Asia In Focus
Women’s Day in a corner of the post-Soviet space
- Asia Pacific
- Political & Economic Risk Consulting
Women’s Day in a corner of the post-Soviet Space
Traffic in the centre of the Kyrgyzstani capital Bishkek is notoriously awful. On a recent trip, it took me 40 minutes to travel three blocks of the grid system in the early afternoon. So when I emerged onto sun-soaked, empty, silent streets on the final day of my stay, I was relieved, if suspicious. A group of women selling roses on the corner jogged my memory; it was International Women’s Day.
The occasion passes by relatively unnoticed for most people in Europe. In large cities there is usually a march of some sort raising awareness about women’s rights issues, and articles in mainstream media outlets about relevant issues such as the gender pay gap. Increasing concern about women’s rights in Europe and North America the past year saw a number of well-attended events this time around.
By contrast, in Kyrgyzstan, as well as 11 other former Soviet countries and a number of others further afield, International Women’s Day is a national holiday. There is a clear historical reason for its elevated standing in the post-Soviet region. The first Women’s Day observance was in New York in 1909. But it was a women’s protest in Russia on 8 March 1917 against wartime deprivation, one of the triggers of the Russian Revolution that cemented the date and prompted Lenin to make it a public holiday in 1922. Thereafter, across Soviet and communist countries, it became a major occasion to celebrate women’s rights and contributions to the economy in those countries.
Somewhere along the way, 8 March has taken on a new persona in Kyrgyzstan and most of the rest of the region. Political activism on this 8 March in Bishkek was limited to a 50-person-strong protest by an assortment of feminists, LGBT and disability rights activists who gathered on Prospekt Erkindik in the centre of town, calling for gender equality and a crackdown on violence against women.
For most people in Kyrgyzstan, the focus has shifted. The day is now about celebrating womanhood in some nebulous form. References typically revolve around femininity, motherhood, family. During my visit, people across town were hurriedly buying flowers for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives. Many shops were offering discounts to female customers. I was gifted a tulip with my coffee in downtown Bishkek, and alongside other female customers, had my picture taken for the café’s website. (I can confirm that my contribution to women’s rights that day had amounted to precisely zero).
For a growing number of young, urban Kyrgyzstanis, the focus on femininity and motherhood is grating. That evening, I met a young journalist in Bishkek’s No Name bar – the flagship of the city’s small but lively hipster scene. She greeted her female friends behind the bar with the same “C prazdnikom!” (Best wishes for the holiday!) that had been ringing around town all day. But she was resolute that the Kyrgyzstanis’ focus on women’s womanliness, rather than raising awareness about discrimination and rights violations, had to go. In a country with a large number of gender rights issues in serious need of addressing, the loss of the day’s original purpose is resented by a minority of Kyrgyzstanis, particularly those working on human rights or social issues. This young woman’s news site had only a few weeks earlier run a feature on domestic violence, a prevalent problem mired in taboo and rarely addressed in Kyrgyzstan’s media, or indeed by lawmakers.
A similar demographic that I know in Azerbaijan has the same gripes. For the last two years, a small group of young ex-pat and local men and women in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku have organised #rightsnotflowers alternative activities for 8 March. This year, it included a hike up the mountains to make a statement about women concentrating on what their bodies can do, rather than what they look like.
I have no doubt that Kyrgyzstan’s 8 March’s emphasis on feminine wiles and ways will not be disappearing anytime soon. But the small backlash against some elements of the holiday is an interesting reflection of the multiple historical and cultural forces at play in this crossroads of Asia and Europe.
- Eimear O’Casey, Analyst