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In Kazakhstan, women march for their rights - and against violence

Unhindered by government restrictions, activists in Kazakhstan held the largest women’s day rally in years on 8 March.

Aery Duisenova
9 March 2020
Image: Aery Duisenova

Around 200 activists and supporters marched on International Women's Day in the centre of Almaty, marking the largest rally for women’s rights in the history of independent Kazakhstan.

After years of organising for women’s rights, five feminist initiatives came together to voice one of the central problems for women in Kazakhstan: safety. “We are Kazakhstani women. We all have experience of living in a country where we do not feel safe and where the laws do not protect us. Security is the basic need of every person, and it is precisely what we are deprived of,” the activists wrote in their manifesto.

Violence against women and girls is widespread throughout Central Asia. A 2018 study conducted with the support of UN Women showed that 17% of women aged 18-75 in Kazakhstan have experienced physical or sexual abuse from a partner, and 21% have experienced psychological abuse. According to UN statistics, one-in-three women in the world has been abused.

Because this data only reflects cases where the victim contacts the police, activists say that the real picture of violence against women in Kazakhstan is more pervasive than official reports claim. According to the public foundation “Don’t be quiet” (#NeMolchiKZ), every day an average of eight women and two children are raped in Kazakhstan. The tradition of oppression via cultural stigmas and other means of control drives society to absolve abusive behaviour. In Kazakh, the word “uyat” is used as shorthand for a systematic set of rules that justify social oppression of women. Loosely translated as “shame” in English, “uyat” encompasses a wider set of gendered guilt, from cultural to religious practices that a woman is expected to carry out according to “tradition”.

"I want to be safe" | Image: Aery Duisenova

As was repeated at the Almaty rally, the UN study highlights that 400 women are killed in Kazakhstan every year in domestic violence. According to Human Rights Watch, women who experience domestic violence are not adequately protected and do not have access to justice.

In July 2017, the sanction against physical violence on women was downgraded from a criminal to an administrative offense. In autumn 2019, new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised that Kazakhstan would finally adopt a law against domestic violence. Yet in January 2020, the president signed a law that punishes violence against family members with a written warning. The official justification of replacing fines with a written warning is that fines were imposed on the “family unit”, which sometimes meant that victims had to pay the fine together with their husbands. This move is in line with the widespread understanding of domestic violence as “family business”, which should be resolved within the walls of the home and not reported to the police. The social norm also matched the government’s goal to reduce the number of reported criminal cases. With the new law, the punishment for domestic violence has become milder than for assault.

“Where is Aisha?”

Since the resignation of long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019, rallies have become more frequent in Kazakhstan. But contrary to Kazakhstan’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, the authorities have frequently responded by carrying out mass detentions, arrests and trials against participants of peaceful rallies..

In Almaty, ex-adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Aida Alzhanova, who was the first to talk about workplace harassment in Kazakhstan, told openDemocracy that several supporters of feminist movements had decided to stay away from the march because they were afraid of being arrested. “After the mass arrests on 1 March caused indignation in society,” Alzhanova said, “we knew that they would not continue the repression of activists, particularly by arresting women during a peaceful march.”

"It's scary to protest, but resigning ourselves to violence against millions of women is even scarier" | Image: Aery Duisenova

Additional regulations to the Kazakh Constitution prohibit rallies and gatherings which have not been coordinated with the authorities. There are two spaces in Almaty and two in the capital Nur-Sultan that are designated for rallies, all far away from the city centre of and random passers-by. This year’s feminist march was not approved or coordinated with the authorities, as activists only notified the local administration that they would march. Five feminist initiatives (KazFem, Feminita, Femagora, Femsreda and the public “SVET” foundation) organised the event.

Gulzada Serzhan, a representative of “Feminita”, commented on the decision to hold the march: “I always quote Nazipa Kulzhanova, an early activist for women's rights [in Kazakhstan], who said in 1921 that on 8 March, we must remember what rights we have been able to achieve and which we are still deprived of. At today’s march, we wanted not only to support the global women’s struggle for rights, but also to raise the important issue of security for Kazakhstani women.”

As the march started on Zhibek Zholy street in the city centre, the crowd chanted the names of Kazakhstani women who had been killed by their partners. “Have you seen Aisha?”, “Where is Aisha?”, “Do you know where Oksana is?” activists asked passers-by. One of the organisers of the march, Leila Makhmudova, said: “We voiced the names of the victims of domestic violence to show that no one is forgotten. Victims of violence have faces, and these are female faces.”

Despite an official request to disperse, marchers rallied around local police officials in plain clothes onto another pedestrian street. Serzhan and Makhmudova headed the column of activists, carrying a funeral wreath in memory of all victims of domestic violence.

Image: Aery Duisenova

As the march ended, the organisers set fire to the wreath and read out loud their manifesto. “We feel in danger and want it to stop,” Makhmudova and Serzhan said “For a country of 18 million, there are only 40 crisis centres, half of which do not provide asylum. Is this enough when one in five suffers from beatings in the family? Should a man who beats his wife only receive a warning and a small fine? Should laws, instead of protecting women, be constantly softened to please the rapists? Every woman has the right to safety and protection of her rights.”

They also demanded that the Kazakh government refrain from releasing men sentenced for rape on parole , adopt a law on sexual harassment, and criminalise domestic violence.

Representatives of different generations and social groups took part in the march, with well-known young activists from the world of culture, sports and civil rights joining chants of “equal pay for equal work” and “freedom for girls from all oppressive traditions”.

Narkes Bulekova, researcher and activist for lesbian and queer rights, said: “Our society needs to remember the original meaning of this day. And that meaning was always raising issues of socialisation of women, issues of gender pay gap and different shades of inequality, like political, economic, domestic, educational and social. In our patriarchal country there are still big problems with gender inequality and we should rely on ourselves to solve them.”

Image: Aery Duisenova

Alzhanova commented on how women’s rights discourse has changed over the decades. "Twenty years ago, the word feminism was absent from public conversations,” Alzhanova said. “Even now, activists from women's organisations of the 1990s do not call themselves feminists. Young women who openly promote feminism have done more to protect women's rights than all the ‘old’ women's organisations.”

Activists from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan also travelled to Almaty in support of Kazakhstani activists. They included Aygul Karabalina, who organised the Bishkek feminist march in 2019, and Oxana Polyakova, one of organisers of the December 2019 Femminale art exhibition, which was attacked by nationalists. While the march in Almaty continued without arrests, the feminist march in Bishkek was marred by arrests and violence by a group of masked men from the “Kyrk Choro” organisation. Around 70 feminist activists were detained by the police.

During their initial speeches, activists in Bishkek said that only in the first two months of 2020 five women had been killed by their partners in Kyrgyzstan. But as the activists prepared to march, several dozens masked provocateurs attacked them. Participants of the march sought protection from the police, but their requests for help went unheard.

Despite having been the largest feminist march in Kazakhstan’s history, it is unlikely that the authorities will respond to the activists’ demands. The growing number of activists for women’s rights still face a strict patriarchal society in their fight against repressive and violent everyday practices. Activists consider legislative reform as merely a first step, with education against intolerance, violence and other means of oppression being crucial towards gender equality. The activists, however, are confident that the Kazakhstani feminist movement will only continue to grow.

Video by Mark Bissen.

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