Central Asia is not renowned as a place where women make vocal stands to assert their rights. However, a group of women in Kyrgyzstan is doing just that, breaking cultural and social taboos to perform a piece of groundbreaking theater in Bishkek that has shocked some members of society with its openness.
The production in question is The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, an episodic play based on interviews with over 200 women relating how they view their bodies, sexual experiences, sexual abuse and sexual violence. An English-language version of the show made its debut in late March in Bishkek. On April 11, the show opened its Russian-language version.
Of the 22 cast members, the overwhelming majority are young women born and raised in Central Asia. The performance was part of global events to mark V-Day, an annual campaign that seeks to end violence against women. The performance in Kyrgyzstan's capital raised funds for Bishkek's Sezim crisis center for women and family, the Labrys lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) shelter, the Tais Plus safe house, and also for survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this year's global V-Day cause.
"Kyrgyzstan, like many other Central Asian countries, is a very masculine and patriarchal society where women, youth, children and LGBT people are often repressed and invisible when it comes to their voices, rights and lives," Selbi Djumayeva, the driving force behind the Bishkek production, told EurasiaNet. "Gender norms are binary and rigid and mostly assign a secondary and devalued role to women and those who are perceived as less masculine or non-heterosexual."
Djumayeva acknowledged that the production company had to overcome several obstacles in order to stage the show, with criticism coming from some unexpected corners. "We have already received so much negative feedback and criticism -- not only from the public, but also from civil society [groups]," she said.
Some of the reaction has been of a threatening nature. Writing on the V-Day Bishkek Facebook group three days before the English-language performance on March 28, a commentator identified as Rustam Muhamedov attacked the performance as "porn" that "is not for Kyrgyzstan." He recommended the performers erect bulletproof glass in front of the stage "if you want to get home safe."
Some cultural observers believed the Russian-language version of the play could exacerbate the controversy due to its ability to reach a wider audience in Central Asia. It could lead to the stigmatization of the performers, said Gulnara Ibrayeva, a gender expert from the Institute of Social Technologies and sociology professor at the American University of Central Asia. "It could actually be dangerous, in my opinion," she added.
"Performing in Russian is . . . more culturally and emotionally challenging," Djumayeva agreed, but she indicated that she was ready to take on the challenge. "We need to have a good strategy for our response."
As cast member Aizhan Mamatbekova pointed out, the performance confronts taboos normally unspoken in the mainly Muslim societies of Central Asia. "It's important to talk about issues of violence, issues of abuse, especially in the context of Kyrgyzstan, and in the context of Central Asia," Mamatbekova told EurasiaNet.
The idea of gender-based rights is not new to Kyrgyzstan. During the Soviet era, the Communist leadership in the Kremlin enhanced educational opportunities for women, who also became well-represented in the work place -- albeit rarely in positions of authority. However, Soviet ideology was superimposed on a patriarchal system, and rights activists say that the Soviet era did not manage to fundamentally alter discriminatory attitudes.
Ibrayeva pointed out that general patterns of discrimination against women are compounded in Kyrgyzstan by local cultural traditions, in particular the controversial practice of bride kidnapping. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kyrgyzstan's Forum of Women's NGOs said in a 2008 report that there is a "distinction between consensual and non-consensual kidnapping." The report went on to cite statistics on non-consensual bride kidnapping, showing that from 2002-2005 around 40 cases were brought to court every year, with about half to two-thirds resulting in convictions. The report goes on to say that cumulative data from three different studies suggests that approximately "35 percent to 45 percent of married ethnic Kyrgyz women are married against their will as a result of bride kidnapping."
The government is tackling gender-based discrimination and violence against women. It passed a law on gender equality in 2003 to fight discrimination and protect women against physical and psychological abuse, including within the family. Kyrgyzstan is also party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The Forum of Women's NGOs has welcomed the government's commitment, but is calling on officials to do more to ensure that anti-discrimination legislation does not just remain on paper. It says laws governing domestic violence are not enforced.
Some members of The Vagina Monologues cast in Bishkek expressed hope that the production could spur wider debate on women's rights in Central Asia. Chinar Meredova, a cast member from Turkmenistan, holds out hope of taking the show to her native country. "Kyrgyzstan is kind of the beginning of this. I'd like to do it in my country," Meredova said. "We thought it wasn't possible in Kyrgyzstan, but we did it."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia. David Trilling is the Central Asia Coordinator for EurasiaNet.