June in Central Asia: Feminita’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Kazakhstan4 min read
“Whoever buys Choco-Pie will immediately become LGBT,” joked co-founders of the feminist group Feminita, Zhanar Sekerbaeva, and Gulzada Serzhan, on an Instagram livestream on 30 May. Just watching the first few minutes of the video, it was hard to believe that these women were in custody earlier that day after a violent encounter with the police in a city over 600km away.
The day before, Sekerbaeva and Serzhan were holding a small event in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, to discuss women’s rights, when a group of about 30 men started harassing the group. Police quickly intervened, but instead of helping the women, they started loudly interrogating them. During the interaction Sekerbaeva repeated “these many men for two women”, then suddenly an officer attacked her and dragged her into a police car. The pair was detained for about 20 hours. Despite their insistence on traveling by themselves, they were driven back to Almaty by police, an 8-hour trip.
While in detention the men that had confronted them had joined outside the police station shouting death threats directed at the activists. Even after leaving the city, the harassment continued online. A video of the events was posted by one of the men involved, which received many comments in support of the attack. Government officials even joined in, including Deputy of the Mazhilis [Lower chamber of the Parliament] Qazybek Isa, who wrote a post supporting those who “did not allow the parade of demons” – a reference to the misguided rumor that their meeting was actually to plan a gay pride parade.
Kazakhstan is typically thought to be the most progressive country in Central Asia, however, the tolerance that the government likes to boast about usually stops when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. This is reflected in the country’s Constitution which promises protection from discrimination for almost every group despite those in the queer community. Officials have taken full advantage of this omission and have targeted the community with discriminatory legislation, including a propaganda law in 2015, similar to the one that was passed in Russia in 2013. Fortunately, the law was struck down, because the wording was deemed too vague, but the threat of future attempts is still looming.
Zhanar Sekerbaeva and Gulzada Serzhan have plenty of experience with this homophobic bend in their many interactions with government officials. Since 2017, they have been trying to formally register their organization Feminita, however, every year their request is denied for noncompliance with the Law on Noncommercial Organizations without further explanation. Without formal registration, the group can face penalties for fundraising or hosting events.
They, unfortunately, have also had run-ins with the police before. In 2018, after delivering a lecture on women’s rights Sekerbaeva was accosted by police and taken into custody without a clear explanation of the charges against her. It was later disclosed that she was taken in for her participation in a photoshoot, where she held up a drawing of a woman menstruating over a yurt, dedicated to dispelling the taboo around the subject.
The questions posed during the trial brought the true motivation behind the case into question. In an interview, Sekerbaeva noted that the judge kept asking her inappropriate questions about her personal life, such as her marital status as if that should have any bearing on the case. The line of questioning was reminiscent of the reasoning behind anti-LGBT legislation, as a means to protect families and combat the declining birth rate. Sekerbaeva, after conferring with her lawyer, refused to answer these pointed remarks, knowing that revealing that she is a lesbian could possibly be used against her. Unfortunately, she was still later charged with petty hooliganism and charged a fine of 35 US Dollars.
However, these events have not prevented Sekerbaeva and Serzhan from actively organizing lectures and posting about LGBTQ+ issues in Kazakhstan on their website. They also did not give up on those who attended the meeting on 29 May, as they held an online meeting to finish the discussion with the participants. Additionationaly they have offered psychological support to those who had attended. The same participants also supported the activists in kind during their detention by holding a small demonstration in the police station and reaching out to state officials, including President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
During the same live stream, where the activists joked about Choco-Pie, they delivered a clear message to the men and officers that attacked them in Shymkent. “If you’ll beat us, we’ll talk about it and we’ll organize events and demonstrations… and we won’t stop.” They have kept true to this promise and already have a training for activists on their rights planned for 14-15 June. These women continue to prove that no matter what obstacle appears they will overcome it and find a way to make light of it in the process.