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Kyrgyz migrant workers: does national pride mean violence against women?

Videos recently widely circulating on social networks in both Russia and the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan show Kyrgyz men working in Russia brutally attacking their female compatriots for the ‘crime’ of associating with men of other nationalities. Gulzat Botoeva looks at how these scenes reflect not only problems of national identity but wider issues around migrant labour in Russia

‘Patriotic’ violence

Two films have been circulating widely in Kyrgyzstan and among Kyrgyz migrant workers abroad. In one, grainy footage from a mobile phone shows a naked woman, standing on a dark street, being interrogated in Kyrgyz about her name, where she comes from, and what she was doing in a café with some Tajik men.

‘Patriotic’ violence

Two films have been circulating widely in Kyrgyzstan and among Kyrgyz migrant workers abroad. In one, grainy footage from a mobile phone shows a naked woman, standing on a dark street, being interrogated in Kyrgyz about her name, where she comes from, and what she was doing in a café with some Tajik men. In the other, a young woman is shown being beaten up by a couple of young men who accuse her of having sexual relationships with men from other Central Asian nations. The scenes are brutal and shocking, the violence sexually motivated, and the unknown perpetrators threaten their victims with knives and electric shocks, and in some cases with rape. These scenes took place in Russia, in Moscow and Ekaterinburg; the women and men are ethnic Kyrgyz migrants working in these cities. The films were made and uploaded by a group calling themselves ‘Patriots’. 

'A young woman is shown being beaten up by a couple of young men who accuse her of having sexual relationships with men from other Central Asian nations.'

I learned about the videos in April 2012, through both Kyrgyz national news and FaceBook updates from friends. It turned out that since March five different videos had been posted on YouTube and widely circulated  in Russia and Kyrgyzstan through the social networking site, Mail.Ru (http://mail.ru/ ). The ‘patriots’ also sent these scenes privately as video SMS messages to some other groups of migrants from Kyrgyzstan. Often the ordeal portrayed is not only humiliating but explicitly threatening: the women were sometimes told they would be killed if they continued in their ‘error’ of even meeting with men from other countries. The beatings, then, are the result of an entrenched perception that Kyrgyz women who have relationships with men of other nationalities are ‘cheap’, a situation which these ‘patriots’ claim betrays their sense of national identity. The women are made to feel degraded and worthless at the hands of men who claim to have been themselves publicly dishonoured and made to feel a loss of self-respect in the eyes of other men through the actions of these women.

Violence_women_Kyrgyz

One of the videos posted on YouTube showed "Ajna," a Kyrgyz woman being beaten by male compatriots, who blamed her for associating with non-Kyrgyz men (Video grab: Radio Azatlyg website).

According to their own statements, this group sees it as their role to educate Kyrgyz migrant women. More disturbing is how these scenes of ‘education’ reach a wider audience and serve as a message to any Kyrgyz woman considering working and living away from home. Some Kyrgyz women spoke of receiving video messages on their phones from people whom they did not know. The links to this footage are no longer available; they were deleted only after certain women dared to speak up and point out that these men should face criminal prosecution.

Patriotism and patriarchy

How is it that these women’s perceived loss of national dignity comes to be portrayed as ‘prostitution’, and how does their sexual assault come to be framed as ‘education’? And what does this say about Kyrgyz national identity today?

' One female MP discussed prohibiting by law women younger than 22 years old from travelling outside the country without the permission of their fathers or older male relatives.'

In Kyrgyzstan, the videos prompted a huge wave of discussion not only through social networking sites, but also in the newspapers and on TV. To be sure, many commentators were shocked at what they saw and did not support this ‘patriotic’ violence. Yet there were as many who expressed the view that the men should not face prosecution for their acts, because they have ‘done well’ by defending the pride of their nation. In public many people, including members of parliament, accepted the stated motivations of these ‘patriots’ as normal and in need of no further questioning and debate. For instance, one female MP discussed prohibiting by law women younger than 22 years old from travelling outside the country without the permission of their fathers or older male relatives. It is estimated that 40-50% of the  600,000 or so migrants from Kyrgyzstan working in Russia are women, a much higher proportion than from other Central Asian states. To support their proposals MPs cited as evidence the fact that large numbers of children, abandoned by their Kyrgyz mothers, are living in Russian orphanages. Later it was also suggested that Kyrgyzstan should assist Kyrgyz women with getting easy access to contraceptives in Russian cities.

These suggestions echo the logic of the ‘patriot’ groups in believing that ‘our women’ can only be saved through ‘re-education’. They also reflect the role women still play in patriarchal Kyrgyzstan, where some are kidnapped for marriage, often soon after leaving school, this being perceived as a national tradition revived from pre-Soviet times. Yet all this can, and should, be understood in relation to the powerlessness felt by many migrants away from their home country.

Migration and identity

From these scenes from Russia, we can see how this feeling of powerlessness and the re-emergence of national identity are closely, though also dangerously, linked. National identity, idealised and perceived as pure, becomes something through which men want to be seen to take a stand.

'They see their violence as justified on the grounds that these women have sold out their national identity, allowing them to be seen as prostitutes, and therefore to have lost their rights as compatriots.'

It is far easier for them to subordinate young, isolated women to this new ‘patriotism’ than to express it in some other way. They believe that Kyrgyz women should only have relationships with Kyrgyz men, otherwise they have betrayed their nation. The need to develop a strong national identity means that women having any kind of relationship with men of other nationalities, whether sexual or simply professional or commercial, is perceived as a contamination of authentic Kyrgyz identity. The feeling of powerlessness is further exacerbated  when other migrants from Central Asia call Kyrgyz women ‘cheap’, playing on national identity and pride.

Kyrgyz_girl

Some radical nationalists even want the Kryrgyzstan parliament to pass a law  prohibiting women younger than 22 years old from travelling outside the country without the permission of their fathers or older male relatives (photo:www.flickr.com, NonviolentPeaceforce.org)

Therefore, in order to protect their own masculine identity, pride and feelings, they claim for themselves the moral authority to ‘educate’ Kyrgyz women because these women ‘belong’ to their nation. They see their violence as justified on the grounds that these women have sold out their national identity, allowing them to be seen as prostitutes, and therefore to have lost their rights as compatriots. Prostitutes, in their eyes, can be thrown naked onto the street, threatened with death or raped.

Until we challenge the logic of blaming women for rejecting their traditional domestic role, the situation can only get worse. The problem is not that Kyrgyz women ‘prostitute’ themselves when they leave home. Kyrgyz women should not be the scapegoats for all the problems faced by migrant communities from across Central Asia. I believe we should be looking at how migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia and other countries puts pressures - economic, social and psychological - on both men and women. This issue can only be understood in a wider context, through open and unprejudiced discussion of how migrants adjust to life in big cities, where living conditions are increasingly tough and jobs are scarce.


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