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Let’s Not Forget Women’s Struggle for Human Rights in Central Asia

International women’s day 2017 – Kyrgyzstan. UN women staff joined a march calling for women’s solidarity, fight for equal rights, and gender-based discrimination. Photo: UN women Kyrgyzstan/Meriza Emilbekova.



In the past decades, awareness of human rights and women's equality has increased all around the world. The United Nations is undoubtedly one of the main advocates in this regard, constantly at the frontline for the promotion of gender equality and women empowerment. Not coincidentally, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly established UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, to tackle these issues more efficiently.

Of course, UN Women is not the only organization active in the area. There is a plethora of individuals and small associations striving to get their voice heard both on a local and national level.

Central Asia, the area encompassing the five former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, is no exception. With the exclusion of Turkmenistan that has recently been cracking down more harshly on women's rights by undertaking several actions, in the other four countries women seem to have some more margin of action.

Notwithstanding this, the road toward equality is freight with obstacles. The main hurdle is the clash with the countries` traditional cultures. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, western values started to make several inroads in the area making women aware of their rights and equal status vis-à-vis men. This, combined with soviet legacies of women's equality, produced a peculiar situation for women, which is nowadays reflected in a mosaic of initiatives as well as problems. It is time, therefore, to take stock of the situation in this area and account for the main problems, many of which have a strong historical dimension.

Central Asian societies are essentially patriarchal and predominantly Muslim where the division of social roles between men and women is still strict. Although women were largely employed in the past in agriculture, their economic contribution was not acknowledged, and they were mostly relegated to their role as housewives and mothers being altogether excluded from positions of power. The Soviet era brought about some considerable changes in the role of women in the region through the implementation of policies aiming at women`s liberation and gender equality, especially in the professional sphere. These ideas were introduced even in the five countries` legislations, particularly after the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. This gave the green light toward the conversion of these principles into national laws, particularly in the 1990s.

After the 1991 independence, the five Central Asian countries have enshrined the concept of gender equality in their constitutions, they have ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (4th World Conference on Women, 1995, to achieve gender equality and empowerment worldwide). Therefore, a peculiar mix of legacies and new ideas appeared in the area made up of Western multi-faceted ideas and ideologies, the revival of traditional cultures, particularly felt at a national level for strengthening the newly-independent countries` principles, and  Soviet legacies where the equality concept promoted by the authorities allowed for higher women literacy rates, access to university, free basic health care, similar political rights as men, participation in the state workforce with subsequent access to benefits like pension-scheme, insurance, and maternity benefits.  

The revival of traditional culture, detrimental to women's rights can be nowadays observed with the widespread practice of bride kidnapping. This tradition, common not only in Central Asia but also in other areas like the Caucasus and sub-Saharan countries, consists of the kidnapping of a girl chosen as a wife by a man. This usually occurs in a public space where a group of men take by force the girl, carry her into the car, and bring her to the groom's place. After the abduction, the women in the groom`s family try to convince the victim into marriage. Sometimes, the victim is rescued by her family, mainly her father or other males, although this happens rarely as being kidnapped already constitutes a shame for the girl’s family. The country with the highest rate of bridal kidnapping is Kyrgyzstan where 1 in 3 marriages is the result of kidnapping, particularly in rural areas where a staggering 60% of the total population lives. The country has also the highest rate of women`s labor migration, particularly to Russia, seen by many as a viable solution to the widespread abduction problems as migration is socially accepted. Moreover, being married at such a young age prevent these women from accessing education that would eventually lead to higher income opportunities.

In general, for those women who can voice their concerns, start debates, and promote initiatives on women's rights in Central Asia, there are both online and offline possibilities. The spread of the internet and several social media platforms is an effective tool for women to voice their concerns and problems about the unequal behavior encountered daily. The following list, far from being exhaustive describes some of the several actions undertaken in the past few years.

Very recently, the feminist and activist Altyn Kapalova, a 39-year-old Kyrgyz woman, lost her bid to have her children’s second names listed as either Altynovna or Altynovich in the official ID. This is because, based on patriarchal principles, the Kyrgyz society does not allow the matronymic in the children's official documents. As the woman explains, the Supreme Court`s verdict was based more on the idea of upholding the patriarchal tradition rather than on the well-being of the child. She did not remain silent on the issue and revealed everything in a Facebook post where she declared: “I demand justice. I demand equal rights. I demand that my constitutional rights be protected. I will not relinquish these documents [the birth certificates], I will not surrender my rights to the state”.

The case of the Kyrgyz singer Zere Asylbek is also explicative of the situation of women in the area. In 2018 she caused a stir in the conservative Kyrgyz society after releasing the song “kyz” (girl) advocating more freedom for women. She later continued with several other songs denouncing bridal kidnapping and domestic violence. This engagement turned her into the symbol of Central Asian feminism empowering women to fight for their rights also in the neighboring countries, particularly Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.  In May 2020, for instance, women did not remain silent after 17-year-old Evelina was assaulted in a street in Uzbekistan. According to the authorities, the criminal proceedings were interrupted because the two parties reached an amicable compromise. As many women did not believe these justifications, they took the lead and started an online protest with the label “Uzbek #metoo” and the hashtag #Iamyevelina which spread quickly throughout the country.

Social media are used also by civil society organizations to attract more girls and women. this was the case of the organization “Fight like a girl” which made extensive use of Facebook in 2019 to organize a camp from April 26 to May 2 on the shores of the Central Asia Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The aim was to strengthen equality and tolerance, raise awareness of human rights violations, fight discrimination through advocacy, and learn how to raise participation through social media. Applicants, regardless of sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or disability, had to be girls between 18 and 26 years old and live in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan.

Social media are used also to produce reality video campaigns, like in the case of the Kazakh artist Aya Shalkar, who created a series of six videos denouncing several issues like domestic violence, bride kidnapping, sexual harassment, victim-blaming, discrimination against women in the workplace, in politics, and in the Kazakh society in general. The Kyrgyz presenter Nazira Aitbekova caused a bigger uproar because of one of her Instagram pictures considered immoral by the Kyrgyz conservative society. The picture, where she is wearing nothing but a jacket was considered inappropriate and sparked a series of comments explicative of the Kyrgyz society’s conventional character, often upheld by women themselves. To respond to this dissolute picture and counter its effects on the society, the Kyrgyz actress Gulnur Asanova organized a contest under the hashtag #KyrgyzPeopleDon’tGetUndressed, offering a monetary prize for the best picture and making general comments about how a good Kyrgyz girl should be: “You are a Kyrgyz. As a Kyrgyz, you are defined by your language, your pure heart, and your national dress”. As a result, many women uploaded pictures of themselves wearing the traditional Islamic dress and giving breeding ground to further comments against Aitbekova`s supposed immortality.

The situation sometimes may favor social change and more openness. This was the case with the Kyrgyz largest-circulation newspaper Super-Info tabloid, an ultra-conservative outlet based on the promotion of strict social mores. In 2017, bypassing its usual chauvinistic tones, the newspaper published an interview with a comedian with the conversation sparking the headline “If a woman doesn’t obey, she should be beaten”. This opening to women's rights was commented on by the newspaper`s commercial director Nargiza Umotova as necessary because the time has come to devote more attention to social issues. In 2019 the Bishkek Feminist Initiative went even further in the promotion of women's rights. They organized a feminist art festival, “La Feminnale”, promoting pro-LGBT artworks most of them depicting naked women. Nevertheless, they had to face strong state control which led to many works being censored and to the resignation of the Bishkek Museum of Fine Arts’ director, Mira Djangaracheva, due to the scandal.

Moving from the social media realm to a more traditional organization, in Kazakhstan, the association “Ne Molchi” (Don`t be silent) is a case in point as it offers a helpline for abused women. According to the organization`s leader Dina Smailova, the pandemics accentuated even more the problem of domestic and sexual violence. There are many cases where women covered in bruises go to the police to obtain a protective order against their husbands but they are regularly sent back home as during quarantine they cannot circulate in the streets. In her opinion, these cases should be denounced regularly in the media by publishing pictures of domestic abusers to prevent them and other men from acting violently against their women. In Uzbekistan, the NGO Sharpa signed an agreement with the transport service in the capital city Tashkent to launch a campaign against women's harassment on public transport. This happened on the 25 November 2021, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, during which prevention messages were printed on bus tickets and an emergency button was created for immediate help.

Despite women's engagement in social media and a shy opening from the part of the society, the problem of equality and women's rights is still strong. Notwithstanding the presence of legal remedies in all five countries, implementation is still low. This is even more evident in the case of cybercrime, where legal protection is in theory assured but the holes are many, as prosecutors often discharge these gender crimes labeling them as not serious, therefore ignoring the existing legislation. This is mainly because in these patriarchal societies cyber-attacks are nothing but the extension of a well-rooted behavior to which women are subjected on a daily basis both in public places and at home. As in many other parts of the world, this behavior leads to extreme consequences with many women, especially teenagers, taking their own life. What is mainly denounced in these countries is the lack of proper legislation concerning sexual harassment, both traditional and online and, if some provisions exist, they are often left vague.

Inequality is unfortunately still rampant in this area of the world. Most of the time, women's rights deteriorate instead of improving. Research showed that in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the employment rate for women dropped to 37% from 2002 to 2019 and that the 30% gender quotas for women adopted in 2011 were never implemented, with a women's overall representation in the Parliament of no more than 17%. Also, domestic violence against women is on the rise with a total of 8,159 cases registered in 2019, although often the numbers reported do not reflect the reality.

Even though the degree of development of women's rights in these countries is different, with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan taking the lead, feminism is still an underdeveloped concept. The strong anti-feminist propaganda spread throughout the countries contributes to this negative attitude as often feminism is presented as a harmful and shameful practice. This attitude was well manifested during the March 8 events in Bishkek where several women activists were arrested while protesting for their rights without knowing the reason for their detention. Despite being attacked by men covered in masks, the authorities arrested the women without investigating the attackers.  


The problem of the development of an equality-based mentality and respect for women's rights seems to be linked to the countries’ traditional culture strongly rooted in a patriarchal model. Notwithstanding the Soviet parenthesis of equality promotion, implemented not without reactions from the society, the Central Asian countries appear to be stuck in limbo. The main question on how it is possible to resume the Soviet ideal of equality combined with the new Western feminist ideas and apply it without social disruptions remains, to date, unanswered and it will remain so for the time being. 

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