meyer (eds) The Real World of Social Policy: An Anthology of Project Experience. UNICEF International Child Development Centre: 40–60
  20. Sievers, E. 2002.’ Uzbekistan’s Mahalla: from Soviet to Absolutist Residential Community Associations.’ The Journal of International and Comparative Law at Chicago-Kent 2: 91–158
  21. Louw, M., 2007. Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia, Central Asian Studies Series. London: Routledge
  22. Choleva-Dimitrova, A.M. 2002. Selyshny imena ot Yugozapadna B’lgariya: Izsledvane. Rechnik. Sofia: Pensoft
  23. Urinboyev, R. and Svensson, M. 2013a. ‘Corruption in a Culture of Money: Understanding Social Norms in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan,’ in M. Baier (ed.) Social and Legal Norms. Farnham: Ashgate: 267–284