Social Structure

Turkmenistan Table of Contents

Although it is not a basis for political groupings, the rather vague phenomenon of tribal identity is a complex social phenomenon that retains important influence at the end of the twentieth century. The Soviet era added an element of cohesion to a previously loose and unassertive set of social loyalties among Turkmen.

Social Classes

Turkmen society recognizes a class structure, ideologically based on Marxist doctrine, composed of intelligentsia, workers, and peasants. In practical terms, the intelligentsia and peasantry consist of Turkmen, while the worker class is the domain of Russians. Power and some wealth are associated with the Western-oriented intelligentsia, who hold the key positions in government, industry, and education. Most intelligentsia are educated in Russian language schools, often complete higher educational institutions in Russia, speak Russian as their language of choice, and are concentrated in urban centers, especially in Ashgabat.

Although many members of the intelligentsia favor cultural revival, more support restricting nationalist manifestations and the role of Islam in society. Many who are atheists and have identified with Soviet ideals harbor anxieties that distance from traditional values and especially from the Turkmen language will limit their career potential in the post-Soviet era.


Before the Soviet period, the Turkmen were organized into a segmentary system of territorial groups that Western scholars loosely designate as tribes. These groupings featured little sharp social stratification within or strong unity among them. Tribal structure always has been complex, and the Turkmen-language terminology used to designate lineage affiliation sometimes is confusing. Generally, the largest groupings, which may be equivalent to what Western scholarship labels "tribes," are called khalk , il , or taipa in Turkmen. Smaller lineage groups are equivalent to Western terms like "clans," "subtribes," or "branches." The smallest affiliations are equivalent to subclans or lineages in Western terminology.

In the past, Turkmen tribes remained relatively isolated and politically independent from one another. All tribes possessed specific distinguishing features. Their dialects differed greatly, and in terms of material culture each large tribe had a unique carpet pattern, clothing, headgear, and brand of identification.

Although Soviet nationality policy was somewhat successful in diluting tribal consciousness, tribal identity remains a factor in present-day social relations. Except in such urban areas as Chärjew and Ashgabat, virtually all Turkmen have a knowledge of their parents' and consequently their own tribal affiliation. A Turkmen's tribal affiliation still is a reliable indicator of his or her birthplace, for example. Lineage still may play a role in the arranging of marriages in rural areas. In Soviet Turkmenistan, the membership of collective and state farms often was formed according to clan and tribal affiliation. Although kinship undoubtedly retains significance in contemporary Turkmen society, attempts to use tribal affiliation as the determining factor in such realms as current politics usually are not instructive.

Until the Soviet period, the Turkmen lacked paramount leaders and political unity. The Turkmen rarely allied to campaign against sedentary neighbors, nor did they form a unified front against the Russian conquest. Unlike other Central Asian peoples, the Turkmen recognized no charismatic bloodline. Leaders were elected according to consensus, and their authority was based on conduct. Raids and other military pursuits could be organized by almost any male, but the power he exercised lasted only as long as the undertaking. Turkmen tribal structure did include a leader or chief (beg ), but these positions, too, were mostly honorary and advisory, based on kinship ties and perceived wisdom. Real power was located among the community's older members, whose advice and consent usually were required prior to any significant endeavor. Although women rarely assumed prominent political rank and power, there were instances of influential female leaders in the nineteenth century.

The Family

Prior to Soviet rule, the extended family was the basic and most important social and economic unit among the Turkmen. Grouped according to clan, small bands of Turkmen families lived as nomads in their traditional regions and consolidated only in time of war or celebration. In most cases, the families were entirely self-sufficient, subsisting on their livestock and at times on modest agricultural production. For some groups, raiding sedentary populations, especially the Iranians to the south, was an important economic activity.

Although Soviet power brought about fundamental changes in the Turkmen family structure, many traditional aspects remain. Families continue to be close-knit and often raise more than five children. Although no longer nomadic, families in rural areas still are grouped according to clan or tribe, and it is the rule rather than the exception for the inhabitants of a village to be of one lineage. Here, also, it is common for sons to remain with their parents after marriage and to live in an extended one-story clay structure with a courtyard and an agricultural plot. In both rural and urban areas, respect for elders is great. Whereas homes for the elderly do exist in Turkmenistan, Turkmen are conspicuously absent from them; it is almost unheard of for a Turkmen to commit his or her parent to such an institution because grandparents are considered integral family members and sources of wisdom and spirituality.

The marriage celebration, together with other life-cycle events, possesses great importance in Turkmen society. In rural areas especially, marriages are often arranged by special matchmakers (sawcholar ). Aside from finding the right match in terms of social status, education, and other qualities, the matchmakers invariably must find couples of the same clan and locale. Most couples have known each other beforehand and freely consent to the marriage arrangement. Divorce among Turkmen is relatively rare. One important custom still practiced in Turkmenistan is the brideprice (kalong ). Depending on region and a family's wealth, the bride's family may demand huge sums of money from the groom in return for the bride's hand in marriage.

The role of women in Turkmen society has never conformed to Western stereotypes about "Muslim women." Although a division of labor has existed and women usually were not visible actors in political affairs outside the home, Turkmen women never wore the veil or practiced strict seclusion. They generally possessed a host of highly specialized skills and crafts, especially those connected with the household and its maintenance. During the Soviet period, women assumed responsibility for the observance of some Muslim rites to protect their husbands' careers. Many women entered the work force out of economic necessity, a factor that disrupted some traditional family practices and increased the incidence of divorce. At the same time, educated urban women entered professional services and careers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress