Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Politics a Men-Only Club

Given what they’re up against, it’s not surprising that few women make it as politicians.
By Gulnura Toralieva

Only one women’s name appeared on the ballot for president of Kyrgyzstan, in the election held on July 10. Toktaim Umetalieva, head of the Association of Non-Governmental and Non-Commercial Organisations of Kyrgyzstan received a mere 0.5 per cent of the vote.

Umetalieva and the five men standing against Kurmanbek Bakiev stood little chance against a man who was already acting president and the clear favourite. None of them had anything like Bakiev’s political powerbase, and he duly won with 89 per cent of the vote.

But the presence of just one female presidential candidate is also reflection of women’s limited involvement in high-level politics – a trend that appears to result from a combination of a lack of financial resources, chauvinistic male attitudes and their own reluctance to break the status quo.

“The most difficult issues are of course financial. To conduct an electoral campaign, considerable funds are needed, and our women are poor. Men control all the finances in our country,” said Umetalieva.

Klara Ajybekova, leader of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, agreed, “Here it’s usually only the men who are rich. I too could stand for president, but I don’t have the financial resources. So the small number of women in politics is due to this, and not because we are short of outstanding, intelligent women who could be presidential candidates.”

A male perception of women as little more than homemakers is another major factor holding them back.

“According to Asian tradition, women have long been considered second-rate,” said Viktoria Tian, a psychologist with the women’s crisis centre in Sezim. “In addition to this, there was a common stereotype during the Soviet period that women should not be involved in politics.”

She said those that did were deemed to be women who could not find themselves husbands.

Olga Bezborodova, one of only a handful of parliamentary deputies, says “classic and thuggish” male chauvinism deters a lot of women from getting involved in politics.

“Once when journalists asked why deputies [are so opposed to female legislators], one leading politician said, smiling into the camera, that a woman should wash shirts and iron shoelaces. I think that’s the view of the majority, if not all male deputies,” she said.

Bermet Bukasheva, advisor to the speaker of parliament, says that women are just not suited to the rough-and-tumble of politics. “A woman politician needs to be tough, cynical and able to walk over people. But usually women are unable to act like this, so it’s not easy for them in politics. This business is too dirty,” she said.

Given the obstacles they face, women themselves are reluctant to take on the burdens of public life, says Raya Kadyrova, president of the Foundation for International Tolerance.

“Women of our generation lack the desire to take part in politics,” she said. “ The higher a woman rises up the political ladder in her career, the more she is in the public eye, like in an aquarium.

“No-one discusses a male politician’s hairstyle. If a male politician has a lover and people talk about it, this is of course a bad thing, but nevertheless people think he’s just fine, while if a woman is found to have a lover, she must forget about her career and resign immediately.”

Political analyst Ermek Kozubekov says that the time is just not right for women to enter politics.

“Women understand the hopelessness of their actions in politics,” he said. “They have no opportunities to compete with men, either financially or psychologically. All women say that they are oppressed, but in fact they know themselves that they have no chance.

“The public will not vote for a woman candidate for president at the moment. We have a negative image of female politicians here. Especially since in this current instability we need a strong hand, which is associated only with a man. We need order.”

But Gaisha Ibragimova, former deputy education minister, who was barred by the Central Election Commission from taking part in the presidential poll for allegedly failing to comply with registration requirements, says that while society isn’t ready for women to take up the reins of power there are signs that attitudes will change in future.

“Just one month [before the presidential election], everyone complained about women getting involved. Most of the population are not accustomed to thinking that a woman can occupy a leading position. But now people approach this more thoughtfully. The people, I think, have started to see the positive aspects of having a woman as president. Because, traditionally, we have had women leaders here. We carry stability and unity within us,” she said.

Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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