oDR: Opinion

The moral education of a young woman in Kazakhstan

In Central Asia, female researchers trained in the west face traditionalism, poor compensation for work done and overlapping insider-outsider status.

Sofya du Boulay (Omarova)
20 December 2019, 12.01am
“The moral education of young women” lecture at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan
Source: YouTube

I was born into a multi-ethnic family in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, one year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. All my family members are mathematicians. It was no coincidence that they named me after one of Imperial Russia’s foremost female mathematicians, Sofya Kovalevskaya. From childhood, I dreamed of scientific discoveries, reading lectures to students, travelling the world and embracing the euphoria of the learning process. Being a dedicated student, I always received full support and encouragement from my family, teachers and academic community to pursue my dreams. To avoid hypocrisy, I should say that I certainly come from a position of privilege and opportunity. I studied in an elite private school, was home tutored in piano, opera singing, French and creative arts.

Most of my classmates came from Kazakh establishment families and planned to embark on shining future careers as diplomats, oil barons and fashion designers. After completing an undergraduate program in international affairs in Kazakhstan, I got a prestigious scholarship to continue my MA degree in Switzerland. I then worked for the United Nations in Geneva and moved to the UK to pursue doctoral research sponsored by the European Commission.

In this seemingly flawless personal narrative, and in response to a recent series of articles, I would like to draw attention to three main dilemmas confronting western-educated female academics from Central Asia today: social traditionalisation, low compensation and academic slavery on the ground, and overlapping insider/outsider status.

The prevalence of traditional values in modern Kazakh society complicates the life of young female academics. An anecdote can illustrate this well. On an October evening in 2017, I was on a fieldwork trip in Astana, the capital, when my friend suggested that I join an event, initiated on behalf of Kazakhstan’s state-sponsored programme on “national spiritual revival”. The theme was “The moral education of young women”, and the event was held at Nazarbayev University. The organisers demanded mandatory Soviet-style attendance, which was promptly rejected by the university administration as it violated the liberal spirit of university procedures.

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One’s affiliation to a foreign institution or land breaks the invisible boundary between the positions of “insider” and “outsider”, creating the inevitable necessity to adapt to whatever context you find yourself in

The title of the lecture provoked outrage from students. The seminar itself focused on the need to protect “sacred traditional values” and encourage gendered behaviour, which supposedly prevents sexual infection and harassment. It discarded the role of socialisation in constructing gender roles and stereotypes, bluntly ignoring the existence of feminist literature. One striking outcome of the evening was a remark from the audience about banning future attempts by the Kazakh government to discipline women’s behaviour and focus on embracing society as a whole, as well as solving more immediate socio-economic issues.

This critical feedback illustrates the growing gap between western knowledge consumption and localised traditional discourse in Kazakhstan, which could potentially affect individual career choices and experiences. I do not see myself as an outspoken feminist, even though it seems to be a global trend. During the lecture, I could not keep silent, as remaining silent would mean a complacent agreement with the regime’s propaganda. I told the speaker that defining the ideal moral portrait of a Kazakh woman distorts the existence of numerous different ways of being a woman, and essentialises one particular culture or race - definitely problematic for Kazakhstan’s multi-cultural climate. I felt that my comment was positively received by the audience, but not by the presenter.

Another existing issue in Kazakhstan relates to the low state budget for research in higher education institutions, which subsequently affects the performance and professional development of academics. A female relative of mine works in the higher education sector in Kazakhstan, where she develops course materials and methodological guidelines (implemented at the national level in cooperation with the Ministry of Education). Despite the high workload and responsibilities, my relative and her colleagues are expected to provide 950 hours of formal lecturing per year ( a standard UK national contract allows an annual maximum of 550 hours). In Kazakhstan, an academic’s monthly salary barely reaches 100,000 Tenge, which is less than $300.

Regardless of these exploitative conditions, my relative has a strong altruistic belief in her work, the family supports her financially and enables her academic pursuits. It continues to be difficult to survive as a scholar in post-Soviet Kazakhstan with 0.169% (2015) of GDP allocated for research and development. Education institutions across Central Asia and the South Caucasus are facing similar problems. Modern universities in Kazakhstan started endorsing the logic of entrepreneurism, whereby knowledge production becomes dependent on state project funding and international grants. The hierarchical and conservative system within Kazakh educational institutions often impedes the development and implementation of creative approaches in teaching and research.

The third and final issue pertains to academic freedom, which remains limited in Kazakhstan and restrictive on certain subjects sensitive for the regime. Indeed, from the beginning of my PhD research, my supervisors in the UK explained that my position as an insider in the country could be a great benefit for conducting fieldwork. My status as a researcher-at-home deeply influenced the information I accessed, and challenges encountered along the way.

My local identity as an insider facilitated an immediate understanding of references to public discourses, political events and coded non-verbal communication. On a couple of occasions, I was not permitted to copy certain relevant documents in local archives (the head of the archive was not pleased with my interest in modern state and nation-building politics in Kazakhstan). Bureaucrats usually saw me as a local, yet foreign creature who produces research exclusively for western consumption. My British husband, by contrast, is treated as a “God” in Central Asia. On several occasions he was given access to “closed” areas of art exhibitions and archives; I am often viewed as his personal “translator”.

One’s affiliation to a foreign institution or land breaks the invisible boundary between the positions of “insider” and “outsider”, creating the inevitable necessity to adapt to whatever context you find yourself in. When dealing with the imperfections of state institutions, for example, it was useful to mobilise my “outsider” identity, but elsewhere my alternative “insider” attributes helped me to connect with various interest groups.

The prevalence of traditional values in modern Kazakh society complicates the life of young female academics

For researchers, context is everything. We are determined by our academic and research environments. There is always a certain set of codified rules and practices that define our identities and form the source of professional belonging and status. In her article “Can the post-Soviet think?”, Madina Tlostanova problematised the general invisibility of post-Soviet knowledge production in the social sciences. Tlostanova analyses the reasons behind the marginalisation and isolation of non-western theories and discourses. The relatively peripheral role of post-Soviet scholars and theories is explained by the Anglo-American monopoly on rationality, where local voices are seen as “mere tokens of their culture, religion, sexuality, race and gender”. Echoing this argument, Iranian scholar Sadaf Javdani said the following:

‘Throughout my decade-long career, I have been repeatedly advised to focus on themes that are exotic in the eyes of reviewers. To secure an academic position or funding for projects, I have to investigate hijabs, censorship or being a person of colour.”

I believe that the recent discussion on decolonising Central Asian knowledge and academic experiences is a healthy and a promising step forward in acknowledging marginal practices of knowledge production. Liberating oneself from the western coloniality of thought requires determined courage and unity in demarcating the grounds of intellectual dependency and finding viable solutions to overcome them. I am not sure that I have achieved that level of realisation, but I at least aspire to it. Sharing personal intellectual journeys inside and outside the field empowers young Central Asian scholars in present and for the future.

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