Challenging patriarchy in Kyrgyzstan

A post-Soviet generation of feminists is working to transform society through a mix of personal and political action

As the car winds its way along steep-sided mountain roads, Bermet and her baby gaze up at me. I’ve just hitched a ride from Kara Balta in Kyrgyzstan towards the country’s southern province of Jalalabad. The family whose car I’m riding in is eager to teach me a few words in their native Kyrgyz, but when it becomes clear that I can’t communicate we spark up a conversation in Russian, the lingua franca of the region.

The men in the car jostle one another and joke loudly, eager to inquire about my impressions of their country. Meanwhile Bermet sits in silence, staring at me inquisitively. It isn’t until the men leave the car to buy more petrol that she begins to ask questions hurriedly, as if afraid of getting caught. “What do I do for a living and how much do I earn?”

I’m a journalist and I’m here to write about Kyrgyzstan, I tell her.

Although I already suspect what she’s going to say, the frankness and clarity of her answer startles me. “In our country it’s difficult for women to work and have a family,” she explains. “I got married and had children, so I didn’t go to university and I can’t find a job. This baby is my third child, he’s almost one year old,” she says motioning to the plump little boy on her lap. “How old are you?” I ask. “Twenty-two,” she replies.

“We want to inspire other girls by showing that women can study science and become involved in politics.”

For Bermet and other women like her, gender equality in Kyrgyzstan may appear unattainable given that patriarchal attitudes remain well-entrenched. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, state-sponsored services that incentivised women to remain in the labour market disappeared. Many women were forced to give up their jobs to take care of their families, and the traditional practice of “bride-napping” that was outlawed during the Soviet period – abducting young girls to force them into marriage – soon returned, along with the influence on gender norms of conservative religions. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, with an Orthodox Christian minority of around 17 percent.

“We are a traditional society,” a construction worker called Almaz told me as we sat talking in a café in Bishkek, the country’s capital. “Our women could never be feminists.”

In fact feminists of many different stripes are increasingly active in challenging – and potentially transforming – traditional gender roles in Kyrgyzstan. Some of them already occupy positions of authority in civil society and government, and their work is paying off: while patriarchal pressures intensified during the 1990s, the efforts of these leaders have encouraged the younger, post-Soviet generation to challenge them more forcefully through a mix of grassroots activism, legal advocacy and the adoption of new norms within the family.

Consequently, Kyrgyzstan is a country of contradictions. While many young girls are forced into arranged marriages after finishing high school, thus losing their ability to continue studying, Kyrgyzstan also boasted Central Asia’s first and only female president in Roza Otunbayeva between April 2010 and December 2011.

Although traditional gender roles returned in tandem with increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, successive post-independence governments have committed themselves to promoting gender equality and making Kyrgyzstan safer for women. The most notable efforts began after the 2005 Tulip Revolution, when elements of the new president’s administration began meeting with key members of the Kyrgyz women’s movement to make gender equality a priority. Now, a 23 percent quota exists for women in the Kyrgyz Parliament, and over the last ten years female politicians have introduced a variety of bills covering issues from breastfeeding protection to harsher penalties for forcing women into marriage.

Since 2005, women have held many high-level positions in government, including as ministers of finance, education and labour, as chief justice of the Constitutional Court and as chair of the Central Election Committee. Consequently, their priorities have been reflected in new laws and policies that guarantee equal rights for women and men, at least on paper.

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Yet polygamy, domestic violence, and the trafficking of women are still major problems in Kyrgyzstan, and economic independence among women is rare. Many women left the workforce as traditional gender roles began to reassert themselves after independence. Between 1991 and 2007, economic activity among women of working age decreased from 81.6 percent to 42.3 percent, and by 2011 women made up only 41.8 percent of the workforce. Rising economic inequality and high levels of poverty during the transition to capitalism also led more women to become victims of trafficking, an unknown phenomenon during communism.

On the positive side, Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is by far the most active in Central Asia. Today there are more than a hundred women’s NGOs registered with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice, and 70 percent of the leaders and staff members of non-governmental organisations are women. Women’s centrality in civil society, however, would have been impossible without the support of government. Throughout the past decade, successive administrations have encouraged women’s involvement in civil society and ensured that their lobbying efforts wound their way through the political process with minimum resistance.

As these organisations push for change, more women like Bermet are able to have a family and pursue a career if they so desire. Twenty-year old Gulnara, for example, comes from the town of Arslanbob. When I spoke to her in Bishkek she told me that she had been married for three years, lives with her in-laws, and is studying to be an English teacher. “Our parents didn’t want me to go to university, but my husband knew that it was important to me and he argued with his parents until they consented. Now he works an extra job to help me pay for school.”

Challenges to traditional gender perceptions are encouraging members of both sexes to work together to shake off outdated norms. In north-eastern Kyrgyzstan, for example, local high school students have created clubs for young men who are interested in promoting gender equality and raising awareness about domestic violence. And in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, a new wave of feminism is emerging to address broader issues of sexuality and inequality, as well as reproductive rights.

“While this brand of feminism is far from mainstream, its existence is indicative of a growing awareness among the younger generation of the issues that are faced by Kyrgyz women.”

Sixteen-year-old Maria, for example, is an active member of the Bishkek’s Girl Activists group, a grassroots organisation run by girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who aim to raise awareness about feminism among teenagers in Kyrgyzstan. “There is a culture of shame in Kyrgyzstan that prohibits young girls from studying scientific facts about their bodies and understanding their reproductive systems,” she explained to me. “Schools use outdated, patriarchal textbooks that only teach about men’s role in our history and society and ignore women and their bodies.”

In order to challenge these narratives, the Girl Activists use art and graffiti and organise movie screenings to educate other teenagers. They are also making their own textbooks using information about Kyrgyz women scientists, musicians, artists and politicians. “We want to inspire other girls by showing that women can study science and become involved in politics,” she says. “Women can play a role in the history of our country, we just need to encourage more girls to become educated and get involved.” Seeing influential women in positions of power who take a stand on gender equality has encouraged the younger generation to become more active in society and make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the Girl Activists are supported by another grassroots group called the Bishkek Feminist Collective, which was formed to focus on issues that were less policy-oriented and more personal. “There was no organisation addressing the ‘personal is political’,” one of the Collective’s lead organisers told me, who asked to remain anonymous. “There was no safe space for people to talk about their own experiences of rape, sexual violence, or incest. Here we offer that space. We are a solidarity group. Our point of departure is our own experience.”

The collective exists to support women who are survivors of domestic violence, trafficking, and other abuses. While this brand of feminism is far from mainstream, its existence is indicative of a growing awareness among the younger generation of the issues that are faced by Kyrgyz women. Even so, these courageous activists often face threats for the work they do.

While the status of women in Kyrgyzstan is improving, patriarchal attitudes still exist and the road to equality is long. Nonetheless, the support of women in power is making it easier for women across the country to challenge patriarchy and initiate important societal transformations. As equality activists become increasingly involved in the public sphere, their achievements should help to ensure that gender parity becomes a permanent part of Kyrgyzstan’s legal and social systems.

First published by Open Democracy