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

Kyrgyz Women Suffer in Silence

Many Kyrgyz wives are suffering at the hands of oppressive husbands and in-laws
By Ulugbek Babakulov

The women who turn up in the Jalal-Abad crisis centre speak of terrible domestic abuse, but few are prepared to do anything about it.


Psychologists working at the centre said women see being beaten by their husbands as a part of normal family life.


They say this can be partly explained by the authoritarian nature of their upbringing. Across the countries of Central Asia, young girls are taught to respect and obey men from a very early age.


This is especially true of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern, predominantly ethnic-Uzbek areas of Kyrgyzstan. In northern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, in contrast, women enjoy much greater freedom of choice in education, career and relationships.


Local psychologist Liubov Maximenko says traditional values cause women to shy away from seeking help. Sociologists believe most oriental women fear reprimands from their numerous relatives, neighbours and strangers.


"Every mother from the start instils in her daughter that any problems she may have with her husband are her own fault," said crisis centre manager Janna Saralaeva.


Saralaeva says during the three months the crisis centre has been open over 200 women have come forward seeking help.


Psychologists claim oriental family traditions are responsible for the women's submissiveness. Unmarried girls are not permitted to be masters of their own fate. Parents decide if a marriage is to go ahead and usually choose the husband.


A girl's opinions and feelings are largely overlooked. Such a system often produces unhappy marriages, but afraid of public disgrace, women are invariably left to patiently endure the life their parents have condemned them to.


Dilba, a Kyrgyz State University law graduate, says she never worried about her future, but when she finished her third year at college her father announced she was to marry someone she'd never met before.


The suitor had a well-paid job and his father was a senior official - two reasons Dilbar's parents were so keen on the match. Her father-in-law found her a job in the regional prosecutor's office and for a few months everything was fine.


Soon, however, her husband started beating her on a regular basis. For months Dilbar was unable to confide in anyone. "Once I told my mother about the conditions I was living in," she said. "I was crying and begging her to take me away from this hell. But, although sorry for me, she didn't dare to help me leave that damned family."


Her mother-in-law, a very religious woman, insisted Dilbar cover her face and give up work. She remained with her husband's family for three years, washing her father-in-laws feet and clipping his nails every day, cooking the meals and cleaning the house.


"One day my husband brought home some girl and said she was to be his second wife - I couldn't stand it and left, leaving behind all my belongings,"said Dilbar, who has been living with her parents for the past three years.


Trainee teacher Mukhabbat also experienced a troubled arranged marriage. "Once, after my mother-in-law told me off over something I told my husband about it and he beat me up severely and demanded I obey all his mother's orders," she said. Mukhabbat put up with the oppression and humiliation for four years before she finally left.


Sociologists believe these marriages fell apart because Dilbar and Mukhabbat were highly educated and cultured. Most women manage to adjust to humiliating positions within their husband's families, they say.


Saida said she was kidnapped by a young man - an old Kyrgyz custom. She became his wife and from the start her mother-in-law was hostile. Three years later, Saida's husband died in a car accident leaving his wife and their two children stuck at home with his parents.


Saida's mother-in-law blamed her for her son's death. " After two years my mother-in-law said I was no longer needed. I was very upset, but faced with such unconcealed animosity, I left," she said.


Sexual harassment in the workplace is another problem psychologists come across. Many women claim their male employers have hired women workers on the basis of looks rather than qualifications or experience. Maximenko says this is because men "do not take the opposite sex seriously".


Many female employees face sexual harassment, but few complain because they fear they will be blamed. "A girl approached us once - the director of her company was bothering her constantly," said Maximenko.


"Realizing the boss simply wouldn't leave her alone and, at the same time, not knowing what to do, the girl told co-workers what was happening. As a result, she was fired for spreading rumours damaging to the honour and dignity of the company director."


Psychologists warn moves towards gender equality could unintentionally destroy the family.


"Despite their problems, many women are satisfied with the way they live - all these efforts towards equality may simply lead to husbands abandoning their wives," said Saralaeva.


By Ulugbek Babakulov in Jalal-Abad