Despite legislation designed to secure gender equality, women rarely make it beyond deputy positions in the Tajik government, and instead remain stuck in the lower ranks or hit a glass ceiling after reaching middle management.
Tajikistan has no female cabinet ministers, though the state committee for women and family affairs is headed by a woman.
Marifat Shokirova, who heads the committee's gender department, argues that government efforts have resulted in improvements this year.
President Imomali Rahmon promoted nine women – almost all to deputy positions – at the start of the year. Eight were promoted to become deputy heads of government bodies including the agriculture ministry, the committee on investment and state property management. and the state electricity provider Bark-i Tojik.
A ninth woman was made head of the municipal government in the northern town of Chkalovsk, becoming one of just four women nationwide heading town or district authorities.
Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, said she was pleased with the number of women promoted, but disappointed by the levels they had reached.
She questioned whether government officials were taking a presidential decree on women's promotion too literally.
President Rahmon issued a decree in 1999 that paved the way towards positive discrimination and sought to improve female representation in parliament, the judiciary and the government.
The decree tasked the government with promoting deserving female candidates to deputy positions in ministries, government committees and agencies, state-run companies, local government, the prosecution service and the courts.
While this was intended to empower women, experts like Bobonazarova fear its real effect has been to hold them in check.
“If we are talking about gender equality, why can't a woman be a leader?” Bobonazarova asked.
Times have changed since the decree was passed, in the immediate wake of the 1992-97 civil war, she said, and women should no longer be restricted to second-in-command positions.
Aside from the decree, the government has introduced programmes including a nine-year strategy adopted in 2011, intended to help women find employment in areas including business and politics.
An additional programme from 2007 to 2016 aimed to promote women to leading positions in the government and NGOs, and to encourage education for women. While these measures brought about some changes, rights workers say more needs to be done.
The Tajikistan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law said in 2011 that only five per cent of leading government posts were held by women, and that there were no women leading provincial-level administrations.
As for the legislature, 12 of the 63 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament are women, while of the upper house's 25 members, five are female.
In the judiciary, the more than 70 court chairpersons include just seven women, according to 2011 figures.
Officials recognise that there is a shortage of women in top government jobs.
“At the level of ministries and agencies, male bosses do not understand the responsibility to assure gender equality,” Shokirova said. “They still operate according to old stereotypes.”
On International Women's Day, March 8, this year, the president noted that there were too few women in top government positions.
Activists often blame the situation on pervasive social attitudes towards female roles. Many in Tajikistan believe women's main job is to raise children, an attitude which politicians and the media reinforce.
For example, Bobonazarova noted that International Women's Day was used to celebrate the role of mothers rather than women's accomplishments in the workplace.
Tajik journalist Jovid Mukim believes officials are wary of women with leadership skills, and prefer them to display qualities like loyalty instead.
Daler Sharifov, a young man from Dushanbe, said there was a lack of positive female role models in the media. He also questioned how much power female lawmakers really had.
“State TV channels portray women [as] only singers and dancers. We do not have women who are really active in public life.… Women represented in parliament are just a token gesture,” he said. “Why can't our women lead big enterprises like women do in Russia?”
Matluba Uljabaeva, head of the Tajik Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, believes women can compete against men in any area of public life, but traditional mindsets among government officials have driven many educated and skilled women into the NGO sector.
“Those who had knowledge and experience of being in leading positions [during Soviet times], and who spoke foreign languages, established themselves as NGO activists,” Uljabaeva said.
In the NGO sector, she added, women are confined to campaigning from the sidelines, rather than deciding and leading on policy.