“It’s time for women to become voices for Central Asia”
Passion, unwavering determination, inspiration. These are the words that come to my mind as I interview Dinara Ghaplan, a social activist from Kazakhstan who works tirelessly to promote Kazakh culture and to empower girls and women. She is the author of children’s book Super Kyz, where she imparts these same values in the collection of “empowering stories of Central Asia’s Super Girls”. From artists to scientists, athletes and politicians, Super Kyz features 49 amazing women from Kazakhstan and the Great Steppe of Central Asia, women who, like her, fought for their dreams.
“I would like to tell women, “don’t be afraid”. It often happens that we are afraid of our own success. We don’t have to be,” she says. “A few years ago I would sit and dream about this book and I would ask myself: where will I find writers? And artists? How will I get the money? But when you have a goal, and you really know you want to do it, everything will work out for you. There will be difficulties, there will be obstacles, but you’ll achieve it.”
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2021, Kazakhstan ranks 47 out of 156 countries for economic participation and opportunity, ahead of the United Kingdom, France, Spain or Italy. “More than 40% of small businesses are led by women,” Ghaplan explains, “however the number of women in boards of directors is very low.” This lack of women in leadership roles also translates into a very low score for political empowerment, where Kazakhstan ranks among the last 50 countries.
There is also a cultural issue, Ghaplan points out: women in Central Asia tend to be modest, and not celebrate their achievements. Having role models is essential, and with Super Kyz Ghaplan wants girls to understand that they can choose their own path.
Promoting Kazakhstan’s culture and language is also important for Ghaplan. As the Chairwoman of the Bolashak Corporate Foundation, she worked for ten years on a national-level project to dub Disney, Sony and Pixar movies into Kazakh, so children could go to cinemas and watch films in their own language instead of Russian, one of the country’s official languages.
A mother of three, Ghaplan decided to write the book when her daughters started showing an interest in Western pop culture. “My middle daughter likes Billie Ellish and her sister, an influencer who lives in America. When I started talking to my daughters, I noticed that they know almost nothing about great women in Kazakhstan. I thought, I know this woman, and this other one, but I don’t know that many and I am sure there should be more. That’s what made me decide – children should know our heroes”.
Super Kyz is more than just a collection of women’s stories. The aim of the book is also to inspire children, especially girls, to embrace their strength and be fearless in pursuing their ambitions. Makpal Abdrazakova defies tradition as she becomes famous all over the world as the only eagle huntress in Kazakhstan. The determined Zulfiya Gabidullina won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Paralympics, aged 50. As of today, she is a world-record setter.
“Every story in the book shows a heroine who had a goal and achieved it. But you can also see the obstacles, the problems they faced in life before accomplishing them. Because we want to show girls that it is important to set goals despite all the difficulties. Difficulties happen in life, and they should understand that not everything will be easy, but if they have a goal, they should just go for it.”
Ghaplan carefully considered the wording of the stories to avoid diminishing any of the women’s achievements. “When you work with a team of writers, you can see how paradigms and gender misconceptions work. They would write, for example: “Her father was a singer, that’s why she chose this path”. We avoided these things because girls will read that and then think: “Of course she became a famous singer, because her father was’”.
The women featured in the book, Ghaplan insists, are women who achieved their goals by themselves, through their hard work and not because of their fathers or husbands. “For me, this was important to show because nowadays children look at Instagram, and see all these nice ladies in yachts, nice cars, and they think that is the point of life. That’s not the point of life. I always tell my daughters that they can have a lot of money but if they don’t have a purpose, a goal, they will not enjoy any of it. It is important for children to understand this.”
Ghaplan also wants to encourage boys and girls to express their feelings. She added a section at the end of the book dedicated to emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), to help children learn to understand and and manage their emotions, to communicate effectively and overcome challenges.
“In the Central Asian mentality, and also in some parts of Kazakhstan, women ‘must be patient’,” Ghaplan explains. “Women are told: ‘You’re a wife, you’re a daughter in law, you’re a mother, you must control your feelings, be modest, be quiet and don’t get angry’. But being angry is normal. It’s about being honest with yourself. If you’re really upset, if you’re really sad or angry, and smile, that’s not normal. And this will harm you.”
“It is very important to live through your emotions and express them. Because there is abuse, there is gaslighting, there is moral harassment. A man cannot beat a woman, and she has to be patient. Women should be able to understand and realise that if they feel bad in their relationships, they have to do something. This is why we included this section about feelings.”
Ghaplan’s work to empower girls and women goes beyond Super Kyz. She also travels to raise awareness of the gender stereotypes Central Asian women face, and discuss solutions to advance women’s rights. In March 2022 she visited Dubai to attend Expo 2020’s Women’s pavilion, with Kazakhstan’s first war correspondent Nazgul Kenzhetay, and world champion boxer Firuza Sharipova. During a panel discussion, they talked about the challenges they faced as women, such as discrimination and the gender pay gap, and highlighted the importance of girls’ education as a way to achieve gender equality. Ghaplan cited a well known proverb in Kazakhstan: “Raising a boy, you’re raising a man. Raising a girl, you’re raising a nation.” “It’s time for women to become voices for Central Asia,” she added.
Learn more about Super Kyz here