Over the past few years, there has been a marked increase in the volume of content on the topic of how to be a “true Kazakh woman.” Among the most notable examples of this are the emergence of uyatmen who police women’s behavior in public, the viral short film Zhezokshe about how young Kazakh women should dress modestly in order to avoid harassment and violence, a series of lectures on the moral education of young women, and the release of Qaraqat Abden’s book You Are a Kazakh Girl. Be Proud!
This trend piqued my curiosity back in 2019, prompting me to undertake an ethnographic study of gendered nationalism in Kazakhstan. As a Kazakh woman myself, I sought to observe the way in which societal expectations imposed on women and victim-blaming of female survivors of sexual violence are tied to Kazakh national identity, as well as explain why this is.
Aizada Arystanbek is a Kazakhstani intersectional feminist, activist, and sociologist specializing in gender and culture, nationalism, and decoloniality. She received her Master of Arts degree in Gender Studies from Central European University and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. Aizada sees her work as an intersection of research and activism and is dedicated to contributing to the non-violent production of knowledge on Central Asia.
Nationalism versus Traditionalism
Nationalism is often conceptualized as a phenomenon that has an equal effect on all members of a community. However, many feminist scholars have argued that nationalism is inherently gendered, putting a disproportionate burden of cultural representation and biological reproduction on women. By recognizing the importance of nationalism in a contemporary patriarchal culture, we add intricacy to the vague concept of traditionalism, which presupposes a rather linear idea of feminist liberation. According to the traditionalist narrative, the women’s rights movement has taken a linear trajectory, from a more conservative society to a more egalitarian and progressive one. Focus on traditionalism paints contemporary misogynistic practices as echoes of the past that seek to undermine women’s liberation today. Not only does this view negate positive aspects of many traditions that are pillars of our communities, but it also fails to explain why misogyny persists even in societies that have supposedly reached modernity and are governed democratically rather than traditionally. Moreover, if traditions themselves were so core to misogyny, then many men exhibiting misogynistic traits would arguably be more traditional in all their behaviors, not just when it comes to women. Yet looking at male perpetrators of gender-based violence, they do not necessarily look “traditionalist” or lead a traditionalist lifestyle.
Nationalism is what makes traditions matter. Nationalism helps us understand why particular traditions become so important to patriarchal societies and how they are enforced unequally onto male and female members of society. It illuminates why misogyny continues to exist even when misogynistic traditions appear to have been expelled from state policies. Our societies’ national identities are built around the idea of the “Other,” a multifaceted third party that is a covert or overt threat to the survival and thriving of a community. The fear of being undermined by the Other—be it immigrants from the “Third World,” war refugees, or local minorities—is what drives patriarchal societies to place a burden of biological reproduction and cultural transmission on women. Women’s bodies thus cease to belong to women themselves and become weaponized by their communities on the pretense of national survival and wellbeing.
One concept I found particularly useful is the idea of hegemonic femininity: a set of standards of behavior that is perceived as the ultimate expression of desirable femininity and against which the gender expression of all female members of a community is measured. Hegemonic femininity presupposes that womanhood is a homogeneous identity that is always positioned in a subservient position to masculinity and demands heteronormative behavior from women for the sake of a traditional, monogamous, heterosexual family. Hegemonic femininity is tied to nationalism, as it is seen as a tool for ensuring the survival of the nation and the preservation of its traditions and uniqueness. By being made into representatives of national culture, women are placed on a metaphorical pedestal from which they ultimately fall either by acting on their humanity or by becoming a subject of sexual violence and, subsequently, victim-blaming.
In my study, I used digital ethnography to trace how casual interactions in online settings—namely, comments on social media—perpetuate these standards of hegemonic femininity and normalize victim-blaming and the stigmatization of female survivors of sexual violence.
My main finding is that digital spaces of the Kazakhstani internet perpetuate real-life patriarchal dynamics. Kazakh women are forced to perform hegemonic femininity and represent the nation’s honor even when they fall victim to sexual violence at the hands of their countrymen. Traditions and cultural mores are continuously imposed on Kazakh women in different spaces and contexts, with violence increasingly normalized against those women who do not appear to abide by the standards of hegemonic femininity.
For Kazakhs, Who Is the Other?
While analyzing comments on public posts about instances of sexual and domestic violence on Instagram and Facebook, I have observed that a woman’s behavior is meticulously taken apart by social media users—men and women alike. These users discuss how respectable a woman’s behavior is and how it fits with users’ own ideas of appropriate behavior for a Kazakh woman. In addition to regular victim-blaming, which is prevalent across all social contexts, social media commentators continuously evoked the idea of “Kazakhness” in relation to female modesty and sexuality. Under posts about instances of sexual violence where the victim had engaged in some type of “immodest” behavior—such as drinking alcohol, partying, or meeting men—the victim’s dignity was questioned by commentators and she was offered little sympathy. Such instances of immodest behavior were frequently tied to discussion of the moral decline of Kazakh womanhood. Individual actions of women are continuously used to diagnose the moral wellbeing of the entire nation. By contrast, concerns about moral decline were largely absent from posts about sexual violence against women who were attacked under less “morally dubious” circumstances, such as when going to work or attending school. Victim-blaming and themes of national urgency were less acute in discussions of those cases of sexual violence where the victim could not be accused of falling short of the standards of hegemonic femininity.
Another indication that victim-blaming of female survivors of sexual violence is closely connected to nationalism and ideas of national honor is the constant blaming of the “Other” I observed in online comments discussing the root cause of violence against women. For instance, in 2019, NUR.kz published a short video reporting that cases of domestic abuse had increased by more than 100% in 2018 and that, according to UN Women, approximately 400 Kazakhstani women die from domestic abuse each year. The video, which had received 153,000 views and 397 comments on Instagram as of this writing, goes on to note that cultural and religious practices contribute to the perpetuation of violence. Observing that an international organization had provided the statistics, many users expressed doubts about the data’s authenticity and relevance to the Kazakhstani context. These comments juxtapose Kazakh culture against “Western” culture, as these users argue that the only way to tackle the issue of violence against women in the country is to preserve the uniqueness of Kazakh culture and its “morally right” behavior—such as heteronormative femininity. According to some commentators, the emancipation of women and the emasculation of men are also at the root of the problem of rampant sexual violence in the country. This narrative juxtaposes the feminist movement and the empowerment of women against the preservation of the institution of the family in the country. Violence against women is then set up as a natural consequence of Kazakh women’s breach of hegemonic femininity, which is seen as the only way to ensure the reproduction of the nation and the maintenance of its cultural borders.
One of the more interesting trends I observed was internal divides within the Kazakh national identity. As in other societies, while traditionalists blame modernity, modernists blame tradition. The internal divide that juxtaposes traditionalism and modernity has been imported to all countries by the global imperial and capitalist system. Thus, within “Third World” communities, those who are less globalized and more closely tied to certain traditional—but not necessarily misogynistic—practices are perceived as “uncivilized.” The idea of uncivilized behavior is rooted in colonial ways of thinking. For example, in Kazakhstan, the idea of civilization is often tied to such colonial features as speaking Russian, going to a Russian-speaking school, and consuming non-Kazakh cultural content. While many social media users blamed the West for its corruption of society, some also blamed certain regions of Kazakhstan and the “savage” local culture for perpetuating misogynistic behavior. For example, a few commentators employed the words mambet and mambetism when pointing fingers at various regions (particularly the South and the West of the country) and discussing their role in normalizing violence against women.
The word mambet has a strong colonial connotation: it frames communities that are more removed from urban and Russianized culture as less civilized and more prone to brutish behaviors.
Thus, the idea of the Other that helps fuel misogynistic nationalist behaviors does not always come from external sources. Internal divisions along the linear view of modernity also create an internal Other: uncivilized practices rooted in many contexts, from postcolonialism to religiosity.
My study helped me to delve into the nature of Kazakh nationalism and its connection to the normalization of violence against women. National culture places Kazakh women in a precarious position where they are expected to adhere to Kazakh standards of hegemonic femininity even as victims of gender-based violence. Looking at online comments by various users across multiple platforms provides evidence that Kazakh women’s bodies and behavior are subjected to constant policing by others, as they are expected to act according to the standards of hegemonic femininity to preserve their respectability and right to protection. These standards of hegemonic femininity are attached to women even when they suffer from sexual violence like rape and domestic abuse, as evidenced by the way online users fuse common rape myths and sexist stereotypes about victims of domestic violence with the national culture and ideas of “Kazakhness.” Thinking about nationalism critically and understanding its gendered norms shines a light on victim-blaming as a social phenomenon and helps us to understand that it does not occur randomly, but is rather closely intertwined with local understandings of femininity and respectability.
It is important to note now, especially as Kazakhstan is experiencing a resurgence of a grassroots decolonial movement and Russia, its biggest neighbor, is waging war against Ukraine, another former Soviet state, that traditions and community organizing do not have to carry the misogynistic aspects often assigned to them. Resistance to the imperial way of thinking and to internalized ideas of civilization and modernity, as well as a new appreciation for indigenous practices and customs, are important parts of decolonization. However, as my study points out, it is vital to remain vigilant as to which power groups are popularizing which traditions and views and how these limit or threaten the safety of community members.
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