Countries of developed feminism: Iceland, Canada, and … Kazakhstan?

The campaigns against sexual harassment and home violence Metoo and Time’s up have generated a real international tornado, which has relentlessly unmasked producers, film directors, actors, musicians, and politicians, despite their ranks, merits and the number of Oscars on their shelf.
 © Olga Kurilina
In Kazakhstan, women inspired by the western celebrities actively shared their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse in social networks. Only since 2016, in the estimate of BBC News, #SpeakupKZ hashtag has been used more than 100,000 times, which does not match the official statistics of 2,500 cases of home violence registered by the Committee for Legal Statistics in 2017. Of course, it is clear that those 100,000 stories occurred not only over the two last years but in the entire history of our country; yet, think about the difference between these two figures! And how many women were shy to tell the people about such facts of their lives! And they will hardly ever blabber out: in this country, it is not customary to let the cat out of the family bag.

Siamese twins

Speaking the modern Kazakh society, we must first of all divide the indivisible. There are two sub-communities in our community of women. Just like Siamese twins, they have a common body but two different heads: they have a common frame but totally different thoughts.

The first sub-community is composed of citizens of two capitals of Kazakhstan, Astana and Almaty. The second sub-community includes women living in the province. In each segment, there are their own views of the obligations, rights, and privileges of women.

I will say at the beginning that formally a Kazakh women enjoys the same rights as her European counterpart: a women may be elected, she has a right to abortion, she can get a paid maternity leave, and she can claim equal wages. Many women in Kazakhstan have university degrees, some occupy managerial positions in state-owned and private companies, and no one would be surprised to hear that. I remember the words of the fictitious Kazakh character Borat Sagdiyev played by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen: “In this progressive state, women have been allowed to ride in the bus already since 2003”.

However, whereas in big cities girls are using their rights, in the countryside villages called auls, they have not even heard of such opportunities!

Abducting a bride and the tokal

According to open sources, the movement in support of women’s rights in Kazakhstan has been recorded since the end of the 19th century, and official establishment of the equality of rights of men and women took place back in 1918 — to compare, in Switzerland, the suffrage was adopted only in 1971. Let me add here that during the establishment of independent Kazakhstan in the 1990s, more than a dozen public women’s organizations were formed. Currently there have even appeared initiative groups referring themselves to the so-called ‘third-wave’ feminism and adhering to radical views. With such a rich history of the struggle for the gender equality, Kazakhstan should have long been referred to the countries of developed feminism: Iceland, Norway, Canada, etc. Yet, something certainly went wrong.

In reality, all these numerous organizations and movements have been minced by the patriarchal society, formed long before the appearance of feminism.

Historically, the man occupied a privileged position in the family. “A daughter is a guest in her parents’ home”, Kazakhs say, meaning that the girl will join her husband’s family after wedding. Just as in other Oriental countries, the bridegroom was to pay bride money called ‘kalym’ to the bride’s parents for their daughter, as if compensating to the parents the costs of raising the girl. Using modern terminology, the man exercised a transaction of purchasing the bride, and her price depended on the depth of the future husband’s pocket and on the distinction of the future wife’s kin. As for modern reality, weddings in big cities are held without a kalym, while in villages, the bride money is still paid.

In those cases when the bridegroom had no bride money to pay, he simply abducted her. Abducting was rare: it was more common that they young couple eloped, if the parents did not give their consent to the marriage. In the Soviet period, this custom was eradicated, but, paradoxically enough, it blossomed again recently. Unfortunately, now in most cases, brides become abducted against their will. In the estimates of the organization defending women’s rights, up to 5,000 brides get abducted every year. Of course, there is no official statistics recording such cases. A kidnapped bride often does not seek law enforcement, putting up with her fate, especially if her parents do not wish to take her back. As a rule, such girls do not use social networks and will definitely not share their stories in the #Metoo style. Besides, the #Mylifehasbeenbroken hashtag has not yet been invented.

This is not all: in Kazakhstan, the issue of polygamy has been raised several times at the legislative level, and the notion of a junior wife (named ‘tokal’) exists now. This tradition is rooted deeply in the history of the people: a man had to marry the widow of the deceased brother and to take care of his children. Besides, the desire to enhance the family and the prodigy has always been strong. However, there is hope that soon the society will find the moral strength to say ‘good-bye to this polygamy approved by many people.

In 2017, more than 91,000 cases of home violence were registered, and up to 400 women died, killed by the violence of their partners. Given the brides abducted against their will and the high percentage of crime against women, sexual harassment and job discrimination may seem like light bubbles in a glass of champagne ...

Are the women themselves ready to assume responsibility?

Strange as it may seem, if you wish to find those who are guilty, please look in the mirror. No, I do not call upon victim blaming, when a victim of harassment or abuse is accused, partly or fully, of violence: she put on a too short skirt or went out too late. I suggest looking at the real position of a woman living in Kazakhstan in the society and at the tyranny in which she has taken part or which she has even arranged. It happens in this country that a woman may first approve of her son deciding to abduct a bride and persuade the girl to stay in her family, and then will abuse her daughter-in-law, just because her own mother-in-law had abused her. How about you, lady? Due to the pressure of the society, you stopped believing in yourself and gave up the idea of realizing your opportunities? Do you think you are not to blame? Why do you keep silent that you husband beats you, your boss harasses you and raises the wages only of those who wear the pants?! It is easier for you to close your eyes to all this, referring to the patriarchal ways and ancient customs, rather than to declare your own rights at least once.

It is evident for me that the women of Kazakhstan are not yet ready to be responsible for themselves: it is easier for them to be living under the wing of a strong father or husband. Yet, there are brave and educated girls in this country who are fighting for their rights. And this instills hope for changes in us!

We are now viewing feminism in the context of gender parity, not as a radical movement for refusal from the gender roles in principle. I can see the example of such sentiments in London every day, when a man sitting in a metro train continues to sit when he sees a girl carring two heavy suitcases; I see women chipping in with their husbands or boyfriends in a restaurant or sharing mortgage payments and the costs of Christmas gifts with them. I see their gender roles erased so essentially that the women no longer understand who they are in the family — the home makers or the bread winners. So, a question arises: "Where are you, the golden mean of feminism?” I have no answer yet.
© Rustina Temir

Rustina Temir

Rustina is an auditor with a large international firm and a blogger for Tinatin's London Life, a co-founder of the community Kazakh British Young Professionals (KazBritYuppies) in London and of a travel-startup Oh My Guide! She is a nomad living in four countries: Slovakia, Spain, Kazakhstan and Great Britain.





    How went the #MeToo-movement in our homelands


    Online information and our relations with it


    Thoughts about one of the most paradox resources we have


    Observations about the stream of time

    To have and to be

    About consumption, people and money


    About the universal measure of happiness


    The subtle balance of borderline states


    Photo reports about the borders, both tangible and mental


    About the inspiration and the sleep of reason


    About films: what to see and how to see

    Women in profession

    Five female curator from Russia tell about their profession


    Inspired by the festive atmosphere of the gathering, Converter has prepared a special rubric for you, dedicated to the cinema, the festival, and Berlin


    The photoproject "Dreams from St. Petersburg" tries to give an idea of what are the hopes and fears of of young people in this unique city