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Kazakhstan’s Queer Feminist Uprising is Now

Kazakhstan’s first queer feminist collective ‘Feminita’, talk activism, arrests and resistance in the notoriously anti-queer post-soviet state.

BY THE EDITORIAL TEAM

October 5, 2018

Image: Co-founders of ‘Feminita’ Gulzada Serzhan(left) and Zhanar Sekerbayeva attend a protest holding a sign which reads “LESBIAN IS NOT A DIRTY WORD”.

Image: Co-founders of ‘Feminita’ Gulzada Serzhan(left) and Zhanar Sekerbayeva attend a protest holding a sign which reads “LESBIAN IS NOT A DIRTY WORD”.

 
 

Kazakhstan is in the midst of a feminist revolution, and it is queer. 

Suppression of women's rights in Kazakhstan has been a constant. Throughout revolution and rebellion, women have suffered - invisibly so. You cannot see them among the many monuments of Kazakhstan's fallen fighters, poets or artists which are scattered so liberally throughout the city of Almaty, the official capital Astana or outer-lying towns. You can scarcely find them in government or posts of public administration. So invisible are women expected to remain, that their mere presence in public holding an illustration of a woman menstruating, is so shocking that it is met with immediate violence and arrest. 

Though now it seems a tipping point has been reached.

A collective of queer women are leading the charge for a new order in Kazakhstan, one that seeks to reverse their erasure and instate the rights of women and the queer community throughout the country.

‘Feminita’ is Kazakhstan’s first queer feminist collective and prides itself on being a grassroots queer-feminist group that aims to create and strengthen the rights of women and activist communities that can make changes in the social, political, economic and cultural spheres. Feminita aims to empower and actualize rights for the most oppressed groups of Kazakhstan’s population which they identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer, self-identified women, disabled women in sex workers. Feminita is led by a tight group of queer identifying human rights defenders Zhanar Sekerbayeva, Gulzada Serzhan, Syinat Sultanalieva and Saltanat Shoshanova who are committed to documenting and advocating for the rights of LBQTI predominantly through large scale research initiatives and public advocacy.

Forming in 2015, the group have struggled to formally register as an organization. As in Russia, it is mandated in Kazakhstan that NGOs register with the government, which authorities exercise liberal discretion in denying NGO status in addition to the shut down of already registered groups for alleged, often minor violations of the law. Feminita have already had their application to register as an organization rejected twice, and although the government state that they are not obligated to inform applicants as to why they have been rejected, Sekerbayeva and Serzhan believe it is due to the organizations LBQT rights focus in addition to the inclusion of key words such as “change” which are the focus of Feminita’s vision statement. “Change for them is a very scary word for them [the government], it means society could change, that we could actually do something”.


Reclaiming Kazakhstan’s feminist past, present and future

Kaszakstan’s feminist history may have been buried, but its roots run deep. “Kazakh women have a stereotype which is submissive and obedient and follow traditions, but we have in our history Kazakh women that were very brave, who resisted oppression. But we just don’t know their names because there just wasn’t the narrative that we speak about women. There are many legends, but these are hidden deep in the archives… women such as Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulova, two very real important figures in our history”.

There is an old Kazakh proverb which says ‘women can’t lead a caravan’…
it means there is a total failure if a woman leads.

There is an old Kazakh proverb which says “women can’t lead a caravan”, Serzhan explains how this sentiment presents in Kazakh culture today in the roles assumed and available to women,“This [proverb] means there is a total failure if a woman leads. So even when I met with a female MP during our research, she said to me if there is no man to lead, she will find a man. Although she may lead she will say he is the one that is leading”. 

Sekerbayeva follows, “It is just silence, in school and university you never hear women’s names. Just looks to our street names and sculptures - they are all named after men. We are not existing here”. 

Sekerbayeva notes there are many feminists today who have worked to advance women rights in Kazakhstan by raising feminist questions in through their work, “Women such as Svetlana Shakirova, Yevgenia Kozyreva… there are other women’s rights organizations too, but we don’t have a very deep connection with women’s organizations”.

Going into deeper detail on the topic of women’s rights organizations and solidarity Sekerbayeva notes that it has been Feminita’s experience that women’s rights organizations don’t want to be associated with the LGBTQI movement. This disassociation of womens groups from the queer rights movement leaves Feminita, and other queer-centering organizations in Kazakhstan and the region, out in the cold when it comes to organising, mobilising and supporting advocacy and action around women’s rights. “They are afraid as it is dangerous. Dangerous in terms of the state, in terms of funding from the state… and other things. They are quiet and this is the situation in Kazakhstan”.

collective action.jpg

Government ‘green lights’ LGBTQ rights violations

The governments response to human rights organizations working across LGBTQI rights could be characterized by its outward contempt for LGBTQI community and the intimidation tactics it employs to suppress collective and individual activism. 

As with most post-soviet countries with a large ethnic Russian population, legislative procedures and law making fall in line with that of Russia. The push to adopt Anti-LGBT legislation such as instituted by Russia under the “anti gay propaganda law”, is no exception. Attempts to pass laws banning "gay propaganda” in 2015  in Kazakhstan have given a "green light" to continued human rights violations against LGBT people, with anti-LGBT violence in the wake of the proposed law reportedly on the increase. Although Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Court rejected the bill in 2015 (citing vague language), it is widely perceived that the decision was undoubtedly influenced by international pressure coinciding with Kazakhstan’s 2022 Olympic bid campaign. With the eyes of the world now turned away from Kazakhstan the possibility of a new iteration of the bill passing through senate to adoption remains a threat.

Parliamentarians of the ruling Nur Otan party continue to call for homosexuality to be criminalized. Nur Otan MP, Aldan Smayil stated the intent of the government to criminalize what fellow party members described as an ‘immoral crime against humanity’, “If we don't take actions now, we will not stop this [homosexualism]…We should pass a law, which will criminalise them”. Other MP’s such as Dauren Babamuratov, have suggested that queer individuals could be identified by the “colour of their pants” and that suspected homosexuals should be subjected to compulsory blood testing to reveal “the presence of degeneratism in a person”. 

In the interim, the state continues to exploit the absence of the explicit reference to sexual or gender orientation in anti-discrimination laws as a loophole to prosecute queer human rights defenders as they see fit. Sekerbayeva’s case outlined below, is just one of many, most of which do not reach the courts. 

Kazakhstan’s courts recently ruled against what judges deemed, ‘unacceptable non-traditional sexual relations’: Advertising agency Havas Worldwide created the above poster in an attempt to promote a gay club in Almaty. Displayed publicly in August of 2014, the poster features Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly and Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin engaged in a kiss. The courts ruled the poster “unethical” and fined Havas  34 million tenge ($188,000 USD) . The mayor’s office who bought the case forward claimed that the poster,“violates widespread moral norms and behaviors, given that it shows nontraditional sexual relations, which are unacceptable to society.”

Kazakhstan’s courts recently ruled against what judges deemed, ‘unacceptable non-traditional sexual relations’: Advertising agency Havas Worldwide created the above poster in an attempt to promote a gay club in Almaty. Displayed publicly in August of 2014, the poster features Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly and Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin engaged in a kiss. The courts ruled the poster “unethical” and fined Havas 34 million tenge ($188,000 USD). The mayor’s office who bought the case forward claimed that the poster,“violates widespread moral norms and behaviors, given that it shows nontraditional sexual relations, which are unacceptable to society.”

A chain reaction 

Perhaps emboldened by the recent emergence of Feminita, increasing support from queer rights groups (such as Kyrgyzstan based regional advocacy powerhouse Labrys), or spurred on by the threat of anti-gay ‘propaganda’ laws (and the certain ensuing surge of conservatism), new feminist queer collectives and activists are emerging. Not only are additional groups surfacing, those that are existing are growing in membership and scale. Groups such as Fempoint are just one of these emerging collectives.

Fempoint formed in late 2017 as a team of youth who strongly centre trans* women within both their collective and their advocacy. Dedicated to advancing the feminist agenda in Kazakhstan, Fempoint have already led and partnered with Feminita in various public advocacy campaigns, such as a menstruation stigma fighting photoshoot - for which Sekerbayeva was arrested. 

If it was the intent of the government of Kazakhstan to quash queer feminist action by intimidating and threatening activists through the police and judicial system, they have certainly succeeded in achieving the polar opposite. Instead of suppressing feminist groups, the actions of the government have created a chain reaction of sorts, with each action against a collective or individual activist, more rights defenders are formed and pushed forth in solidarity.

As with Fempoint and Feminita before it, duos of brave individuals who once debated the likes of Butler and Hooks behind closed doors, now take their conversations to social media, and soon the duos turned into trios, then into tens and more - the movement gathering momentum and self-protecting by numbers with each new recruit. No doubt, Feminita has paved the way for more youth-led organizations to emerge and that change is not only visible in the growing number of activists, but it is visible in the murmurs of feminism in the media, in the streets, in the growing numbers attending queer support groups, and in the presence of queer female Kazakh narratives in gender and sexuality inclusive research, such as that of Feminita’s.

State sanctioned threats and intimidation

Despite growing support for female led queer rights collectives in Kazakhstan, the government continues its intimidation of activists through the police and judicial system.

On August 9th 2018, Zhanar Sekerbayeva co-founder of ‘Feminita’, participated in a public photo session organised by ‘Fempoint’. The photoshoot was aimed at raising awareness about the taboo surrounding menstruation in Kazakhstani society. During the photo session, Zhanar and fellow activists were assaulted and intimidated by members of the public, and as a result were forced to cut short their photo session due to concerns of escalating violence.

Video: Feminita co-founder Zhanar Sekerbayeva, details her arrest and the following court case for her participation in a photo session dedicated to the de-stigmatization of menstruation in Almaty on August 9th, 2018.

Exactly one week after the photoshoot took place in the evening of the 15th of August police detained Zhanar Sekerbayeva and formally charged her with the administrative offence of “minor hooliganism”. Sekerbayeva was taken into custody just 30 minutes before she was due to give a presentation on Feminita’s two years long research on HIV and the health of lesbian, bisexual and trans women in Kazakhstan.

The administrative proceedings against Sekerbayeva focused on her participation in the photo session by holding a poster which depicted a woman menstruating over what could be interpreted as yurts (traditional Central Asian nomadic houses).

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International called for the immediate termination of proceedings against Sekerbayeva.  

The case against Zhanar Sekerbayeva is a perfect illustration of the Kazakhstani authorities’ intolerance to any views which they do not endorse. Rather than addressing the human rights concerns raised by these activists and seeking ways to break down the harmful stigma surrounding menstruation in Kazakhstan, the authorities have opted to shut down the discussion which Zhanar Sekerbayeva so bravely opened up.
— Heather McGill, Amnesty International's Researcher on Central Asia.

During the trail Sekerbayeva was repeatedly asked inappropriate questions by the presiding judge, such as “Are you married?”, “Do you have any children?”, “Are you pregnant?”. Aiman Umarova, Sekerbayeva’s lawyer, called for the judge to be removed from the case and the hearing was postponed until the 20th of August. Upon re-trial, Sekerbayeva was charged with ‘Minor Hooliganism’ for her participation in the photo shoot and was fined12,025 tenge (approximately 33 US dollars).

Zhanar has since entered to the courts a statement of disagreement with the courts decision, citing her payment of the fine not as an admission of guilt, but a practicality as she is due to leave Kazakhstan for Japan to resume her PHD studies and did not want to hamper her departure at the airport by not paying the fine. 

A climate of fear escalates for LGBTQI rights defenders in Kazakhstan

LGBTQI human rights defenders in the country have reported an increase in intimidation tactics by police over past months. Serzhan cites an incident occurring days before Sekerbayeva’s arrest, in which police met fellow activists at their homes late one night and warned them not to gather with other feminists - else they be met with overwhelming police action. “They said if they gather with other feminists there will come eight or nine policemen and they will take them away”. 

Both Serzhan and Sekerbayeva suspect their private messaging on social media has also been breached by the government, their suspicions raised following several incidents in which privately arranged meetings had been intercepted by plain clothes police. 

Despite the support of international human rights organizations such at Outright International and human rights monitor Amnesty International, LGBTQI human rights defenders such as Serzhan and Sekerbayeva remain subject to the whims of a government, who has proven their contempt for the queer community time and again by wielding their powers to unlawfully harass and prosecute activists as they see fit.


Words by Alexis Stergakis (she/her/they/them), digital media producer and founder of Queer Here. Twitter @lexistergakis

Find out more about the work and research of Feminita through their website www.feminita.kz and facebook.