by Anna Kirey
The small, mountainous, post-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan rarely makes international news. When it does, the headlines are either related to the presence of US and Russian military bases or protests against the government.
Years of government corruption, nepotism, and severe restrictions on political freedoms led to the popular uprising on April 7th, 2010 that resulted in the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Over eighty people were shot by security forces during an the attack on a government building in the capital city of Bishkek. Young men from all over Kyrgyzstan lost their lives.
Emerging as a voice of reason from this chaos is Roza Otunbayeva, a former diplomat who had originally helped Bakiyev ascend to power in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. As leader of the established Interim Government, she was blamed, by virtue of her gender, for an inability to control the post-uprising looting. However, once the looting stopped, the energetic and outspoken Otunbayeva became a symbol of hope for a better future in Kyrgyzstan.
Filmmaker and human rights activist, Elnura Osmonalieva is pleased that the head of the Interim Government is a woman. She notes, “It would have been difficult to predict that even tomorrow a woman may become head of the government. This came completely unexpected and is pleasant if you forget about the losses, stress, and instability. The very fact that this happened gives me hope that long-term changes are possible.”
Women’s involvement in politics in Kyrgyzstan resembles a rollercoaster. While Kyrgyzstan is proud of its historical women warriors and rulers, no women were elected to the 75-seat parliament between 2005 and 2007. The Soviet quota for women’s representation in Parliament did not carry over to the new Kyrgyz Constitution. Women’s numbers in decision-making positions dropped dramatically – from 33% before 1991, to 7% in 2002, to none in 2005. According to Women NGO’s, the deteriorating economy, rising violence against women, emerging practices of bride kidnapping, and polygamy decreases the number of women willing and able to become involved in politics.In 2007, following large-scale advocacy campaigns by women’s organizations, a 30% quota was introduced by presidential decree. This resulted in quickly fixed party lists with women recruited from all walks of life. While women in parliament have led to parliamentary hearings on bride kidnapping and violence against women, the quotas also created an illusionary assumption that the ‘gender problem’ in the country is solved. Women in Parliament became the token solutions of the ‘gender problem.’
According to prominent Kyrgyz gender researcher Gulnara Ibraeva, female MPs are also expected to present a “shield from continued institutionalization of Islam in politics” - decriminalization of polygamy, less strict punishment for bride kidnapping and domestic violence, and criminalization of abortion. Newspapers often run headlines proclaiming that Kyrgyzstan ranks higher than the United States and a number of other post-Soviet countries in women’s representation in decision-making. Though female MPs were somewhat successful addressing social issues, they were not able to combat widespread corruption or the crackdown on political freedoms that led to the recent protests.
Following the change of government in April of this year, the 2007 Parliament was dissolved. Women’s organizations are calling for keeping the quotas in the Kyrgyz Election Code. Yet only thirteen out of seventy-five appointed members on the committee drafting the new constitution are women.
Achieving gender equality is not considered a priority among diplomats and politicians. Delegation members were sincerely surprised when issues related to gender inequality were raised by over half of the countries that reviewed Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record during the UN Universal Periodic Review on May 3rd.
Though Roza Otunbayeva’s leadership qualities may challenge years of established power relations, Anara Moldosheva, an independent gender expert and outspoken feminist, is not persuaded that Ms.Otunbayeva represents a challenge to the status quo. “Otunbayeva is not a candidate of a the women’s movement. To think that traditional women leaders are different from traditional male leaders just because they are women - we know it’s a myth.” says Moldosheva.
Since Ms. Otunbayeva’s recent appointment, the Kyrgyz blogosphere is full of discussions about what it means to have a woman leader. Roza Otunbayeva is the first female president in the Commonwealth of Independent States and the first female leader in a Central Asian patriarchical country. Her appointment, however, may only be symbolic. She will be president until the end of 2011 with no right to run for office after that.
Roza Otunbayeva's appointment follows dangerous inter-ethnic clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan. As a feminist colleague from Georgia shares, “On one side, she has somewhat of a status and together with it legal functions. On the other side, it is so scary. Inside [the country] there is a breakdown, no way without harshness but if you are harsh they yell and criticize. On the outside are the influential countries burning with desire to ‘help’ and ‘support.’ Is this mission accomplishable? To keep democracy on the inside and independence from the outside?”
The discussions about what kind of leader Kyrgyzstan needs after two corrupt and authoritarian male presidents ends in a dilemma between the ‘strong hand’ of a male leader versus the non-violence of Roza Otunbayeva. Some say she could become a marionette of her male colleagues, while others compare her to the Kyrgyz heroic female ruler of 1900’s Kurmanjan Datka who escaped a forced marriage, chose her own partner, and overcame internal discord between Kyrgyz tribes.
It warms my heart to have a Ms. President and see her walking around with energy and determination. I remember being elected to student government in my university: there were seven of us and I was the only woman. I was immediately labeled as ‘half-woman’ because of my short hair and wearing pants so often. Once the chair of the student government asked me for a kiss to sign a funding request for a student organization that I represented. I remember standing there and feeling that my knowledge and skills were disregarded and unimportant.
I give credit to Ms. Roza Otunbayeva for finding her way through the sexism and chaos that Kyrgyzstan represents right now. And credit, for paving a road for all future female leaders.
About the Author
Anna Kirey holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from American University - Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) and Master's in Gender and Peace Building from the UN-affiliated University for Peace in Costa Rica. She is one of the founding members of the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization in Kyrgyzstan established in 2004. A feminist and an activist, Anna is currently a Kartini Asia Fellow doing oral history research on women loving women and transgender people's organizing in Central Asia.