I feel pretty, and witty... and oppressed

Questioning attitudes to women and girls in Kazakhstan

By Kamilya Zhumash
Kamilya Zhumash, 20 years old, in her home town of Astana, Kazakhstan.
Kamilya Zhumash

04 December 2018

In "Our Voices: Young people from across the region", we amplify young people’s voices through a series of articles, personal stories, blog posts and videos.  This is a platform for young people in the Region to shed light on their experiences and offer solutions to the challenges they face.  All views expressed here belong to the authors, and do not represent the views of UNICEF.

 

About the author: Kamilya Zhumash, 20, is currently a student majoring in Sociology in Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan). She loves art and environment, and hopes to use her creative skills to promote zero-waste lifestyle and encourage other people to live a sustainable life. Kamilya is also very interested in the issue of social inequality in her country. Her dream is to build a huge foster home for kids and fill it with love and puppies.

 

“Focus on your education. If you make it to the top, you will have better chances of finding a good husband. Most importantly, you have to always behave decently and be respectable…”

My mom used to tell me this every now and then, when I was in high school. We had hundreds of conversations regarding how I should behave, dress and speak, in order to find a proper husband. Sometimes I would catch myself thinking that my mom could be right. Being in love won’t help you deal with your problems. “Love fades away, but hunger is present at all times,”  people kept selling me this idea. It seemed, that there was only one happy ending waiting for me. All I needed was to find a good and generous husband, who would take care of me. A Woman’s role in Kazakhstan seemed so easy – just follow social norms, be honorable and decent, and you will be rewarded with social recognition. From then, all my life decisions were affected by the desire to find a husband. But then, everything changed drastically…

One summer day I was walking along the streets of Shymkent (third largest city in Kazakhstan) with my friend after summer school, when all of a sudden, we heard loud screams. Four men were pushing a young woman into an old green car, ignoring her screams and laughing. There were plenty of other cars, but no one did anything. Neither did we. I was shocked and felt my heart pounding. My friend hurried to comfort me, saying that everything is alright, it was just a game. A game? Since when is kidnapping considered a game? Then she explained to me everything about our tradition of kidnapping a bride.

I had always thought these customs were left behind in the 19th century. I could not believe our society valued traditions so much that they were willing to deprive women of their freedom. When I asked my friends about this tradition, they told me many stories about being witnesses of this process. My friend Feruza's sister was kidnapped three times! She managed to return home each time. However, when she returned to her village, she found herself and her family criticized and shamed by relatives and neighbours. They could not bear it and left their village as soon as they could.

After this incident, to me, a woman’s life in Kazakhstan seemed so unfair and depressing. The conversations that followed with my mom were now full of new questions with a hint of despair. How come some women are still treated as slaves? My mom tried to reassure me, that this would not be my case if I would marry a wealthy man from a respectable family. But what about other women?

Chrys Ingraham, an author and Professor of Sociology argues, that society encourages women to conform to its expectations of heterosexual marriage and male dominance, and to be proud of our role, inferior to men, by “rewarding us” with lavish wedding ceremonies and a shiny ring. But why should we obey? We are simply more than that. Why can’t society let us do what we want?

And so, my bumpy road to discovering feminism began. I asked my mom more and more questions about our society and a woman’s place in it. I began realizing that most of the social expectations towards women were extremely unfair and cruel.

Why is a girl who is not a virgin, considered rotten and damaged? Why is not being married shameful? Why do my cooking and cleaning skills define whether I am a good wife or not?

I asked my mom all these questions, and received very confusing answers, like “You will understand when you grow up.” or “You think you are smart and everyone else is stupid?” I felt like I was annoying everyone in my family. Scholar Sarah Ahmed would say I became a ‘killjoy’. I did not necessarily enjoy irritating my family, but I was craving to know more. My mom told me that I should not abandon our social norms and traditions and pollute my head with Western feminist ideas (“We lived like that for centuries, only you see it as a hideous problem.”). Being a Killjoy for my family was quite unpleasant.

Even though I asked questions, I didn’t like the answers at all.

When feminists try to speak up and raise awareness of social injustices towards women – the majority don’t listen. People often believe that our society doesn’t have problems with these issues, as long as women have legal rights. But what if the legal establishment of these rights is not enough to overcome the power of societal prejudice and expectations towards women? Instead of encouraging children to fight social inequality, teachers persuade girls to choose easy jobs – “Where your emotions won’t distract you and others from work.”

We slowly get used to everyday sexism, because our society considered (and still does) it normal.

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I am glad that I can continue my journey in understanding the issues of inequality in our society.

 

The opinions reflected in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF.