The Soviet era saw the implementation of policies designed to transform the status of women in Tajikistan. During the 1930s, the Soviet authorities launched a campaign for women's equality in Tajikistan, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia. Eventually major changes resulted from such programs, but initially they provoked intense public opposition. For example, women who appeared in public without the traditional all-enveloping veil were ostracized by society or even killed by relatives for supposedly shaming their families by what was considered unchaste behavior.
World War II brought an upsurge in women's employment outside the home. With the majority of men removed from their civilian jobs by the demands of war, women compensated for the labor shortage. Although the employment of indigenous women in industry continued to grow even after the war, they remained a small fraction of the industrial labor force after independence. In the early 1980s, women made up 51 percent of Tajikistan's population and 52 percent of the work force on collective farms, but only 38 percent of the industrial labor force, 16 percent of transportation workers, 14 percent of communications workers, and 28 percent of civil servants. (These statistics include women of Russian and other non-Central Asian nationalities.) In some rural parts of the republic, about half the women were not employed at all outside the home in the mid-1980s. In the late Soviet era, female underemployment was an important political issue in Tajikistan because it was linked to the Soviet propaganda campaign portraying Islam as a regressive influence on society.
The issue of female employment was more complicated than was indicated by Soviet propaganda, however. Many women remained in the home not only because of traditional attitudes about women's roles but also because many lacked vocational training and few child care facilities were available. By the end of the 1980s, Tajikistan's preschools could accommodate only 16.5 percent of the children of appropriate age overall and only 2.4 percent of the rural children. Despite all this, women provided the core of the work force in certain areas of agriculture, especially the production of cotton and some fruits and vegetables. Women were underrepresented in government and management positions relative to their proportion of the republic's population. The Communist Party of Tajikistan, the government (especially the higher offices), and economic management organizations were largely directed by men.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, Tajik social norms and even de facto government policy still often favored a traditionalist, restrictive attitude toward women that tolerated wife beating and the arbitrary dismissal of women from responsible positions. In the late Soviet period, Tajik girls still commonly married while under age despite official condemnation of this practice as a remnant of the "feudal" Central Asian mentality.