By: Lane Johansen
Hundreds of women’s rights activists took to the streets in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek, on April 14th to protest violence against women in Central Asia. A group of the campaigners were assaulted by dozens of national-patriots during the rally, police did not intervene.
The demonstration was held in response to the recent murder of 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova, the latest victim in a long history of gender-based violence and non-consensual bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Protestors called on the government to do more to combat violence against women and police inaction in the country.
During the April 14th protest, around 30 women’s rights activists were protesting outside the Interior Ministry headquarters, calling for Interior Minister Ulan Niyazbekov to step down, when several dozen men aggressively broke up their rally. Police did not stop the men attacking the protestors, but instead were “looking for any excuse to detain activists,” as a representative of the Bishkek-based feminist movement Zhetishet said after the rally.
Eurasia.net reported that these self-styled traditionalists, belonging to national-patriotic groups claiming to defend Kyrgyz tradition, justified their attack with the “false claim that the demonstrators had assembled to promote LGBT rights.” This same false claim of responding to pro-LGBT groups was used as justification for the group of masked men who assaulted participants in a women’s rights parade in Bishkek in March 2020.
One of the national-patriots told a local reporter that “there is a danger in Kyrgyzstan that various kinds of Western values are being imposed on our young people,” reflecting the anxiety many Kyrgyz people feel about the potential erosion of Kyrgyz culture and tradition in the face of Western influence. As bride kidnapping is generally accepted as a Kyrgyz tradition, traditionalists consider attempts to end the practice to be a threat to Kyrgyzstan’s cultural identity.
The history of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is disputed, but new research suggests non-consensual bride kidnapping was not common before the 20th century, discrediting claims of legitimizing the practice by pre-Soviet Kyrgyz tradition. Women’s rights activists have been fighting for years to challenge the claim of tradition, and the recent assault on protestors reveals the intense pushback they face.