When I knock on the door of yet another Kyrgyz politician, civil servant or businessman, I have many questions. That’s my job as a journalist. But the most nerve-racking question is not in my notebook: Will he hit on me?
The first time I interviewed an official in Bishkek, he tried to hold my hand while we were alone in his office. I left, humiliated, thinking this would never happen again. I was wrong.
The idea that women are no more than pieces of meat is deeply engrained here. Indeed, until recently, Kyrgyz law called sheep rustling a more serious crime than bride kidnapping.
Women are taught to blame themselves. A study of 8,000 Kyrgyz women released in January found that 6 percent believe a woman deserves to be beaten if she burns dinner, 23 percent if she leaves the house without telling her husband. Last summer, a female member of parliament lobbied to ban girls under age 22 from traveling abroad. She said she wished to “preserve the gene pool.”
At first, I thought the advances were my fault, that I had dressed or acted inappropriately. I changed my makeup and started wearing glasses to look older. But they haven’t stopped. Men regularly call me after interviews, suggesting we have a coffee to “get to know each other better.” Professionally, it is challenging to tell a member of parliament or a minister that I’m not interested while leaving the door open for future interviews.
The flirting is not limited to phone calls or passes behind closed doors. Recently, I met a prominent, Western-educated politician. What started with an offer to give me a ride home turned into a series of texts and Facebook messages about how he is thinking about me and wants to see me. I know his daughter well; she’s a year younger than I. I told him, but he didn’t stop.
I thought I was alone. But friends share similar experiences. One, who is now 28, used to work as a secretary in a government agency, where she says she was constantly propositioned for sex. She never dared to raise her frustration with her superiors. “No one would take it seriously. I am a woman, and that means that I will always be the one to blame.” She quit. Her treatment discouraged her from pursuing a career. She is now a stay-at-home mom.
A family friend, Aizhan, 48, who is a successful chief-accountant at a large private company in Bishkek, told me she has had to fight sexual harassment throughout her long career. “I was often told that if I want to succeed, I had to be ‘friendly’ with my bosses and business partners. Of course, friendship is the last thing they want,” Aizhan told me.
The most appalling thing is that these sleazy men expect us to like it. Why else would I come to their office? Young, single, what else could I want? By some Kyrgyz standards, because I’m in my mid-20s and not married, I must be loose.
When I walk through the halls of power in Kyrgyzstan, I am a target. I want my sources to see me as a journalist, a professional, not a sex object. I want them to talk to me about business and politics, not about how good looking I am. Because they are affecting the way I see myself. After each proposition, I tell myself it is not my fault. But the more I say it, the less I believe myself and the less confidence I have doing my job.