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The Thorny Path to the Development of Feminism in Kyrgyzstan 

Despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan is considered the most liberal country in the region, women’s rights activists find it hard to struggle for women’s right.

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March for women rights in Bishkek on 8 March 2021. Photo source: Lex Titova/Kloop.kg

Some feminists and activists fear that the coming of new president Sadyr Zhaparov will hinder the promotion of ideas of feminism and empowerment of women, whereas various organisations can feel various restrictions and obstacles to the implementation of their initiatives.

The media and the public are not aware of positive or negative statements by president Zhaparov regarding the ideas of feminism and women’s rights. However, he has repeatedly emphasised in his speeches the need for moral and spiritual education and personal development. This is especially emphasised in the draft constitution, which will be soon put to a referendum. At the end of this January, he also signed the decree “On moral and spiritual development and physical education of an individual”.

It emphasises, among other things, that state bodies need to “provide compliance of the educational system with traditional cultural, moral and spiritual and family values.”

For this reason, the activist for women’s rights and lawyer Elvira Tilek draws a conclusion that the state will focus more on traditional values, and any inconsistencies will be to the disfavour of feminists.

“The draft of the new Constitution specifies that all events inconsistent with moral and spiritual values or traditional values must be banned. It’s clear that in our reality feminism goes beyond traditional values. It means that feminnale, marches and other campaigns defending the women’s rights can no more be carried out, which is a big obstacle for the feminist community,” Elvira Tilek said. 

March for women rights in Osh city at 8 March 2021. Photo: Elvira Sultanmurat kyzy/Kloop.kg

The problems with the feminnale and various campaigns advocating for women’s rights had existed before the new president came to power. Last year, on March 8 the police of Bishkek detained the participants of the march for women’s rights in the centre of the city. The organisers notified the authorities of their action and it was peaceful. The actions of the authorities were strongly criticised by both local and international human rights activists. 

However, the feminnale for women’s rights held in November 2019 caused too much public response. It contained the exhibition, installations and performances inside the state historical museum. The performance of a Danish activist in favour of the rights of sex workers, who got naked for a few seconds, caused much response of the residents of Bishkek. Some radical men demanded from the minister of culture to close the exhibition and to stop the feminnale, and the minister took the side of the protesters. The director of the Fine Arts Museum had to leave her office.

This scandal once again has shown serious inconsistencies in the Kyrgyz society regarding the empowerment of women. It demonstrated openly that the state was on the side of the so-called traditional values, and the officials made no secret of it. A few days after the scandal, the advocates of traditional values organised their campaign in response and sent the bus full of women wearing national costumes who were explaining the traditional role of women in the Kyrgyz society to city residents. The then minister of culture, Azamat Zhamankulov, welcomed the participants of the response campaign and wished them success. 

Screenshot from the mini-movie on “bride stealing” tradition in Kyrgyzstan. Picture from Kloop.kg

Anthropologists and the public think that women are more liberated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan unlike other Central Asian states, and enjoy more rights and liberties than women in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In reality, these differences are insignificant.

Human rights defenders report hundreds of cases of domestic violence, terrible torments and fatal cases recorded every year in every corner of Kyrgyzstan. Despite the increasing legislative pressure, police officers who often think that they should not interfere in family quarrels do not respond to the domestic abuse reports. The custom of bride kidnapping for marriage continues despite its criminalisation.

Although women’s NGOs have worked in Kyrgyzstan since the early 90s, activists note that the feminist agenda became more intense only after 2010. Some relate it to the promise of democratic reforms by new authorities that became more loyal to the non-governmental sector after 2010 and that cooperated closer with international organisations. Another critical factor was the short presidency of Roza Otunbaeva.

“There are many feminists in Kyrgyzstan. Each of them has their own methods of applying feminism in their life and work. Each of them contributes to the empowerment of women,” said the member of the feminist movement Zhanna Araeva. “In addition, women’s organisations can consolidate quickly in particular situations. For example, representatives of all or almost all feminist organisations of Kyrgyzstan gather for solidarity marches.”

According to the activist, the phase of intensive development of feminism in Kyrgyzstan has had contradicting results. 

“On the one hand, the idea of gender equality became known to a lot of people. The citizens of our country learned about sexism, objectification, discerned the forms of abuse and realised how bad they were. At the same time, strange as it may seem, the state demonstrated opposition,” Araeva said.

According to activist and lawyer Elvira Tilek, the authorities use a wide range of tools hindering the development of feminism and the change of the women’s rights situation in the republic for the better.

“The authorities equal the struggle of women for equality with the struggle of the LGBT community for their rights. Officials are well aware of how biased the public in the country is towards the LGBT people. Thus, the powers that be distract the attention of people from the problem of women’s rights violation,” the activist said. 

Elvira Tilek reminds that Kyrgyzstan has adopted laws on mandatory 30 per cent quota of women in local councils and national parliament due to the efforts of local NGOs and international organisations. These norms do not work in fact, now there are 19 female deputies in the parliament instead of 30, and many local councils do not have women. 

The interest in Islam has increased significantly in Kyrgyzstan in the last 10-15 years. Different preachers and religious activists speak differently of the women’s role in Islam. Some promote patriarchal values, specifying the traditional role of women in a family. Other preachers and activists emphasise women’s rights and the need to respect women in a family. 

There are Muslim female activists and particular NGOs that promote the women’s rights in Islam and activism among religious women. These movements are known for a variety of their campaigns focused on self-development of Muslim women, education, sports activities, better understanding of their rights. 

Eliana-Mariam Satarova, an editor-in-chief of the Umma magazine. Photo source: CABAR.asia

One of such female activists Eliana-Maryam Satarova, the editor of the Muslim magazine “Umma”, thinks that Islam does not in any way restrict women’s right.

“In our religion, both men and women are equal. But they have different responsibilities and liabilities based on their physiological differences. If we look at the history of Islam, we can understand that it was religion that helped change the status of women in the society for the better. Back in the seventh century, The Muslim women gained the rights they did not have before – the rights of inheritance, protection, education, etc.,” Satarova said.

However, she noted that it was essentially wrong to counter religious view with feminist views.

“Women in Islam stand up for their rights and liberties as they are vested in them by the Supreme Being and remain unchanged. They just do it by means of tools and ways that do not contradict their religious views,” Eliana-Maryam Satarova emphasised. 

Activist Elvira Tilek said that the increasing public interest in the Islam does not in any way hinder the development of the feminist movement in the country.  

“In fact, Islam is not contradicting the feminist views and in no way hinders feminism. It’s just that the patriarchal society interprets it in their own way and makes women subordinate. Therefore, the Islamisation does not hinder the development of feminism, but rather the implementation of women’s rights,” she said.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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