Zhanar Sekerbayeva: “I would be proud to say that Kazakhstan achieved such social and political changes in my lifetime” – feminist politics and organization in Kazakhstan10 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Interview
In light of Women’s History Month, SvetLana Peshkova spoke with Zhanar Sekerbayeva, a queer-activist and member of the feminist initiative Feminita in Kazakhstan about feminist organizing and the growing visibility of feminist politics in Kazakhstan.

SvetLana: The women’s march in 1917 was a political action that helped bring about the February Revolution and the downfall of the imperial regime in Russia. In the Soviet Union, 8 March as International Women’s Day came to symbolize a celebration rather than activism. On this day, Soviet mothers, wives, lovers, and daughters would receive flowers and presents and, some of them, a day off from housekeeping and childcare duties. 

During the second decade of the 21st century, in each sovereign country that gained independence from the Soviet Union, women’s marches became activist events aimed at bringing into public view a lack of socio-economic, political, and gender justice, and highlighting small yet sustainable victories toward gender equality and equity. 

These post-Soviet marches and feminist organizing have been at the center of local debates about cultural authenticity, rights, and sexuality. This year in Almaty, the former Soviet capital of Kazakhstan, the Women’s March on the 8 March was sanctioned for the first time by the akimat [a local government in Kazakhstan’s cities and towns]. The previous unsanctioned marches have been dispersed by the police. It seems that finally, the state has recognized local feminist organizing as a viable political/activist power block. Zhanar, what is Feminita?

Zhanar: In 2014, Gulzada Serzhan and I co-founded Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative – Feminista, which focuses on monitoring, research, advocacy, and education about the LGBT community. Although we do not have trans-women in our team, we collaborate with the transgender initiative, Alma-TQ. Thus, I add the letter “T.” 

Gulzada and I started our activism in 2014 after a protest rally caused by a devaluation of the local currency – the Tenge. I was detained at the rally because the police officers considered me to be one of the organizers of that protest. On the next day, Gulzada’s face and my face were shared on social media. Some users questioned our gender identity and expression and discounted our civil disobedience as completely fake and paid for. For us, it was a trigger to start organizing politically. 

Gulzada and I are lesbians who are “out.” We love women and do not see anything negative in this. We advocate for civil, political, cultural, and economic rights. Kazakhstan is our motherland, and we would like to see social changes in the country so that we can finally live with dignity, whether by ourselves or with our friends, comrades, and lovers. 

Feminita has been seeking registration since 2017. The Judicial Department annually rejects our application. We are still a grassroots organization unregistered with the state, which focuses on advocacy, research, events, and education. We are pretty well known in Kazakhstan. We want to pass on our knowledge and experience to the younger generations of LGBT activists. We organize public events about gender, human rights, and feminism; the participants find these events interesting and inspiring.  

SvetLana: Zhanar, why do we need women’s marches in Kazakhstan and the former Soviet space? Did the Soviet Union not achieve equal rights for all? Does Kazakhstan’s current constitution not ensure these rights?  

Zhanar: Because of the persisting forms of discrimination and stigmatization, 8 March should mark the struggle for women’s rights as human rights. Women are not a homogeneous group. Their discrimination and stigmatization are expressed in different ways. 

In post-Soviet Central Asia, 8 March became a day for women’s beauty pageants, gifting women with perfumes and flowers, and completely negating the historical and political meaning of this event. We need women’s marches in the post-Soviet space and Central Asia to revive this meaning. 

Although the post-revolutionary Soviet state helped to spread information about women’s rights, providing women’s free access to education and medical care, and other social programs that positively informed Soviet women and girl’s daily lives, the Soviet gender regime never saw its goals come to fruition. This regime enunciated important objectives but, in the end, did not achieve them. 

In the Soviet state, women did not occupy decision-making positions equal to men. Soviet women were not first secretaries of the Communist Party; they were not the heads of the Soviet and post-Soviet states. Nominally, women were called on and represented the Soviet state and post-Soviet states as important medical practitioners, researchers, pedagogues, artists, community organizers, and received awards for being exceptional in their fields of work. But they were not allowed to rise above these nominal roles. 

Although Kazakhstan’s Constitution proclaims equal rights when it comes to women and men, the state signed but does not work toward meeting the goals of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We have work to do. The patriarchal cysts in our region continue to stimulate our protest against them. This year, the local government in Almaty, only in this one city, sanctioned the Women’s March. The March on the 8th of March will be a political and activist event, and then a celebration and remembrance of women’s names on whose shoulders we stand today, such as Nazipa Khulzhanova, Akkagaz Doszhanova, Svetlana Shakirova, Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg, and others. We will not settle for just a symbolic recognition as women-mothers, women-wives, and women-daughters. 

SvetLana: What is the theme and goal of this year’s Women’s march?

Zhanar: The five feminist and LGBT initiatives chose “rights and activism of women in all their difference” as the theme and goal of this year’s march. It is important to us to demonstrate that, despite our differences, we share similar goals and objectives; that we can and do unite and stand in solidarity not as separate movements, but as women in action together. Last year’s theme was domestic violence. The activists focused on this theme to ensure that domestic violence is criminalized. Anti-gender nationalist groups continue speaking forcefully against any kind of legislation that would criminalize domestic violence. 

Our struggle for rights and activism often goes unnoticed by national and international media. This year’s march is one of the events where our activism can get some public and mass media attention. The goal of the 2021 Women’s March in Almaty is also to become an example for those akimats in the country that did not sanction this year’s local marches. 

Almaty’s first Women’s March on 8 March 2021 / Dina

SvetLana: Why do you need an akimat’s permission to hold the March? Do not people have a right to protest in Kazakhstan? 

Zhanar: Although our Constitution enables people to gather peacefully to protest without permission, the current interpretation of the Constitution and law requires us to get permission. As participants of any public event, we have to apply to a local akimat for permission. Feminita’ has been applying for permits to participate in the women’s marches since 2017. 

More women’s groups can participate in sanctioned marches. In 2019, Feminita applied for a permit in February but did not get permission to march until December; we had to hold a women’s march in December. The place we were permitted to march was pretty inaccessible by foot or public transportation. We still came out and marched. 

This year we will gather in the center of the city and walk peacefully from one public square to another. We will have a microphone, police as means of protection, music, a flashmob, and an opportunity to walk together through the center of the city without fearing any repercussions from the government and hopefully receiving coverage from the state and non-state media channels. 

SvetLana: Why do you think the akimat responded differently to this year’s march? 

Zhanar: Because, since 2017, feminism has become a powerful movement. We politicized our demands; we are a legion, we are stubborn – and because of the ongoing protests in countries such as Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus. If people do not have a place and space to protest peacefully, their frustration can be unpredictable for the establishment and society. Maybe male and female administrators hear our voices and want to see the feminist march for themselves. Maybe there is a level of empathy and understanding of these issues among the administration “up above”. We do not really know why this year’s march was sanctioned.

Almaty’s first Women’s Day March 8 March 2021 / Dina

SvetLana: What happened to feminist organizing in Kazakhstan during the last two decades? Have the movement’s priorities shifted? 

Zhanar: These days, we see more public expressions of solidarity than there may have been in the 1990s. Generational links and support are very important but not always present in feminist organizing. We would like to do better in Kazakhstan, to have a more institutional memory of local feminism and inclusivity of different groups and generations. 

In the 1990s, feminist activists saw the country as a new sovereign nation, a beacon of gender rights and justice, and a space where research on gender would become integral to public education. Unfortunately, it was a short-term dream. Svetlana Shakirova, Margarita Uskembaeva, Zulfiya Baisakova, and Asiya Khairullina, among others, have theorized and written about the feminist organizing in Kazakhstan since the 1990s. They show a transformation toward solidarity. It is difficult to coordinate all our work in Kazakhstan and across the wider region. We need a social media platform where everybody feels comfortable sharing and expressing ideas, creating theories, and adjusting practices. In the future, we hope Feminita can establish and utilize such a platform and create an archive of feminist research and activism in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

Almaty’s first Women’s Day March 8 March 2021 / Dina

SvetLana: Did the general public’s response to feminist organizing change in Kazakhstan? 

Zhanar: In a patriarchal society changes happen very slowly and are always painful. The most privileged group, heterosexual men, resist putting women on the same socio-economic and political plane as them. Legislative changes are slow too. We hope that the younger generation, who are 15-20 years of age, have a broad(er) worldview than we used to have, and understand that the world is full of differences and uniqueness. The world is always wider and richer and goes beyond your communication with your friends or the state’s TV channels. I hope they know that not all the information is easily digestible and acceptable. You do not have to feel comfortable with it immediately. 

When I imagine the future, I am very optimistic. Slowly change is happening. I would have loved it if we could speed this process up. I would love to see this happening in my lifetime, burst with happiness and celebrate these achievements with my partner or by myself. I would be proud to say that Kazakhstan achieved such social and political changes in my lifetime. 

SvetLana: How can the non-Kazakhstan-based feminist activists support this movement? 

Zhanar: They can offer us a platform, help with crowdfunding, and express solidarity in any way they can. We would like the government to know that we are not alone in this struggle, that you all stand with us. We would love to have a voice at the academic and activist conferences and meetings. If you see a group that never has a chance to speak, pass your microphone to them. Talk, write, and post information about us. Invite us for an interview. There is a wide field of solidarity and intersection that is available to all of us. We can do so much more if we enter this field. Our differences can empower us. We can learn from and with each other. I want to invite everyone to the march. If you can, march with us. If you cannot, show us support by squeezing your fist, or by being with us in your heart and soul! 

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated to English by SvetLana Peshkova. 

Featured image: Almaty’s first Women’s march on 8 March, 2021 / Original photography by Nazym Zhalmukhambet
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