oDR: Opinion

“Your traditions, our blood!”: The struggle against patriarchal violence in Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, it appears that the police and nationalist groups are increasingly conspiring to push organised feminism off the streets.

Mohira Suyarkulova
2 April 2020
Artist Tatyana Zelenskaya illustrated her own detention by police on International Women's Day in Bishkek
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Image used with author's permission

This year’s International Women’s Day and its aftermath demonstrated once again how women are denied the status of political subjects in Kyrgyzstan. Albeit in different ways, this was the case for those who attacked the peaceful march on 8 March and the people who came out in its defence two days later.

In both cases, the feminist activists who organised the march in Bishkek, including the author of this article, were not seen as “proper” or “real” women. Apparently, we fail to live up to the ideal of Kyrgyz woman which conservatives and progressives fantasise about. Nor are we seen as political subjects capable of representing ourselves and speaking on our own behalf: instead, in the fantasy world of Kyrgyzstan’s conservatives and progressives, a “good” woman always needs defending. Yet the reality for too many real women is that our homes and city streets are not safe. And the very people who are supposed to protect us are very much part of the problem.

In Kyrgyzstan, it appears that the state has adopted a strategy of intimidating civic activists by engaging masked vigilantes to attack meetings, gatherings and events. Nationalist-patriotic groups (such as Kyrk Choro, or Forty Knights), or those who pose as such groups, are informally joining the police and the authorities to do the latter’s bidding.

On 1 May 2019, for example, activists from the 8/365 Movement gathered for a Labour Day picnic in a park in Bishkek, the country’s capital. But when we reached the designated area, we found police and plain-clothes secret service officers there. They were accompanied by a group of youths in tracksuits and ak kalpaks, a traditional male felt hat, looking to beat up “the gays”. We promptly informed the chief police officer of the threat, who responded that he “didn’t see anyone” threatening. No sooner had we moved to a park on the other side of the city, than we noticed the police reporting us to the group of masked men. The latter soon re-appeared and proceeded to pelt us with eggs under the watchful eye of the police who did not lift a finger to protect us. Luckily, we managed to leave quickly enough to avoid serious harm.

The same scenario played out this year on 8 March, during a peaceful march for International Women’s Day.

The 8/365 Movement - which unites feminist and women’s initiatives, organisations and individual activists representing groups of various life experiences and with intersecting forms of discrimination - was again planning an 8 March event this year. As in previous years, the march demanded an end to femicide and showed solidarity with all those fighting violence against women, including by providing medical, psychological and legal support to survivors. And just like in previous years, the Bishkek municipal authorities tried to stop the march.

This time, they used a court order banning all public gatherings in the district where the march would be held, citing coronavirus as the rationale (there being no registered cases in Kyrgyzstan at the time). So we changed the route of the march to avoid the ban. This was planned in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the Kyrgyz Republic: there was no legitimate reason to limit our right to peaceful assembly.

We are grateful to all those who show us solidarity, but cannot accept some people’s solidarity if it comes with reservations. That is not our path

The police and the Sverdlov district administration were notified of the route of the march, as evidenced by the presence of police officers on Victory Square in Bishkek city centre before the march started. When unknown vigilantes wearing masks attacked participants, instead of detaining the attackers, the police proceeded to arrest us. In effect, police officers became de facto accomplices to the attack.

About 70 participants and journalists were then taken by force to the district police station and unlawfully detained there for three hours. We were not told why we were being held and what we were accused of, despite repeated questions from our side. The unlawful actions of the police were recorded in countless videos and photographs of the events, which were widely reported by both the national and international media, leading to widespread condemnation.

Civil activists, non-governmental and international organisations, foreign embassies expressed their solidarity with the participants and organisers of the march, criticising the actions of the attackers and the police. A few members of parliament voiced concerns, posed questions and demanded an official investigation from the state. Since then, dozens of participants have filed complaints against the district police force responsible.

Meanwhile, a group of outraged citizens decided to hold a solidarity rally two days after the march, spontaneously and without consultation with most of the organisers. The latter were still reeling from the deep emotional and physical traumas of the attack, not to speak of the material costs and the damage to relationships. In this context, the rally organisers positioned themselves as not necessarily supporting “those crazy feminists” and the LGBTQ community, but as citizens outraged by the actions of the police and the nationalists’ attack on women.

The 10 March rally was held with the approval and under the protection of the Bishkek police. Indeed, the organisers repeatedly thanked law enforcement agencies in public, while emphasising how the police “got it slightly wrong on 8 March”. The event became a show of a politics of respectability, epitomising the “good citizens” who only oppose violence against “respectable” women, rather than all women, including lesbians, trans, sex workers, and HIV positive women.

In their eyes, the only “real” women are able-bodied, fertile, married, heterosexual, and middle-class. It is ironic that an event that was aimed at showing solidarity with “what we represent”, was actually organised without us. This rally instrumentalised our story to advance a politics of respectability, completely missing the point of what we stand for.

But even “proper” women as defined by the majority are not guaranteed safety. On 25 March, the Kyrgyz government introduced a state of emergency in order to stop the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. Today, constitutional norms have been suspended in response to what is perceived as an existential threat. Yet there is another ongoing public health crisis that has not been similarly prioritised.

For many women, children and LGBTQ people under lockdown, having to stay in their family homes poses more of a danger than any virus. It is a well-known fact that the home is not a safe place for women, who are statistically more likely to be killed by a current or former partner or spouse. Having to stay at home for prolonged periods of time is correlated with an increase in cases of domestic violence. For instance, during the long break for the New Year holidays in Kyrgyzstan, multiple reports of gruesome murders, torture and abuse appeared in the local press.

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Fabric patchwork banner reading “Your traditions, our blood!” created by Mohira Suyarkulova for the 2020 Women’s Day march. The banner was torn by unknown assailants on 8 March, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the author

Although Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev responded with a statement that “an atmosphere of categorical non-acceptance of violence against women and children” should be created in the country, and the Ministry of Social Welfare reported that they are actively working on preventing domestic violence, in reality the Ministry of Finance has refused to allocate money for new government-funded shelters. In 2020, battered women and children in Kyrgyzstan have literally nowhere to go.

Out of the 14 existing NGO-run crisis centres, only two - one in Bishkek and one in Osh - offer temporary housing to survivors of abuse. The police, courts and other state structures are thus complicit in the structural violence against women. The domestic tyrants, rapists and murderers are enabled by criminal indifference, corruption and a culture that normalises violence. Often it is difficult to distinguish between the law enforcement agencies and criminals in Kyrgyzstan. Two days before the 8 March march, a former judge killed his wife and stabbed his nine-year-old son five times, before killing himself.

Women in Kyrgyzstan have been fighting the system of patriarchal violence for years. It is high time that our struggle is supported and our victories recognised. But we do not wish to become either metaphors or symbols of “progress” or “decay”, nor the bearers of an ill-defined “honour of the nation” and its future. We are real: living, breathing, thinking, acting women and people of all genders, neither metaphors, nor symbols of the nation.

We are grateful to all those who show us solidarity, but cannot accept some people’s solidarity if it comes with reservations. That is not our path. We are not going to bargain with patriarchy. Our executioners dress up in ethnic garb and pretend to speak on behalf of the “people” and to protect sacred traditions. We do not accept traditions that demand our blood. Our traditions are found in the glorious struggles for freedom, equality and justice. And a real woman is a living woman!

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