Ashgabat Women Exasperated at Tacit Ban on Driving

Several women residents of Ashgabat disrupted the work of the State Traffic Police department in the capital’s 11th residential suburb at the end of last week. The women were trying to renew their driving licenses, but for two years now the Turkmen authorities have been refusing to accept women’s renewal applications. 

Women gathered at Traffic Police headquarters in Ashgabat

From 9.00 to 11.00 the State Traffic Police on Magistral Street should receive applications to renew driving licenses, and from 17.00 to 19.00 they should issue the documents. However, sources told that on Friday and Saturday, September 18 and 19, the department’s work was interrupted by women who had had enough of the tacit ban on women driving.

On Friday, a female resident of the capital tried to submit her renewal documents. The traffic police would not accept the application, as has been the case recently for women. But the woman refused to leave the window until the issue was resolved. She would not let the men standing in line behind her through. As a result, the State Traffic Police office was unable to work that day.

The next day, September 19, around 15 women arrived to submit their applications to renew their licenses. They insisted that their applications be received, but when they saw the women, the Traffic Police staff closed all the doors and said they were not working. As a result, no one could submit their application – neither men, nor women. Two men in civilian clothes but with walkie-talkies arrived. One said he was a representative of Berkarar district criminal investigation department. He talked to the women standing outside the office, trying to persuade them that the police did not have the power to solve their problem. When the women refused to go home, the representative of the criminal investigation department threatened to arrest them.

It emerged at the end of 2018 that the traffic police were targeting women in large numbers. They would deliberately stop cars being driven by women and find any pretext to record an infraction and impound the vehicles. Later, in summer 2019, women found they could no longer renew their licenses (they have to be renewed every 10 years). The police would usually not tell them directly about a gender ban, but find some errors in their applications, require additional certificates, or invent some other pretexts for not accepting their documents. Unofficially, the State Traffic Police employees admit that the instruction not to accept women’s documents comes from the presidential administration.

Such bans in Turkmenistan are not based on any public normative acts, and if officials have to discuss them directly with foreign journalists or diplomats they deny their existence. In addition to the tacit ban on women driving, dark colored cars are also banned in the capital. Sometimes cars from the provinces are refused entry into Ashgabat. Asked to explain the ban, the police often reply “bolanok” (“it’s not allowed”) or refer to “instructions from above.”

According to information, several women have taken the State Traffic Police to court, asking for the refusal to renew their driving licenses to be declared illegal. However, every time the court has taken the side of the traffic police.