Friday, October 19, 2018

Bride Abduction is Not Cool - Fighting Forced Marriage in Kyrgyzstan

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Svetlana Dzardanova - initiator of the project
This article, written by Wolfgang Kuhlner, was first published by the German Institute for Foreign Relations.

"Ala kachuu" is Kyrgyz and translates as "Grab her and run". What sounds like an entertaining popular sport is actually the widespread practice of kidnapping women and forcing them into marriage.

With her initiative "Ala kachuu is not cool!" Kyrgyz Svetlana Dzardanova is taking a stand against the alleged custom.

In 2017 Deutsche Welle – Germany╩╣s international broadcasting company – reported that every 30 minutes a woman in Kyrgyzstan is abducted and forced into marriage. The fact that young women are being dragged into cars in broad daylight, usually by several men, and brought to their future husband's parents' house is not regarded as a crime by many Kyrgyz, but rather as the preservation of a tradition.

A look into the past reveals, however, that the custom never existed in this specific form. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, the associated socio-political upheaval and the spread of poverty was there a sharp rise in the number of bride abductions in Kyrgyzstan.

Without doubt there had been abductions before, but to a much lesser extent. In the magazine "Human rights for women", published by the women's rights organisation Terre des Femmes, author Anja Heifel sees this as an expression of wrongly understood masculinity and the subordinate gender role of women. In her opinion, the custom serves as a boredom alleviator in the everyday life of young men of marriageable age – "entertainment" at the expense of young women.

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"A good marriage begins with tears"

The paradox of "Ala kachuu": even the female family members of the kidnapper, who have often been forced into marriage themselves, become perpetrators during this patriarchal practice. It is their job to persuade the abducted woman in the kidnapper's house to agree to the marriage. The "bride" often hardly knows her kidnappers, if at all. She is detained and in some cases even raped.

A return to the parents' house, on the other hand, becomes impossible after spending one night in the house of the unknown man. The social stigma would be too grave. Women therefore often do not contradict their fate. Despite the fact that even in independent Kyrgyzstan forced marriage is an offence punishable by law, such deprivation of liberty rarely ends in criminal prosecution. A Kyrgyz proverb sums up this impotence: "A good marriage begins with tears".

Bride abduction is a crime
Svetlana, former participant in ifa's CrossCulture Programme, refuses to accept this understanding of gender roles. Especially since she came frighteningly close to "Ala kachuu" during her studies in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, when several young men tried to kidnap her friend and roommate.

"On television, bride abduction seems far away from one's personal fate. But when it happens in your immediate proximity, it changes how you think. It really got to me," Svetlana remembers. Together the two students managed to dissuade the kidnappers from carrying out their plan.

However, the uncomfortable feeling stayed. "The tragedy of this story is that my roommate actually married her kidnapper a few months later", says Svetlana. Since then, all contact has been lost between the two friends.

There should be no future for bride abduction in Kyrgyzstan. Of that, Svetlana is convinced. With her project "Ala kachuu is no cool!" she has set herself the goal of convincing young people to acknowledge bride abduction for what it really is: a crime.

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During the training workshop in Bishkek
In her opinion, it is essential that both young women and their parents become aware of their rights, duties and responsibilities.

In order to establish common ground, Svetlana gathered various experts around a round table: human rights representatives, scientists, journalists, religious scholars and interested citizens exchanged information about legal bases and existing local projects and thus contributed to clarifying the role of politics and media.

Tangible results

Based on the results of the expert discussion, Svetlana and some supporters organised a four-day training course for school children from the suburbs of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Guided by expert instructors, the students discussed stereotypical gender roles that can take the form of discrimination or domestic violence.

Almost all participants brought personal experience to the workshop. Many of them knew kidnap victims personally or even men involved in a kidnapping. During the workshop they had the opportunity to exchange their experiences. By the end of the training course many participants were convinced that they did not want to participate in an abduction and would even seek to protect people at risk.

In addition to the workshop, Russian and Kyrgyz information brochures were produced and distributed in more than 40 schools and seven cities across the country. The brochures are particularly intended to target younger boys and girls, informing them about the alleged custom "Ala kachuu".

At one point the number 155 can be read in large letters. The number represents the article of the Kyrgyz Penal Code that states that the abduction of a woman with the intention of marriage may carry a prison sentence of five to seven years. "Let the criminal know this!" is the demand in the brochure. "The article is public, which means that every witness – not just the victim – has the right to report the crime."

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Still from the animated film Erkinay

A short story published by the initiative has also attracted a lot of attention. In a two-minute animated film, the young Kyrgyz woman Erkinay finds herself on an emotional rollercoaster: despite being engaged to her partner Akjol, she is unable to defend herself against kidnapping. In the end, it takes the combined efforts of the police, her parents and her friends to free her. The film reached more than fifty thousand young people via social media, prompting much discussion in the appropriate channels.

Attracting cross-border attention

Looking back, Svetlana is delighted with the tangible results and the success of her commitment: "It is a great feeling to see people watching our film or holding the brochure in their hands and reacting to it."

"Only recently, a partner organisation in Bishkek supported us in printing our story in larger quantities. Now we have about 2,000 copies, which is fantastic," Svetlana says happily. "I hope that this is just the first step for me in offering solutions to this societal issue."

Svetlana is particularly proud of the fact that news of her project has reached human rights activists in the neighbouring country of Kazakhstan. There too "Ala kachuu" is a well-known issue. They are now aiming to distribute her information brochures and launch their own campaign against bride abduction.

Related posts:
Kyrgyz Space Program: Creating the First Kyrgyz Satellite Ever & It Will be Built by Girls
Kyrgyzstan: Social Entrepreneur Finds Foothold in Tien Shan Foothills
Kyrgyz Woman Singer Remakes Poem Traditionally Sung By Men
All-Woman Brewery Brings Craft Beer to Kyrgyzstan

Monday, September 24, 2018

Uzbek Haute Couture - Lali Fazylova's Retro Collection 2018

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Lali Fazylova is an Uzbek designer, whom Vogue Italia featured in its May 2017 edition.

Her wondrous pieces fuse the beauty of Central Asian designs, traditional silk fabrics, hand embroidery, French and Italian guipure and simple, elegant forms.

Starting with one sewing machine in a small workshop in Tashkent in the mid-1990s, her collections have graced the runways of Fashion Week in Monte Carlo, Japan, Turkey and Kazakhstan.

Her 2018 autumn collection, reflecting the unique aesthetic of Uzbek fashion, was inspired by archival photographs of late 19th century Uzbek fashion,

Look at the images and video clip below, photographed in Tashkent's legendary puppet theatre, and swoon.

Travelling to Tashkent? Visit Lali's atelier in Nukus Street - though make sure you call ahead on +998 93 381-50-59.

Related posts:
Oscar de la Renta's Love Affair with Uzbek Ikat
Basso & Brooke Meet Ikat on the New Silk Road Project
Fashion's Obsession with Central Asian Design
Valentino Haute Couture Meets Suzani 

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uzbekistan art craft textile tours, uzbekistan small group tours, ikat silk uzbekistan fashion, lali fazylova central asian designs

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Monday, September 10, 2018

On the Importance of Being Soviet, Part #1

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On the train from Astana to Almaty. Image: David Trilling
This thoughtful piece by Dr Alexander Morrison was originally published on EurasiaNet, and will be of interest to any traveller to Central Asia.

Dr Morrison was Professor of History at Nazarbayev University in Astana and is now a Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. His articles for EurasiaNet always make for interesting reading.

Travelling one evening on the train from Astana to Almaty in Kazakhstan, I got chatting with the other three people in our four-berth compartment.

This kind of enforced sociability is often a joy of travelling in the former USSR. On this occasion my travelling companions were a young Russian man, a young Kazakh woman, and a grandmotherly figure whom I also took to be Russian.

When they discovered I was British, the Kazakh woman announced that her great-grandfather had been an Englishman. At first I was skeptical, but she explained that he had been an engineer working in the oilfields around Guryev (modern Atyrau) before the revolution, had married and remained after the Bolshevik takeover, and then been purged in the ‘30s. There was nothing implausible about this story – lots of foreign engineers worked in the mines and oilfields of the Kazakh steppe in the last years of tsarism.

This got us talking about ancestry, and the extraordinary mix of peoples in Kazakhstan. This was personally important for all of them – the Russian man was married to a Kazakh, the elderly lady whom I had thought was Russian had a German father and a Tatar mother.

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Village children in Uzbekistan, 1980s

The Kazakh woman with the British great-grandfather was married to a Chechen. Here in microcosm was the diversity produced by two decades of deportations to Kazakhstan, and by migration to the Virgin Lands scheme which followed, what in Soviet times was known proudly as the "planet of 100 languages".

In one sense that term is misleading. We were all speaking in Russian. Most of the different peoples deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia – Poles, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Koreans, Crimean Tatars – had become Russian-speaking within a generation if they were not so already.

However the diversity expressed in the idea of 100 languages is real. When the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov gave a famous speech in Semipalatinsk in 1989, announcing a movement against nuclear testing nearby, he made the point that the terrible effects of 30 years of tests on the local population could not be called a "genocide", because that referred to the extermination of just one people. In Semipalatinsk radiation was killing "every one of the 100 nationalities of which we were so proud".

Northern Kazakhstan is perhaps an extreme example of the ethnic and cultural hybridity that could be produced by Soviet rule, but similar blended identities are common from the Baltics to the Caucasus to the USSR’s great cities – Baku, Kiev or Tashkent. The Soviet Union was a high modernist project, which sought not just to sustain superpower status through economic development, military might and internal repression, but to create a new type of human being – Homo Sovieticus, "Soviet Man".

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Long live the unity and brotherhood of the working people of
all nationalities of the USSR!
The meaning of this is slippery. The official version was that “Soviet Man” would transcend petty divisions of nationality, class and politics as the different peoples of the USSR were forged into a single, classless, ideologically unanimous Soviet people.

This was to be achieved through education, economic development, and ideological indoctrination. In practice the Soviet state’s grasp of its people’s aspirations and imaginations became more and more feeble after the 1960s. Nevertheless, something we might call Homo Sovieticus did come into being – a product not so much of indoctrination as of mobility.

Stalin’s deportations were the most brutal and sweeping case: deporting entire nationalities and dumping them in Central Asia. Under Khrushchev these movements became more voluntary – of young enthusiasts to the “Virgin Lands” of Kazakhstan, or technicians to cities. These migrations overlaid and sometimes reinforced earlier patterns of migration from before 1917.

When the new fishing port of Aralsk was opened on the newly constructed railway from Orenburg to Tashkent in 1905, it was populated by Bessarabian fishermen who migrated there from the Danube delta. The Russian empire was like its British and French counterparts in that it produced a bewildering cosmopolitanism in its great cities. Pre-revolutionary Baku, with its mixed Armenian/Azeri/Jewish/Georgian/Persian/Russian population, could easily stand comparison with Bombay or Alexandria in this regard. This cosmopolitanism persisted into the Soviet period when it became the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan.

Mingled populations are characteristic of empires, and they have suffered harshly from the nationalist dogmas of the 20th and 21st centuries, which decreed that Bombay belonged to Marathi-speaking Hindus, and that there was no longer any place for Greeks or Jews in Alexandria.

In some ways the Soviet Union held the tide of nationalism at bay for longer than might have seemed possible in 1917. Paradoxically it did so by conceding considerable ground to the principle of nationality, exemplified in the structure of the 15 Soviet republics: "national in form, socialist in content" seems an ironic slogan now because nationalism has proved so much more durable than communism.

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Korean, Russian, Tartar, Ukrainian and Uzbek kids, school photo Tashkent, 1940s

However not everyone fit into the national categories recorded in Soviet passports, and not even the bewildering complexity of union republics, autonomous republics and autonomous oblasts could capture the full complexity of Soviet identity. Not only did multiple peoples live alongside each other in ways that defied territorial definition – they also intermarried across religious and ethnic boundaries, and produced new identities.

Nowhere was this truer than Ukraine and Kazakhstan. What is now eastern and southern Ukraine, which until the end of the 18th century had been home to small populations of Turkic nomads and mixed Turkic/Slavic Cossacks, became a destination for multiple migrations. Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and Jews blended into a Russian-speaking – but not straightforwardly Russian – population.

Part #2 of Dr Morrison's article will be published in the near future.

Related posts: Uzbek-Korean Connections 
From Kremlin to Kremlin: African Americans in Uzbekistan
The Greek Community of Uzbekistan 
Tashkent: A City of Refuge