Feminist voices from Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz women face numerous obstacles in achieving equal rights with men. Non-consensual bride kidnapping and domestic violence are the most serious social problems. I introduce a few brave initiatives that pretend to releave women and girls from the weight of the past.

A couple of years ago I volunteered in a small village in Kyrgyzstan where I witnessed at first hand a myriad of discriminatory practices based on gender. One girl was abducted and forced into a marriage against her will since her parents did not want her to bring dishonour to the family. As a general rule, girls performed numerous household chores such as cooking, cleaning, caring for their younger siblings or milking animals. At the end of the day they fell completely exhausted. In addition to this, they needed to observe strict moral and social norms related to their sexuality, body language and gender roles. As an outsider, I could enjoy a privileged position in comparison to local women. Here, I would like to introduce a few feminist activists that seek to challenge  patriarchal attitudes about women. I would like to believe my post will make a modest contribution towards raising consciousness about the need of guaranteeing equal opportunities for girls and women.

What can girls do?

New media technologies create space for solidarity, political agency and dialogue. Being the largest consumer of new media, youth are particularly eager to explore the possibilities of technology. Feminist scholars have acknowledged the role of girls as active political agents and media producers (Harris, 2008; Keller, 2012). ‘Young women’s styles of technology-enabled social and political engagement’, as affirmed by Harris, are worth our attention since they ‘represent new directions in activism, the construction of new participatory communities, and the development of new kinds of public selves’ (2008, p. 482).

The Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan (hereafter abbreviated as the Girls) have  taken advantage of new media in an attempt to articulate a feminist discourse among adolescents.  The group of female teenagers was created in 2013 with the support of the Bishkek Feminist Initiative with the mission to advocate for ‘meaningful engagement of girls at various national and civil society platforms’. Furthermore, they actively engaged in the celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child via social media platforms. On the Facebook group page, the Girls invited their subscribers to take part in an online campaign ‘What do you know to do? What can you do?‘. Teens recorded and sent videos of themselves demonstrating their extraordinary skills in a wide range of activities, for instance, boxing or solving a Rubik’s cube in a minute.

With teenage voices often silenced and criticised of being “too young” or “inexpert”, the project attempted to hit two targets with one shot: to denounce ageism and gender stereotypes, and make girls’ innate talents and capacities visible to society.

Besides online actions, a substantial amount of work is carried offline: the group organizes workshops for teens residing in villages to teach them the fundamentals of ICT. Participants learn how to shoot a video, record an audio, create a personal blog on WordPress, use various applications on mobile phones and share generated content on the internet.

From informal conversations with the activists I learnt that mobilizing rural girls can be frustrating since parents are reluctant to let their daughters participate in training sessions. Families consider workshops unnecessary or event harmful to girls (we should keep in mind that the word feminism is seen as a derogatory term), but in most cases the girls have no one to replace them in performing daily chores.

In one of the videos, we see a 14-years-old Elaiym citing the traditional epic poem Manas, which is an important element of Kyrgyz identity and unifying force of the nation. The girl, unfortunately, is not allowed to participate in the annual school competition of Manas narrators because her hair is…too short! To us it may sound as a surrealistic nightmare, but in some places a haircut alone is enough to prevent girls from competing on an equal basis with boys.

Отрывок из эпоса Манас

Элайым, 14 лет, г. Нарын. Элайым с детства любит и читает Манас.#ДаЧтоТыЗнаешь #ДеньДевочек #11октября #GirlsDay

Publicerat av Девочки Активистки Кыргызстана den 7 oktober 2017

Stolen brides

If you google ‘women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan’ you might be impressed by the number of sites addressing the issue of bride kidnapping. In a country where a third of all marriages are kidnaps and 32 women are abducted every day, victims are being failed by the Kyrgyz judicial system with only one of 1,500 cases ending with a sentence.

Although non-consensual bride abduction is often perceived as a long-standing Kyrgyz tradition, scholars point to the gendered character of the practice which intersects with cultural constructions of ethnicity, patriarchal authority and notions of feminity/masculinity (Borbieva, 2012; Kleinbach and Babaiarova, 2013).

Young rural women are particularly vulnerable to be forced into a marriage. According to the estimates of the League of Protectors of Children’s Rights, more than 6, 000 girls under the age of 15 have been kidnapped or obliged to marry against their will since the country’s  independence in 1991. Numerous public education campaigns have been launched by Kyrgyz activists to denounce the perpetuation of the practice and offer support for its victims.

One of the first initiatives was created in 2015 by the foundation Open Line aimed at combating domestic violence and fighting bride kidnapping. It combined audio visual strategies with helpful textual information. A great variety of materials, addressed to women, their relatives and public authorities, sought to encourage the victims to identify and report abuses as well as provide them with directions and phone numbers of the nearest shelter or crisis centre. The diffusion of the project encompassed different media venues: radio stations, national TV channels, social media and the press.

One of the campaign’s videos The Parental Example

A recent series of cartoons ‘Once I was kidnapped’ realised between 2016-2017 by Tatyana Zelenskaya and based on real stories, depicts five different girls who were abducted. The cartoons are available online and are also used as a teaching material at local schools. In an interview with the animator, she explained her initial idea was  to find an answer to to the question what made the girls to stay at their abductor’s. I think, Zelenskaya managed to reveal one important aspect of bride kidnapping:

girls who reject marrying to their abductor usually can rely on the support of their parents. However, many families refuse to accept their daughters since the escape might damage the family honour.

A Story of Nazik (2017) realised on the 8th of March to mark the International Women’s Day

Where are the men?

Advocating for gender equality is not an exclusive task of women. Daniar Aitman was probably the first Kyrgyz man to share his solidarity with his female compatriots on social media.

ЕСЛИ КЫРГЫЗСКИЕ ЖЕНЩИНЫ НЕ СКОТЭто звучит ужасно, но я рад, что родился мужчиной. Женщина в Кыргызстане стоит дешевле …

Publicerat av Daniar Aitman den 20 september 2015

Aitman’s post on bride kidnapping starts with the sentence: ‘It sounds terrible but I am happy I was born a man. In Kyrgyzstan, a woman is cheaper than an animal’.

Aitman confesses he is suprised by the turmoil around his messages. Female readers praise him saying he is their idol and a perfect partner. Men, on the contrary, accuse Aitman of being a ‘feminist’ and ‘henpecked husband’.

Aitman is no slouch when it comes to defining women’s rights:

‘This stormy reaction shows that we live in wild country. What unusual did I write? I just wrote that women should not be stolen, raped nor enslaved- these principles are respected in every  civilized country.’

‘Feminism destroys marriage and nation’

I am more than convinced this affirmation sounds very familiar to you and has become almost a cliche. Accusing feminist activists and supporters of introducing Western ideas or eliminating national values and customs is a common practice in Kyrgyzstan. The defenders of so-called traditional values frequently resort to physical attacks and online harassment as law enforcement authorities turn a blind eye on similar incidents.

Internet provides anonymity for perpetrators and a wide spectrum of techniques to spread their hate messages. While for many digital technologies  constitute a tool of self-expression, questioning stereotypes and educating about gender equality, others intend to cause harm (Unwin, 2017). The dark side of new media technologies in relation to gender has already been widely discussed in this blog. You can access previous posts here and here.

If Kyrgyzstan presumes to be the only democratic country in authoritarian Central Asia, why do Kyrgyz women are still not guaranteed equal status and legal protection?

Share your thoughts on how Kyrgyz activists can use ICT tools to end discrimination and put more pressure on their political authorities to implement effective gender equality legislation.



Borbieva, N. (2012). Kidnapping Women: Discourses of Emotion and Social Change in the Kyrgyz Republic.  Anthropological Quarterly, 85(1), 141-169.

Harris, A. (2008). Young Women, Late Modern Politics, and the Participatory Possibilities of Online Cultures. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(5), 481-495.

Keller, J. M. (2012). Virtual Feminisms. Information, Communication & Society, 15(3), 429-447.

Kleinbach,R.,  Babaiarova, G. (2013). Reducing Non-consensual Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Eurasian Journal of Social Sciences, 1(1), 50-60.

Unwin, T. (2017). Reclaiming Information & Communication Technologies for Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Featured image The first Kyrgyz-language cartoon Magical Journey -Керемет көч (source: www.youtube.com).

8 thoughts on “Feminist voices from Kyrgyzstan”

  1. Hi Simona
    Very interesting topic to discuss – and I am thrilled to read something about Central Asia for once:)

    I have a student job in the Danish Foreign Policy Society, and they just came home from a study trip to Kyrgyzstan. They had a meeting with Avazkan Ormonova from the public fund DIA, and everyone agreed it was the most impressive and emotional experience of the trip. Avazkan Ormonova was kidnapped herself when she was very young to be a bride, and she was one out of nine sisters who got a divorce. Now she is a politician, activist and lawyer.

    And you posted this the day after they told me about the situation for women in Kyrgyzstan, so it is interesting to read more about it!

    And as you say, it is peculiar that a more or less democratic country doesn’t give women more respect. But one can hope that with these online and offline movements things will start changing. One thing that ‘comforts’ me is that in many other countries, they have had much more time to mature into gender equality. After all, the modern Kyrgyz society has only been developing “freely” for 25 years.

    Thank you for shedding light on this important topic!

    1. Thank you Julia! What a coincidence they have also encountered a similar case of bride kidnapping. It’s really shocking when you see this happening. To tell the truth,my host family never let me walk alone in the village since by that time one foreign female tourist was abducted.

      There’re many factors that still impedes women to enjoy fully their rights: gender stereotypes, religion,rebirth of a Kyrgyz manhood with all its macho characteristics,unstable economic situation… It’s also true that many ancient customs and traditions were invoked after the dissolution of the USSR to build a new country and bring back its cultural heritage.

      Despite these constraints,there are many voices claiming equality and their rights. Kyrgyzstan has just elected a new president,hopefully,he might be more willing to implement the necessary measures to protect women and girls.

      1. Yes, the world is small, after all:)

        It is shocking indeed, but as you say, we should assist those fighting for rights and respect, and hope that with the electoral democracy comes civil rights!

  2. Thanks Simona for yet another informative, interesting and inspiring post on new media activism and violence against women. Such an actual issue with the #Metoo campaign in social media going on. Do you have any idea about the spread of this campaign in Kyrgyzstan?
    The whole situation reminds me a lot of Nicaragua and my experience there a couple of years ago. They have a very wide and active feminist or women’s movement, but the paradox is that they have one of the strongest laws against abortion and high numbers of violence against women even though it during the last 20 years has gone from 58% to 28% on women who in their lifetime have suffered from domestic violence. Anyway they also deal with expanded sexual exploitation of children and youth, and as you mention in the case of the bride kidnappings, the girls being victims of sexual exploitation suffers stigmatization if they get out of the situation and returns home. The cartoon you mention ‘Once I was kidnapped’ I think is a great example on how to visibilize the problematics and give the victims a voice through ICT’s. I saw an example of this in Nicaragua made by the very popular Latin rap group Calle 13 together with UNICEF and MTV among others which I mentioned in my last post. Victims of human trafficking participates in this video to tell the story of how they were manipulated or kidnapped, and it served to make young girls (and boys in some extension) identify with the victims and consequently understand the risks both offline and online. I think new media activism could be a forum and create opportunities for the most vulnerable and discriminated to have a voice and be able to be heard. It is not an easy solution because of filter bubbles and censorship, but it is an opportunity which needs to be recognized.
    I really hope the girls in Kyrgyzstan also keep fighting and being innovative on how to develop and strengthen their rights through new media, and I hope to hear more about them in the future!

  3. Thank you for sharing your own experience about the situation in Nicaragua. It’s nice to hear there are many initiatives aimed at women and girls. Human trafficking is another huge problem and I see ICTies have sufficient potential to alleviate the pain of victims and prevent other persons from being abducted or trafficked. I imagine organized bands seek for potential victims among the very poor segments of population, and TV, radio and online platforms are important tools to publicly advert of suspicious practices and behaviour.

    Regarding #metoo campaign,unfortunately, it seems it has been ignored by Central Asian activists (I also checked other countries from this region). However, sexual harassment is reality for many women in Kyrgyzstan. Again, we have a paradoxical situation when national law punishes sexual violence and harassment both in domestic and working environment but sociocultural constraints prevail over the victims afraid to denounce the situation.

  4. I would like to give you a couple of examples how women are treated at an official level.

    Last year,the former president Atambaev launched a controversial anti-Islamic campaign that invited women not to wear Islamic clothes. He literally stated that “women with miniskirts do not become suicide bombers”.

    Another example dates back 2012 and was severely received by feminist organizations. The Kyrgyz politician
    Bakir uulu proposed to regulate women’s dressing in the Parliament after his encounter with a miniskirt-wearing woman in the Parliamentary building’s corridor. According to him, this outfit distracts men from working and is dangerous as “one does not look in fron of and might fall down the stairs”.

    I only gave two examples addressing women’s clothing that clearly reveal sexist attitudes, but similar accusations like “it’s her guilty as she wore a provocative dress” etc. and the wish to control every aspect of women’s lives make it almost impossible for victims to report sexual harassment.

  5. It is a well written post about a subject that also occurs in other societies and maybe not that often be addressed about the problems in Kyrgyzstan since a lot of media is focused on other areas in the world right now. It is important to rise knowledge about subjects that the big media channels “forgets”. In this case a blog can be one way to let give western society more knowledge about this problems in Kyrgyzstan.
    It was interesting to read the previous comments also. When I read your post I also related to the campaign #Metoo, as Julia did.

    1. Thank you, Sara, for your interest in women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan.
      I understand that Central Asia falls outside the focus of the mainstream media. For me, it was also an excercise to gain more knowledge about the country I visited and where I have numerous friends.

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