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Sun, 23 Sep 2018 20:06:00 +0200

Zere Asylbek feminist song draws supporters and death threats in Kyrgyzstan

Pleas for civility and respect from Zere Asylbek, a songwriter in Bishkek, have been drowned by rage over her clothing.

A feminist manifesto sung by a 19-year-old Kyrgyz student has rekindled debates over women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. The spectrum of public reaction has ranged from a supportive social media campaign to death threats, the artist says.

The Kyrgyz-language song, entitled Kyz (“Girl”) [1], was released some two months ago, but the video appeared only on September 13. Though Zere Asylbek – who performs under the name Zere – soon removed the video from her YouTube channel, another channel specializing in Kyrgyz music reposted it. It soon went viral.

In the pop tune, Zere pleads for a future with relaxed social norms, a time when people respect each other for being unique:

I wish the time passed, I wish (a new) time came
When they wouldn’t preach to me how I should spend my life
When they wouldn’t tell me ‘Do like this,’ ‘Don’t do like that’
Why should I be like you want, or like the majority wants,
I am a person, and I have my freedom of speech.
Where is your respect for me?
I’ll respect you. You respect me.
You and I, together,
Hey, dear, join me,
We will create our freedom.

Filmed against the breathtaking Tian-Shan mountains, Zere stands surrounded by several young women in long black-and-white robes. They jump into water and emerge as modern individuals: one donning a traditional dress and headscarf, one in a bikini, one in hijab, and another as a tomboy in jeans with short blue hair.

“All of us are different. It is wrong to judge a book by its cover and put people in two camps: good or bad, black or white,” Zere – a student in Bishkek who runs a YouTube channel [2] with English lessons for kids – explained in a September 18 interview with the Sheisnomad website [3]. “People particularly like to judge girls by their dress and style.”

Water, she said, symbolizes opinions and judgements.

“Almost all girls in our country are shamed on a daily basis. We constantly hear remarks and unsolicited advice. It is important not to drown in someone’s opinions and generally accepted standards, not to lose yourself.”

Zere’s message resonates in conservative, Muslim-majority Kyrgyzstan, where women routinely suffer discrimination, domestic violence, and the threat of being kidnapped and forced into marriage. In recent years, lawmakers have considered bills to stop women traveling abroad alone and to prohibit staffers from wearing skirts, while refusing to ban child marriage.

“I wrote a song about what concerns me the most at the moment, and it is the freedom of women and people in general. I’ve always protested and felt responsibility for everything that happens around me,” Zere said in the interview, adding that she was also deeply touched by the murder of Burulai Turdaaly kyzy [4], a 20-year-old Kyrgyz woman who was stabbed to death in May while being held in a police station holding cell with the man who had kidnapped her [5].

But it isn’t Zere’s message that is stirring public outrage or even much reflection. Instead, how she looks is fueling most online tantrums and threats. She appears in the video wearing bright red lipstick, a short skirt, and a black blazer with nothing under it but a purple lacy bra.

“If you don’t remove the video and don’t apologize to the Kyrgyz people, we will kill you soon. This will be the first and the last time,” read a private message sent by user @bespredel__kg on Instagram. “I will gladly join and cut your head off,” added another Instagram user, @ddjumabaev.

In support, some women are appearing in their Facebook profile photos wearing bras [6].

Zere’s father, Asylbek Zhoodonbekov, has also voiced his support. Although he admitted that he wasn’t happy with his daughter posing in her underwear, he defended her right to self-expression and respect.

“Some people ask me, ‘Is this crone your daughter? How can an educator like you have a daughter like her?’ her father, a teacher, wrote in a Facebook post. “Yes, Zere is my daughter: a freethinking daughter of free Kyrgyzstan [7].”

Bermet Talant, Sep 18, 2018


Sun, 23 Sep 2018 19:53:00 +0200

Kyrgyzstan: Government Slow to Respond to Domestic Violence

After sustaining severe beatings from her partner, Asya telephoned the police, seeking help in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital.

“They said, ‘Did he use a knife? Did he try to kill you?’ I would say, ‘No,’ and they would say, ‘Okay, you call me when he tries to kill you, because we have more important things to do,’” Asya said, recalling two incidents from 2012.

The episode is one of many documented in a report issued on October 29 by advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is pressing for the government of Kyrgyzstan to take more action to address domestic violence.

At the heart of the problem is a combination of social indifference, a failure to enforce laws and a shortage of resources for the victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. A 2012 government survey found that 28 percent of women or girls in Kyrgyzstan had experienced such abuse.

Legislation to protect vulnerable household members is ostensibly in place.

In 2003, following a sustained signature-gathering campaign, Kyrgyzstan adopted a law against violence in the family. According to a United Nations assessment, the legislation marked a considerable improvement in the protection of rights and freedoms for women. It enabled victims to file complaints, request protection orders of up to 15 days and appeal to local elders’ courts.

But many obstacles still lie in the path of serially abused women seeking protection. The HRW report, for example, cites the continuing existence of a culture of victim-blaming and stigma attached to domestic violence. “Women who experienced domestic abuse or forced or early marriage told Human Rights Watch that they often felt enormous familial and societal pressure to keep abuse secret and endure it for the sake of the family,” the group’s report noted.

The taboos are prevalent across the ethnic divide. HRW illustrated the point with several harrowing stories, including that of Nurgul V., who took refuge at her sister’s house after she was kicked in the stomach by her husband while carrying their child. “[My parents] said: ‘You have children. You must take care of them. Be patient. Wait until they grow up. Your time will come. You don’t want your kids to be orphans without a father,’” Nurgul V. told HRW.

HRW said it learned from its research that in the relatively rare occasions when victims do file complaints, police either ignore them or try to persuade victims to drop the case.

Nadejda Domasheva, a psychologist at Crisis Center Arulaan in Osh, said her organization was forced to intervene in 2013 to compel police to take action on behalf of one victim. “The victim called the police 12 times, but they never accepted the case. There was systematic abuse. [Her husband] locked the door on her, burned her belongings,” Domasheva told HRW. “When we approached the police it was the thirteenth time. They had never accepted the case before.”

Cultural attitudes again appear to be at the heart of police reluctance to address such cases. One prevalent view is that pursuing perpetrators of domestic violence would only lead to the dissolution of families, leading to more anguish and, ultimately, social upheaval.

One former Interior Ministry official, Gulsara Alieva, suggested that a lack of resources limits police officers’ scope of action. “Here the police are so poor they don’t even have fuel in their cars, so they can’t really take action,” Alieva told HRW.

When protection orders are put in place, they are frequently not enforced by police. “Even though contact between the two parties is in direct violation of protection orders, police and judges told Human Rights Watch that they do not have the right to ask a perpetrator to leave a shared home,” the HRW report noted. “They believed doing so would violate the perpetrator’s constitutional and property rights.”

The judicial system also seems to underperform in addressing domestic abuse. Aisuluu G., 27, said her beatings began within months of her marriage, which was the outcome of the bride-kidnapping practice that also blights many women’s lives in Kyrgyzstan.

Against the advice of her own mother, Aisuluu eventually pursued divorce proceedings, only to find an unsympathetic judge presiding over her case.

“The judge asked: ‘Why would he beat you? You were not doing the housework? Or are you sleeping around?’” Aisuluu told HRW.

Again, courts tend to emphasize reconciliation in the belief that such an outcome would ultimately better serve the family in question.

A judge in the city of Naryn told HRW that he attempted to explain to couples that such cases were commonplace and avoided handing down custodial sentences, even when violence was documented in a case. “Very rarely do we put people in detention in this category – maybe one out of 100 is put in detention. In such cases when injuries are not severe, we try to preserve the family. We give time to the perpetrator to rectify the problem,” said the judge, whose name was withheld.

Proposed legislation is currently under review that would build upon the 2003 law to expand and clarify the responsibilities of state bodies in reacting to domestic violence. “With a new domestic violence bill under consideration, this is a critical time to ensure that any new domestic violence legislation includes measures to guarantee protection, assistance and access to justice for survivors, and that mechanisms are in place to ensure enforcement of the law,” Human Rights Watch researcher Hillary Margolis told

The proposals have come under a welter of objections, including from the Finance Ministry, which objects that there are not sufficient public funds to establish the residences and shelters mandated by the legislation.

Margolis said that even when resources are stretched, there are still measures authorities can adopt that are already in law.

“Many countries around the world struggle with a lack of resources, but this is not a sufficient excuse for allowing half the population to remain at serious risk,” she said.

Peter Leonard, Nov 2, 2015


Sun, 23 Sep 2018 19:48:00 +0200

Kyrgyzstan: Bride Kidnapping Not Just a Rural Phenomenon – Parents afraid of being publicly shamed

Although bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has primarily happened in the countryside, the illegal activity is taking place in Bishkek as well. As rural migrants flood into the city, young men too poor to afford the pageantry of a traditional wedding opt instead to kidnap a bride.

Seven years ago Aijan was walking home from her waitressing job in central Bishkek with two girlfriends. They did not notice the three men following them. As two men tackled the other women, one dragged Aijan, 21 at the time, into a waiting car.

“I was screaming, cursing, and hitting them. […] I was crying for them to let me go, but they wouldn’t listen,” Aijan recalls. She did not know where they were headed. When the car finally stopped, a stranger opened the door. “You should be happy that I’m kidnapping you,” was the first thing Aziz, Aijan’s future husband, said.

Many know of bride kidnapping as a phenomenon in rural Kyrgyzstan [1]. But few realize it happens in the relatively liberal capital, Bishkek, too. According to human rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, as rural migrants flood into the city, young men too poor to afford the pageantry of a traditional wedding opt instead to kidnap a bride – a method that anecdotal evidence suggests has increased throughout the country in the penurious post-Soviet period.

“Moving to Bishkek, they don’t become liberal-minded all at once,” Akun said of the young men.

Neither do their families. Bowing to social pressure, parents of a kidnapping victim often do not take their daughter back because, the thinking goes, a kidnapping suggests the woman has somehow been sullied. Many kidnapping victims are raped and a daughter’s virginity is prized in conservative Kyrgyz households.

“I wanted to run away, but his family followed me everywhere,” said Aijan (not her real name). She added that her own parents visited her the day after her abduction to say they would not take her home.

A new law signed by President Almazbek Atambayev in January aims to discourage bride kidnapping by increasing the criminal penalty from a 3-to-7-year prison term to 5-10 years. Such a sentence would make the punishment for bride kidnapping roughly the same as that for sheep theft [2]. The legislation also changes the way a criminal case is registered, from a private complaint to a public one. That means a case cannot be dropped, as it could before, if both parties reconcile.

Most cases never make it to court in the first place, observers say. “We ask girls, ‘How can we help you?’ If you want to charge him, we will give you legal advice, provide you with shelter and a lawyer. But they don’t want it,” says Munara Beknazarova, head of Open Line, a Bishkek-based NGO that lobbies to end bride kidnapping.

Beknazarova says conservative mores – especially among parents afraid of being publicly shamed – constitute a major obstacle. “If I could go back to the past, I would leave… But my family told me they blessed our marriage. I was angry and lost,” said Aijan, who today lives in Bishkek and has two children with Aziz, who works in Russia.

While there is little research available, a survey conducted by Open Line found that out of 268 kidnappings that resulted in marriage, 60 percent eventually ended in divorce. At the same time, there is little incentive for women to leave their kidnappers: almost half of the divorcees – 46 percent – admitted that after returning to their parents’ house, they had no say in family issues anymore, and their status in the family diminished.

Beknazarova is optimistic about the new law. “Men should understand that girls have a right to choose. And if this [law] is a lever for action, then I support it.” Her position is widely shared among civil society activists. Ombudsman Akun calls the law an “important precondition” to stop bride kidnapping. “This is not a tradition, this is a crime that is alien to our society,” he told

Getting the public to see bride kidnapping as a crime is an ongoing challenge. Bubusara Ryskulova, head of the Sezim crisis center in Bishkek, thinks that the law will not be effective until society at large demands change. “Girls should learn to protect their rights. Men need to be told that women are not property, they are human beings,” she argues.

Uluk, a 23-year-old part-time driver in Bishkek, highlights the challenge for anti-bride-kidnapping advocates. “Just think about it, our parents and grandparents were raised like this. Many families that I know were created by kidnapping the bride and they live normally,” Uluk says.

Though many would argue that bride kidnapping is not a tradition, but a product of recent economic decline, that is no consolation to Aijan. “If I wasn’t kidnapped, I would have studied, I would have gotten a degree,” she said. “I can say that it negatively influenced my life.”

Asel Kalybekova, May 10, 2013


Sun, 23 Sep 2018 19:40:00 +0200

Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek Officials Taking Cultural Right Turn – Ministry of Culture want to ban a play

Kyrgyzstan’s Culture Ministry says The Vagina Monologues advocates “unnatural, perverted sex under the slogan of feminism.”

Authorities at Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture want to ban a play that discusses domestic abuse and sexual violence because it “promotes scenes that destroy moral and ethical standards and national traditions of the peoples of Kyrgyzstan.” The effort points to creeping conservatism in the thinking of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders.

The Vagina Monologues is an episodic play where woman address how they relate to their bodies, discuss their sexual experiences, and confront the topic of sexual violence. Since American Eve Ensler wrote the play in 1996, it has been performed in over 140 countries and translated into 48 languages. A performance is scheduled for April 12 in Bishkek.

The Culture Ministry sent a letter to local media outlets on April 1 saying the Vagina Monologues advocates “unnatural, perverted sex under the slogan of feminism.” The letter warned that Kyrgyz law prohibits the distribution of materials that “promote pornography and offend human dignity.”

Organizers say authorities are rushing to judgment. “The play is aimed at stopping violence against women, a very important thing for our society where there is a lot of violence against women,” Aikanysh Jeenbaeva, one of the organizers and a co-founder of the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, told “The ministry did not say which parts of the Vagina Monologues are supposedly offensive or promote pornography. I think none of them have actually seen the play and they’re just judging it by its name.”

A ministry representative, Ermek Jolochuev, admitted he had not seen the play, but said it “contradicts our mentality. You know that nationalities living on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, and Eastern people in general, are not used to talking about such topics openly or to speaking publicly the names of women’s body parts.” He confirmed that “prominent” cultural figures stood against the play, but would not name them over the phone. He also did not follow through with a promise to email their names.

Jolochuev said the ministry has no legal recourse to ban the performance. Nevertheless, organizers fear the ministry’s recommendation will engender hostility toward the production. The Russian-language version of the play is scheduled for 7 pm Friday at the Metro Pub theater; 100 percent of proceeds will benefit Chance, a local women’s shelter. If it goes ahead uninterrupted, it will be the Vagina Monologues’ third season in Bishkek, after debuting in 2009 and returning in 2011.

Bishkek was the first location in Central Asia to host the Vagina Monologues; Almaty hosted a sold-out performance this past February.

Organizers have received threats in the past, but have never experienced such interference from authorities.

Kyrgyzstan remains an entrenched patriarchal society where, despite Soviet attempts to extend equal opportunities to women, today women’s rights appear to be backsliding. There is little quantitative data available, but a 2008 UN study found one in four Kyrgyz women had suffered from domestic violence. Stigma is widespread: women who speak out about sexual and domestic abuse are often shamed both as something sullied and as backstabbers betraying their families. Moreover, bride kidnapping, though illegal, has become more common since the Soviet era, activists say.

Given the seriousness of the issue, when the Culture Ministry statement appeared on April 1, “we thought it was an April Fools’ joke,” Jeenbaeva said. Cancelling the play would send a message, members of her group said, that domestic violence is not a serious problem.

The dispute underscores a trend in which the Kyrgyz government is shunning Western liberalism. Last fall, for example, the State Committee on Religious Affairs successfully blocked, with a court order, the screening of a documentary film about gay men in the Muslim world.

In recent weeks, parliament has discussed a bill that would ban young women from traveling abroad, supposedly to protect them from sexual abuse and, in the words of the bill’s author, Irgal Kadyralieva, “increase morality and preserve the gene pool.”

Prominent human rights activist and lawyer Cholpon Djakupova is worried by the trend and feels Kyrgyz society is lashing out at perceived foreign ideas with growing cynicism. She added that, despite years of promises, Western liberalism has done little to improve living standards or confront widespread corruption.

The Culture Ministry’s attempted ban “is the reaction of people who do not like [what has turned out to be a] false and empty democracy. In NGOs and even the term freedom, people see the failed realization of foreign promises,” Djakupova told “This concept of freedom is only important for creative people and self-reliant people. Poor people have no access to education or justice. For them, all these liberal concepts are estranged from their difficult lives.”

David Trilling, Apr 10, 2013


Sun, 23 Sep 2018 19:30:00 +0200

Kyrgyzstan: Opened in 2010, Pentagon-Funded Women's Shelter Illegally Privatized – MP

American taxpayers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing a women’s shelter outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital less than five years ago. Though the Central Asian country is desperately short of such crisis centers, the shelter never functioned and, a member of parliament now says, was improperly privatized instead.

As part of its 2010 humanitarian aid budget, the US airbase at Manas near Bishkek spent nearly $750,000 refurbishing a two-story hospital that was slated to become the Shopokov Women’s Development Center. At the time, a military spokesperson said the building was to serve “battered women” and provide “shelter for up to 55 women and their children.” It was owned by the Kyrgyz government and managed by Zamira Akbagysheva, at the time president of the Kyrgyz Congress of Women.

But shortly after it opened with fanfare in August 2010 – with the American ambassador and the Manas commander in attendance – found the building shuttered [1] and apparently being used to host for-profit language classes and photocopying services.

On February 3, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament accused Akbagysheva of improperly privatizing the building. MP Aynuru Altybaeva told the Committee on Social Policy that Akbagysheva had transferred ownership of the building – “a beautiful, two-story hospital with a big garden” – about three years ago from the state to her son, paying 18,000 som (today $300).

“Now the building is closed, it is used neither as a hospital nor as a crisis center,” Altybaeva said, in comments carried by AKIpress. She recommended parliament open an investigation.

Reached by phone on February 3, Akbagysheva denied she had done anything illegal and said that neither she nor her son own the building. Instead, she claimed the building is owned and has been owned since before the Manas-funded renovations by a local organization, an entity she called the Center for the Development of Women and Children in the town of Shopokov. That account is different from one that Akbagysheva gave in 2011, when she claimed the Kyrgyz government owned the building. Under the terms of the agreement with Manas, the building was to remain property of the Kyrgyz government.

Asked if could visit the building in a follow-up text message on February 3, Akbagysheva replied, “This is not a crisis center.”

Altybaeva, the lawmaker, told she has had trouble accessing the building and that it is not being used as a shelter. Asked how she learned about the privatization, she said she made an official “MP’s request” to the Shopokov town council.

She said she had tried to sue for the building to be returned to government ownership, but said a local court in Shopokov would not hear her case because she was not a local woman needing the services of a shelter.

The MP insisted it is illegal to privatize “social” buildings (hospitals and schools, for example) in Kyrgyzstan. Altybaeva added the town council in Shopokov, where the building is located, is responsible.

The $748,700 the US military spent on the project accounted for one-third of the Manas airbase’s 2010 humanitarian aid spending, when most projects cost in the range of $20,000.

There is no doubt Kyrgyzstan needs shelters for women, however. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that Bishkek, a city of approximately 850,000, has only one shelter for women suffering domestic violence and that it has only 15 beds.

“Survivors of domestic violence repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that they remained in abusive situations because they felt they had ‘nowhere to go.’ Women also reported that fear of being homeless deterred them from reporting abuse to the authorities or seeking assistance,” the watchdog said in written testimony to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Akbagysheva has not been charged with a crime. But her failure to operate the women’s shelter as envisioned raises questions about the Pentagon selection process for a local implementing partner and why such a large portion of its humanitarian budget was earmarked for one partner.

Back in 2011, a Manas airbase spokesperson said it was not the US military’s responsibility to oversee how humanitarian funds are used after they have been disbursed. Manas closed last June after 12 years operating at Bishkek’s international airport.

David Trilling Feb 3, 2015

Anna Lelik contributed reporting.