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Religious Radicalization of Women in Kyrgyzstan

“In connection with the growth of religiosity and conservatism in Kyrgyzstan’s population, gender discriminatory practices unfortunately become normal despite the fact that official policies and formal norms say otherwise” – states Chinara Esengul, Ph.D. in an article for CABAR.asia.

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According to law enforcement agencies, 863 Kyrgyzstani citizens joined and fought for ISIS from 2010 to June 2016 with 188 of them being female.[1]

It is generally accepted that the family factor plays both a positive and a negative role in the spread of radicalization and violent extremism. In the process of labor migration, many young people, being far from their homeland and family, are vulnerable and can be recruited into extremist and terrorist organizations. If the family institution, generational dialogue, continuity of culture, positive upbringing, and education in the Kyrgyz Republic were more functional and took place within the family, fewer young citizens would be recruited and would not seek life’s meaning in warzones. At the same time, it was for the sake of preserving the family and/or being invited by men from their families (husband, father, brother, matchmaker, etc.) that brought many young girls and women to Syria.[2]

After speaking with respondents representing various state and non-governmental organizations, the dominant opinion was that women did not possess their own subjectivity during ISIS’ radicalization process. However, not all cases of radicalization indicate their “zombification” and a lack of subjectivity. Nevertheless, the inevitable question arises which is why do women so thoughtlessly and lifelessly became a part of these negative processes? Also, why are there rarer cases when women decide to join ISIS of their own volition? Below, I try to answer these questions based on the results of a study conducted by UN Women in the first half of 2017.

Context and analysis

When analyzing the age, education, and other characteristics of those who leave, the data varies. Law enforcement agencies say that mainly young people aged 22 to 27, unemployed, poorly educated, and from poor families are the majority of converts. According to non-governmental sources, some also hail from middle-income families. At the same time, there are no statistics on how many of the women were married, but there is data that the majority of those who went followed “because of their husband”. Information on the level of education of women leaving is also not officially available and not statistically presented.

An understanding of the role, motivation, and vulnerabilities of girls and women in the process of religious radicalization, as well as their possible role and potential in preventing such negative processes in society, is possible only through understanding and analyzing the general context in the country.

Several studies are devoted to analyzing factors that prompted our citizens to fight in Syria and Iraq. Based on their results of the country’s situation and the Central Asian region as a whole, one logical conclusion appears. The reasons for radicalization and violent extremism are many, and it is precisely a combination of factors that leads to this in one case or another. Several factors include individual personality characteristics, socioeconomic, discrimination, difficult living conditions, religion, ideology, gender, state religious policy, acts and practices of law enforcement agencies, degree of religious and secular literacy, corruption, etc.

Religious situation

According to the State Commission on Religious Affairs under the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, the country has seen a high growth rate in the religiosity of the population over the past 20 years.[3] Today, more than twenty different Islamic denominations are active in Kyrgyzstan. Under such conditions, the task of managing religious diversity in a country that has proclaimed itself a secular and democratic state is not easy.

A contradiction remains between non-violent Islamic groups with those sects calling for violent means in achieving their political and other goals under the auspices of Islam. For example, the political-religious party Hizb-ut-Tahrir and its members are calling for a caliphate in the countries of Central Asia, while ISIS is also aimed at building a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Assuming that even if members of Hizb ut-Tahrir do not directly assist ISIS, their very activities serve as a basis of ideological and social support for such extremist terror organizations.

Local and foreign experts also view the activity of the Tablighi Jamaat movement ambiguously. Kyrgyzstan remains the only country in Central Asia where this movement is legal. There is a threat that the ban of this already sufficiently influential movement in Kyrgyzstan will lead not to preventing radicalization but rather to an even greater radicalization of moderate Muslims since followers of this movement create a counter-balance to radical currents. At the same time, supporters of banning the movement indicate that Tablighi Jamaat is ideologically close to Deobandi’s conservative teachings, and has ties with Salafism since the 1960s. In other words, if one looks closely, one can understand that the principles of Tablighi Jamaat, “go back to the extremist Wahhabi-Deobandian doctrine, which was a prototype of the ideology of modern Islamic extremism”.[4]

 Socioeconomic situation

In addition to increasing the degree of religiosity of Kyrgyzstan’s population, the country’s labor migration to the near and far abroad also developed at a rapid pace. Unemployment forces young people to think only of one perspective for their future – to find work in Russia, Kazakhstan or any other country. Moreover, the migration process carries many negative consequences. Not only are migrants vulnerable since most are young, naive and often poorly educated, but their family members, especially children who grow up without supervision and parenting, also feel frustrated and insulted. This in particular explains the surging suicide rate among schoolchildren.[5]

According to the government body responsible for migration, there is a trend of increasing migration of women, which today is about 48% of all migrants leaving the country. As a result, the number of problems related to migration processes is also growing. For example, some women joined ISIS voluntarily because it allowed them to remove a whole tangle of problems at home, which “bogged them down”.

Gender situation

In connection with the growth of religiosity and conservatism in Kyrgyzstan’s population, gender discriminatory practices unfortunately become normal despite the fact that official policies and formal norms say otherwise. Let us list some of them: early marriages, polygamy, unregistered marriages and, as a consequence, the lack of rights and documents for both the spouse and mother of children, as well as the wives of migrants who remain as daughter-in-law in the husband’s house and live in severe physical and psychological conditions. There are even cases when the parents of young girls are ready to quickly give their daughters away in marriage for profit’s sake.

We cannot fail to mention domestic violence against wives and children, the still present cases of “ala-kachuu” (bride kidnapping) and the negligent and unprofessional attitude of law enforcement bodies to gender-sensitive cases.  One case in particular is the recent tragedy of Burulai Turdaliyev, who was abducted via bride kidnapping and eventually killed by her kidnapper despite seemingly finding refuge in a militia building.[6]

When girls and women try to escape from all these problems, they look for ways to survive by migrating though they undergo many difficulties upon leaving and returning. Notably, members of their community behold them with burdensome stereotypes and condemnations since many argue that being a female migrant leads to an immoral lifestyle and etc. Conversely, the more common practice of establishing new families and wives by male migrants after their return is not subject to such scorn.

With such panoply of problems, it is easy to understand the motivations for women to leave their homeland in search of a better lot, including Syria. As for those women who found themselves in Syria not by choice because they followed “for their husbands”, certainly societal hurdles and practices minimized their options. These hurdles can include early marriages, lack of education after the 9th class, the role of the “daughter-in-law”, lack of social opportunities outside the home, and the inability to live and survive in the event of a divorce.  Sometimes the only true and possible option for such women is 100% obedience to her husband or his family.


So how can one oppose the religious radicalization of women? One of the most important and well-known recommendations is the need to move towards better protection of human rights and freedoms. Others include rule of law, eliminating double standards, and implementing systems and mechanisms that ensure equal opportunities to obtain secular and religious education for both men and women. This ensures that each girl can eventually take part in society as a person, wife, and mother.

To achieve these goals, I propose the following specific recommendations:

  • The introduction and implementation of reintegration programs for women returning from abroad, including those who returned from war zones (working with stereotypes, creating economic opportunities, effective social communication skills, etc.).
  • The introduction and implementation of a program to support families returning from Syria (many mothers or wives are stigmatized by other members of the community and fall under a new cycle of vulnerability).
  • The introduction and implementation of programs and projects, both public and donor, that focus on local needs and help returnees solve local problems in a sustainable manner, such as public safety.
  • Institutionalize the Ministry of Justice’s initiative to provide free guaranteed legal assistance to the public (increase the legal literacy of the population including women, address registration issues, legal statuses, etc.).
  • Carry out large-scale campaigns that condemn early marriages and polygamy, bride kidnapping, and other practices that discriminate against girls and women.
  • Increase critical and independent thinking skills in educational curricula
  • The state management system needs to understand what role to assign to women in the fight against violent ideologies and encourage moderate religious views and practices. Giving them the necessary skills and knowledge helps protect against discriminatory practices and improves the quality of law enforcement.


[1] Kyrgyz Republic’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, 10th Directorate

[2] According to a study conducted by UN Women, June 2017.

[3] Government Committee on Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic. Accessed June 23, 2018. http://religion.gov.kg/ru/category/analyz_rel_sit/.

[4] Komissina I.N. Dvizhenie «Tabligi Dzhamaat»: teoriia i praktika radikalizma [Tablighi Jamaat Movement: Theory and Practice of Radicalism] Problemy natsional’noi strategii. [National Strategy Issues] 2011. – № 1 (6). – P. 45–65, https://riss.ru/images/pdf/journal/2011/1/Komissina_2011_1.pdf.

[5] Based on interviews with school administration representatives and social educators.

[6] “’We Are for the Rights of Women.’ A Rally Dedicated to the Deceased Burulai Will Be Held in Bishkek.” Kaktusmedia. June 7, 2018. Accessed June 23, 2018. https://kaktus.media/doc/375354_my_za_prava_jenshin._v_bishkeke_proydet_miting_posviashennyy_pogibshey_byrylay.html.

Author: Chinara Esengul, Ph.D. (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of CABAR.asia

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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