Nationalism and subjugation of women in Kyrgyzstan: a case study on “ala kachuu” and “Kyrk Choro”
This research paper examines the oppression of women in Kyrgyzstan through the lens of nationalism, focusing on “ala kachuu” (bride kidnapping) and the nationalist group “Kyrk Choro.” Employing theories of gendered spaces and invented traditions in emerging nations, the study reveals how nationalistic activities perpetuate women’s subordination. The paper uncovers how Kyrgyzstan’s pursuit of national identity led to the creation of traditions like “ala kachuu,” reinforcing patriarchal ideologies by assigning women a symbolic role as mothers for the nation’s development. Additionally, groups like “Kyrk Choro” further marginalize women by emphasizing symbolic motherhood as a means of national authentication and claiming control over Kyrgyz women’s bodies to preserve national dignity. These examples expose the gendered implications of nationalism in Kyrgyzstan, emphasizing the importance of understanding and addressing the complexities of gender relations in the nation-building process.
Kyrgyzstan is a young state with a 32-year history of independence. National unity in Kyrgyzstan is constructed upon the country’s past as nomadic tribal communities, an imperial Russian colony, a USSR state, and a post-soviet independent nation. For most of its independence, Kyrgyzstan has been considered a relatively democratic country in Central Asia. The country sustained and promoted its democratic reputation thanks to the relatively more visible commitment to the parliamentary system, turnover of presidents, presence of international NGOs, and more. However, this reputation has been changing due to the results of the latest presidential elections in 2020 and the subsequent referendum that shifted the country’s governance back to a presidential regime (Putz, 2020). These shifts are reflecting increasing political consequences, which are deemed by many as leaning more toward authoritarianism (conforming to the trend in
the rest of Central Asia). Regardless of the regime or the political period, however, the issue of gender inequality in Kyrgyzstan has always been vividly present. The 2020 Voluntary National Review of Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Kyrgyzstan highlights women in the country as a vulnerable group due to a lack of economic independence, political participation, effective advocacy against gendered violence, and more (UN in Kyrgyzstan, 2020). These are believed to be consequences of widespread patriarchal beliefs that have been expanding since the growth of nationalism and Islamic principles following the acquisition of independence (UN Human Rights, 2022). This paper argues that the construction of Kyrgyz nationalism and how it is carried out are among the factors behind the subjugation of women and their subordinate socio-political position in Kyrgyzstan. The analyses build upon the role of gender relations in the construction of nationalism with two examples: bride kidnapping, “ala kachuu”, and a right-wing nationalist group, “Kyrk Choro”. Both examples prove the utilization of control over women’s bodies and the assertion of symbolic image and social role to women’s reproductive abilities as constructive tools and distinctive characteristics of building Kyrgyz nationalism.
In their discussions of gender relations in the study of nationalism, McClintock (1993) and Yuval-Davis (2005) bring up the discrepancy between the foundational importance of gender in nationalism theories and the lack of constructive analyses of it. The most notable works on nationalism (like Gellner, Hobsbawm, Kedourie, Smith, and more) omit the gender discourse in their studies (Yuval, 2005). It contradicts, however, the very essence of these theories: nationalism has always been a gendered discourse (McClintock, 1993). While it is essentially a project for uniting people, nationalism is also designed for gender exclusion: nations depend on
the distinction between men’s and women’s. In doing so, women are normally associated with ‘private’ spherein society, contrasted to men occupying the ‘public’ dimension. This also conditions the lack of discussion of gender in classical and mainstream theories – nationalism was a matter of public dimension to which women were denied access (Yuval, 2005). This type of design of nationhood institutionalizes the execution of gender power: men are granted legitimacy for manipulation of women’s position in the society “in the name of the nation” (McClintock, 1993; Yuval, 2005; Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016). This finds reflection in the development and everyday exercise of nationalism in Kyrgyzstan. To analyze how nationalistic activities oppress women, this paper looks at “ala kachuu” (bride kidnapping) and “Kyrk Choro” (nationalist group) in Kyrgyzstan through nationalism theories like gendered spaces and invented traditions and their reinforcement in emerging nations.
Is ala kachuu a tradition?
One of the ways gender power is exercised is in shaping national traditions. With the appearance and rise of feminism, most of the customs, traditions, and patterns of socialization have been revealed as instating women’s subordinate position in society. Opposing that, nationalist men seek justification for the existence and preservation of those traditions in association with cultural heritage. Similarly, bride kidnapping had a rise in Kyrgyzstan in the last century as an “ala kachuu” (“grab and run”) tradition (CSCE, 2017). Men abducted women to force them into marriage; a large communal manipulation referring to the abducted woman’s purity and dignity restrained her from turning to the law (Hofmann, 2021). For many years thousands of marriages were arranged between a criminal groom and a kidnapped bride who had no say for herself (Rickelton, 2012). Although no evidence supports the previous existence of ala kachuu in such a brutal manner as it (re)appeared and peaked during the Soviet period and early post-Soviet
nation-building, many nationalists justified this criminal activity as a national tradition transmitted for centuries from ancestors (CSCE, 2017).
A study on Central Asian nationalism argues that “returning to tradition” was a popular idea inscribed in building national identity and authenticity for Central Asian countries in the post-Soviet period (Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016). Their nationhood as independent states opposed the Soviet identities they were ascribed, which blended and selectively grouped ethnicities into nations and popularized the “unity of differences.” Moreover, some argue that, for the same purpose, Central Asian nations might have also identified their policies as opposed to the Soviet projects (Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016). In this case, the Soviet promotion of the “egalitarian agenda” (for socialist or proletarian purposes that reinforced gendered spaces, not evident in fundamental fighting of inequalities) might have been seen as a point of contention, which was considered a propagated idea that also did not comply with “ancient traditions.”
To argue that ala kachuu was invented and established as a tradition, Hobsbawm’s (2012, 2) theory suggests that invented traditions come as “responses to novel situations in the form of reference to old ones”. He elaborates that making traditions up serves as an instrument to hold on to and constitute stability in an environment undergoing transformation and innovation (Hobsbawm, 2012). This might explain the rising trend of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyz SSR after the 1950s: it marked a period of growing turbulence in the USSR and incumbent changes in social life succeeding the governmental recasting. Furthermore, the period after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was complex — a definitive moment for the newly independent Kyrgyzstan entering a whole new system of both internal and external affairs. It also mainly implies the start of designing national unity, for which the nation had to look back at its history and refer to the previously existing traditions and customs that would validate its authenticity. However,
(re)invented traditions did not bypass the contemporary ideas, they now incorporated anti-Soviet rhetoric — anti-feminist and religious, asserting patriarchal hierarchy to gender relations (Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016). Accordingly, a “tradition” of bride kidnapping previously practiced as a symbolic ritual based on consensual marriage only, reappeared in a criminal form to violently force women to marry. It paralleled other attempts to romanticize contemporary ideas of the nation’s “nomadic heritage” and “ancient culture”. Consequently, the effort of constructing nationalism of the “young” Kyrgyz Republic had recourse to reviving old traditions, and redesigning them according to contemporary ideas that subjugated women’s social standing.
Nationalist group “Kyrk Choro”
In the last 10-15 years, feminism has finally found greater opportunities for bettering the rights of women in Kyrgyzstan; specific legislation on bride kidnapping has been introduced, and a female interim president in 2010-2011 symbolized hope for women’s political and economic prospects, and women’s rights advocacy grows. But of course, there is another side of the coin: developing regional feminism faces still growing patriarchal nationalistic sentiments (Suyarkulova, 2020). Another example of gender discourse in Kyrgyz nationalism is reflected in the activity of the right-wing nationalist group of men — “Kyrk Choro” (“forty knights”). It is an organization of mostly middle-aged men who gained popularity after their raids to public leisure places in Bishkek to single out Chinese immigrants and Kyrgyz girls accompanying them, claiming to be “helping the government to detect illegal migrants” (Lelik, 2015). Among their other ventures are the persecution of ethnic minorities in marketplaces and mostly Sinophobic activities under a “mission” of “cleansing the society” for the national traditions and values (Miroshnik, 2020).
Kyrk Choro has repeatedly attempted persecution of the work of activists and local queer and feminist organizations in Bishkek. Among other past activities, they attacked the participants of a peaceful march for women’s rights on March 8th, 2020, assaulted employees of a human rights organization “8/365”, and protested against the “Feminalle” art exhibition in Bishkek (Uraliev, 2020; Abduvayitova, 2019). The scale of the danger of Kyrk Choro’s violent activities disguised as patriotic deeds for purification and cultural preservation expands with the fact that the nationalist organization has been able to legitimize their activity and even cooperate with some governmental agencies (Lelik, 2015).
Women in an emerging nationalism
The effort to control women’s bodies whether on the level of individuals and organizations or governmental entities arises from a set of nationalistic incentives. Nationalism asserts a symbolic image of women’s bodies and their reproductive roles, constituting motherhood as equivalent to womanhood (Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016; Yuval, 2005). This grants nationalists the legitimacy to manipulate women’s position “in the name of the community” (Cleuzioua & Direnberger, 2016). Sexual behavior of women often becomes the identifier of ethnic/national distinctions — like Kyrk Choro’s arguments that a Kyrgyz girl must be pure and abstain from relations with foreigners for the sake of “national dignity” (Yuval, 2005; Miroshnik, 2020). Or like nationalist men abroad who trace out and harass emigrant Kyrgyz girls dating men of other nationalities, claiming to guard the Kyrgyz national dignity in this way (Lelik, 2016).
Another way to look at Kyrk Choro’s activity is, again, as a reflection of a developing nationalism. Marsh (2019) argues that all nations at their early stages of identification tend “to be hostile to the idea of women’s liberation”, reinforcing their subordination as mere “reproducers” of the nation. Moreover, as argued above, opposing Soviet-dictated identities or demonizing
Western leftist rhetoric might have been deemed a way to determine the nation’s distinctions and establish its authenticity. The feminist agenda is the base and “fuel” for Kyrk Choro to contrast the left pole developing in Kyrgyzstan. Justifying it with cultural distinction and “mentality”, Kyrk Choro sees “others” as enemies and identifies “evils” in the society, proclaiming the fight against them as their mission. “The others” and “evils” for Kyrk Choro include: “prostitution, LGBT, foreigners who use the sauna and local girls” (Nogoibaeva, 2015, 3).
The attempts of Kyrk Choro to prosecute Kyrgyz women working in service, feminists, and queer rights activists present the exertion of control over women’s bodies and reinforcement of symbolic maternity for the construction of ethnic authenticity and nationalism.
In its early attempts to define its national authenticity, Kyrgyzstan experienced the invention of traditions like ala kachuu as a means of national identification. Influenced by the country’s separation from the USSR which was followed by increasingly spreading religious concepts and political polarization, the new traditions incorporated regional views on hierarchical gender relations. Accordingly, ala kachuu came as a radical assertion of patriarchal outlook, constituting maternity as the symbolic role of women sacred to the nation’s development. Moreover, the growing polarization of Kyrgyzstan recently resulted in the appearance of the right-wing nationalists united as Kyrk Choro. Their identification to contrast the leftist movements in the country take on the feminist and queer agenda as dangerous to the nation’s unity. Kyrk Choro reinforces symbolic motherhood as a means of national authentication and proclaims themselves the right to control Kyrgyz women’s bodies for the “preservation of national dignity”. These examples showcase some ways in which the construction of nationalism and its implementation in Kyrgyzstan puts women in subordinate positions in society. These trends correspond to the larger issues of gender relations in nationhood development and also incorporate locally distinct factors. These analyses lack an overview of the latest trends of ala kachuu which is acquiring new forms in Kyrgyzstan with different implications. Moreover, Kyrk Choro’s activity should be studied concerning other larger political trends in the country. These and other examples of the implementation of nationalism in Kyrgyzstan may serve as a ground for further research concerning gender issues.
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