Women’s voices in Central Asia: Feminism in Kazakhstan

Women’s voices in Central Asia: Feminism in Kazakhstan

On International Women’s Day this year, more than 700 people gathered in a rally for women’s rights in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan. The number seems small compared to the hundreds of thousands that march each year in Madrid or New York for example, but in context it’s significant – after months of bans the city’s administration acquiesced, under the condition that no more than 300 people would be allowed to gather within the limits of the Almaty’s Gandhi Park.  

The themes this year were defending bodily autonomy and protesting violence against women. The demonstration opened with a minute of silence to commemorate women killed in domestic violence incidents – reported to be 110 in 2021. Last year 373 rapes were recorded, while around 100,000 domestic violence complaints are made each year. With a female population of 9.7 million, these figures are high, indicative of troubling attitudes towards women, perpetuated by the fact that domestic violence is not yet considered a crime here.

Kazakh family values and stereotypes

A recent survey by the Kazakhstan Institute of Social Development explored gender roles within families, and found that “traditional” roles, where men are the head of the family and women are responsible for household duties, are still prevalent. 

The survey asked 1,200 respondents from 17 regions of the country for their views. It showed that men are usually responsible for supporting the family financially, while women’s labour is not considered a significant contributor to the household’s income. 

According to the poll results, men are more likely than women to hold gender preconceptions about women’s participation in politics, with only 13.5% believing that women should have greater political representation. While this figure rose among women, less than a third of female respondents said there should be more women in politics. As the study notes, this is significant because men typically have greater influence in political circles, something that reinforces the barriers that stop women’s political advancement.

women's rights, kazakhstan

For the first time the report also covered the impact of gender on preventing corruption. Successive governments have had a troublesome relationship with corrupt practices – a 2008 poll released by the Crime Statistics Committee revealed that the public believed corruption among law enforcement officers was high, with 35% stating they did not feel authorities would protect their civil rights.

On the flipside, the recent survey found that female officials are twice as likely as men to record corruption, prioritising transparency and adherence to the law. The researchers added that greater women’s empowerment in politics, combined with their support of the concepts of equality and fairness, would have a positive impact on preventing corruption. 

The evolution of women’s rights in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s modern women’s rights movement has its roots in the early 20th century, in particular with the formation of the Alash Party in 1917. Established in response to the Tsarist rule of the 19th century, it was created to preserve Kazakh identity while advancing education and human rights reforms. Dr Akkagaz Doszhanova became a prominent advocate, campaigning for medical advances as well as the rights of women – she would become the first Kazakh woman in Central Asia to graduate from a Soviet university with a degree in medicine.

During the Soviet era women were granted legal equality with men, however the reality was complex. Stalin’s regime promoted traditional gender roles, partly to boost birth rates and increase the number of people in the workforce. 

Since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, a number of legal efforts have been implemented to promote gender equality. In 1995, Kazakhstan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), signalling a commitment to women’s rights. Other notable moves have included the establishment of a national action plan to open women’s crisis centres and hotlines for victims of domestic violence, and a legal framework requiring equal pay and prohibiting discrimination based on gender. 

At the same time the number of women’s rights organisations has been growing steadily. The Feminist League of Kazakhstan has been active since 1994, working to root out sexism in education, culture and the media, and advising the government on policy. In 2016 the NeMolchi.Kz campaign launched, which translates as “don’t be silent”; its aim is to raise awareness of domestic violence and encourage women to speak out about their experiences,  as well as provide legal and psychological support to survivors. Another group called KazFem was formed by activist Veronica Fonova and friends, and in 2019 it organised Kazakhstan’s first authorised women’s march. 

Challenges remain, however. Zhanar Sekerbayeva, an LGBTQI+ activist and co-founder of the queer-feminist initiative Feminita, has been attacked verbally and physically during public events, including by a police officer. According to Front Line Defenders, activists are often targeted for their work promoting women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. 

Veronica Fonova in front of the Government building of Almaty. Photo: Daria Komleva, UN Women/ CC BY-NC 2.0

But while not everyone has welcomed feminism with open arms this hasn’t deterred grassroots activists and campaigners from drawing attention to women’s rights in different ways. Academic Dinara Assanova has created the Women of Kazakhstan virtual museum to highlight the roles of women in shaping the country’s history. Social activist Dinara Ghaplan regularly speaks at international events about the stereotypes women in Central Asia are faced with, and in 2022 she published a children’s book about Kazakhstan’s female icons. “Children should know our heroes,” she says. “It’s time for women to become voices for Central Asia.” 

Leila Hawkins


Featured image: Graffiti in Shymkent, Kazakhstan in support of the 16 Days campaign. Photo: Sabina Mendybayeva, UN Women / CC BY-NC 2.0

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