oDR: Opinion

Central Asian feminists are carving out their space in gender studies

Few theories directly deal with the experience of colonisation and patriarchy in Central Asia. It’s time to develop them.

Aizada Arystanbek
20 December 2019
Mock-up of Scythian Queen dress, Aktymar History and Ethnography Museum, Almaty
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CC BY 2.0 Flickr / Kalpak Travel. Some rights reserved

Where does Central Asia fit into critical feminist theories? In response to a recent series on feminist subjectivities in Central Asian Studies, I would like to add the perspective of a Central Asian graduate student of gender studies in Europe to the wide variety of feminist voices in the collection.

First off, I would like to acknowledge my privilege: I am able to study gender for my Master’s degree in European universities. This opens a whole new world of feminist academia in English which I am free to explore.

However, along with the thrill of being able to study what I am passionate about comes a certain violence of erasure, as I am left constantly searching for my identity in feminist academia.

"Hello, I’m Aiza. I study violence against women. I’m from Kazakhstan."

"Kazakhstan? Ah, Ka-za-ji-stan."

This is my crumpled and rushed in-class introduction - with my shorter, easier-to-pronounce name. I quickly got used to being the only Central Asian in the classroom.

Thankfully, most of the time I was not the only person of colour, or not even the only Asian in the room. I quickly got used to having to explain to friends and peers what Central Asia is, our history and the political context. It felt nice, in a way. Like my own little enlightenment mission. And aren’t we all here to educate each other anyway?

Studying gender studies brought a lot of excitement into my life. Reading bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed and others made me realise that there are so many amazing, talented women out there who have so skillfully articulated our struggles and guided others before me. Yet the more I read, the more a feeling crept up on me. I longed for something I could not yet comprehend. I watched my classmates take the lead in classes when we would analyse a text written about their country. They were the local experts, and they would help the rest of us to understand the context, reading between the lines on sensitive issues.

I watched and I waited, hoping that my turn would come. But it never did. At best, I could add a few insights about an article on Russia or Azerbaijan. Gradually, I learnt to settle for less: an article on East Asia will do, learning about arranged marriages in India could be applied to Central Asia’s rampant bride kidnapping, or Latin American texts on decolonisation in some way echoed the way Central Asians feel, or should feel, about the region’s colonisation by Russia.

Please don’t get me wrong: solidarity among feminist scholars of colour is a magical thing. I share so many struggles with other women. I understand the sexual fetishisation of East Asian women, the so-called “yellow fever” when Asian female bodies are objectified as docile and exotic. I understand the burden of duty to your parents, of being a perfect daughter discussed by Indian writers. I share glances with Russian students when we discuss “Soviet culture” (whatever that is) in class. As I think about Russia’s colonisation of Central Asia and the process of Russification my mother had to undergo in her school in Tselinograd (the former name of the current capital of Kazakhstan), I feel deeply for Latina, black and indigenous women who write about their ancestors being colonised, their land being stolen, and them being perceived as backward simply because they lacked culture in the western conception of the word.

But I am always caught in between these various identities and almost never am I seen for my own very distinguishable one, a Central Asian woman. I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself, learning little-by-little from other feminist scholars of colour, hoping that I understand their experiences correctly and that their words will represent my struggle accurately when I use them in my essays.

As a postcolonial “Third World” region, Central Asia fits into the category of subaltern studies in general, but there is a need for a more explicit representation of the region in both subaltern and feminist academia.

Central Asia is located in a part of Asia where the majority of the population is Muslim, but has both a Russian imperial and a Soviet past. As these states are only at the beginning of their nation-building processes, they need to be given a separate place in both subaltern and feminist studies. Simply adding Central Asia to the subaltern “Third World” mix is not enough, as it erases a whole group of people from the region and leaves us, graduate students, struggling to find research and data to draw from.

I’ve begun to understand that a part of being a Central Asian graduate student is about relating to everyone while being represented by no one. One day, my heart skipped a beat when I saw “Kazakhstan” mentioned in a short essay written by Vera Chok, a British-Malaysian woman. She poses the question of whether “we” should include Kazakhstan, among other Asian countries, in the category of “yellow”. In the end, I realise that the longing I have been feeling is the desire to belong.

Virginia Woolf may have been right that I, as a woman, “have no country”. But as a feminist scholar I do want to have my own country, my own ground in the ever-expanding sea of feminist thought. The phrase “violence of erasure” is important here. Even with the privilege of being a graduate student of feminist scholarship enrolled in a critical gender studies programme, I still feel underrepresented in class and have to resort to assembling my academic identity piece by piece. This means that the problem of feminist scholars from Central Asia should be recognised more widely.

There is a lack of literature written by Central Asian experts rather than by Western outsiders, as well as a shortage of developed methodologies and data specific to our region. Being represented by at least one study listed in the syllabus, or being able to find a research similar to yours to draw from methodologically: these are simple things that many scholars take for granted.

Often these things, or rather their absence, could define a career in the academia for Central Asian feminist scholars and students. Since this is the situation, we Central Asians should take a stand to carve out our own place within feminist scholarship. So maybe next time, I will not shy away from telling them my full name and where exactly I am from.

"Hello, I’m Aizada Arystanbek. I study violence against women. I’m from Kazakhstan, Central Asia. Yes, it’s like East Asia but no, not really. It means a lot of things, good and bad. I would like to dedicate my life to be a part of the process of decolonisation of knowledge about Central Asia and there have been and are a lot of people like me. You’ll hear from us soon enough."

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