Asel* was a young woman, perhaps 22 or 23, with three children. The children were staying with her sister when we met in Asel’s hospital room. Asel had heard through the gossip networks of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, that there was a foreign woman in town who was asking about violence in the home. Asel was in the hospital recovering from a vicious beating her husband gave her, and she wanted to desperately to talk to me, and to make sure I talked to other people. Asel had worked at a university in Osh. Her husband worked in the same university, and decided at some point to kidnap her. As so many Kyrgyz women are, she was convinced to stay with him and build a married life. They had three children together, and Asel admits to feeling fairly happy most of the time. But during unhappy times, his violence escalated, until she found herself in the hospital with what she described as stroke-like symptoms due to the sustained beating and concussion she received. She was one of the relatively lucky ones: She had a supportive birth family who took her children in, and she had no intention of returning to her abusive husband. Many women do not have such choice. Asel was very definite about what she wanted to come of her horrific experiences: She wanted to feel no shame, and she wanted her story known.
I had already learned a great deal about the ways in which women in Kyrgyzstan are aware of the risk and realities of violence, and how they negotiate both internally and in their relationships to make sense of everyday violence. It was my first trip to Kyrgyzstan, the summer of 2006, but I had done my research and knew my statistics: That nearly 1 in 5 woman in Kyrgyzstan agreed that her husband had the right to beat her for some transgression and that that number was considerably higher among Uzbek women, who most commonly live in the southern regions of the country.
Long before I met Asel, I met with focus groups of married women in areas as varied as Gulcho (somewhat centrally located), villages near to Bishkek, women in Osh, and women in Aravan, a rural region outside of Osh. Many of my respondents were not comfortable in Russian, so my research assistant, Elina Schroeder, served as both interpreter when necessary and a type of local research assistant helping me find women willing to speak with me about a taboo subject.
I expected the finding to be the hardest part of the research. After all, I was a foreigner, my Uzbek and Kyrgyz language skills are rudimentary at best, I am unmarried, and I was asking intimate questions about relationships and private lives. I was shocked at how happy people were to speak to me, and how openly they spoke, often veering wildly off my tame prepared questions. While Asel articulated it most fully, there was a feeling of “Finally! Someone wants our stories!”
This is not to say that domestic violence is not a complex subject in Kyrgyzstan. It is well known that violence takes place in many families and that violence comes primarily from husbands, though mothers in law are occasionally listed as perpetrators of violence. Yet it is not a topic acceptable in polite society. It certainly arises in gossip, and while sometime sympathetic, women often hold attitudes toward other women that they should have known better to anger their man, they should have known better to go out at night, they should have known better than to be seen talking to me while their husband was in Russia trying to earn money, even if he did have a second wife there. Women themselves often did not seem to know what they thought about wife beating: whether it was something to be accepted, something to be ashamed of, or, as Asel said, something to shout to the world about its injustice.
Like Asel, many of my married respondents were originally kidnapped. This has a range of meaning in Kyrgyz society, and future work should examine the link between violence in marriages of choice, arranged marriages, and stranger kidnappings. During the interviews and focus groups held summer 2006, bride kidnappings were a topic simmering underneath the conversation, but rarelybreaking throug
The women I spoke to focused on domestic violence in concrete terms. To them, as a group, domestic violence was wife beating, nothing else, and reasons for it ranged from poverty to alcoholism to the stress of families divided by labor migration and beyond. Many women also expressed pride in Kyrgyzstani women’s abilities to endure—two separate women in two separate focus groups stated “Our women are really very patient” as a positive trait, indicative of the lengths women in Kyrgyzstan will go to maintain and strengthen their families.
Gulnora spoke at length about the importance of women’s patience in maintaining family ties,
If you leave after a beating then the family is destroyed. Then you have to be patient for that. Our women are really very patient. Men are aggressive . . . For example, before if men would slap women and beat them it was accepted as a normal thing. But now if a guy would beat his young wife she will not stay she will leave tomorrow. It means she does not have responsibility.
Mehrigul, a 40 year old woman married 16 years from Aravan, echoed this point, stating,
For example, during the Soviet Union many people were patient even if their husbands beat them. If a husband used bad words or violence against his wife then people around them also tried to keep them together. Now young people cannot live like this. They are weak. They immediately say “I will divorce!” In our time we used to be patient. Now our young people can leave their children and go to Russia.
The importance of obligations in women’s roles as mothers, wives, and daughters seem to be central to married women’s discussion of violence. In addition, the emphasis is on women’s need to endure and the weakness of women who cannot, rather on the behavior of men. In this construction, the absence of violence is not a right; its presence is something that strong women can endure; endurance itself becomes a virtue.
All respondents repeatedly raided the individual and household level characteristics of substance abuse as a cause of domestic violence in KG. Upon being asked to define domestic violence, village women immediately stated that alcohol is a hugely important factor. Women in Gulcho were adamant that vodka was the root of violence. They agreed that when a man comes home drunk and his wife is unhappy about it, the conflict leads very often to violence. Gulnora, a 45 year old northern village woman married only 1.5 years before losing her husband, eloquently spoke about men’s alcohol use, saying,
Men who are not smart drink vodka in order to hurt women. The bad thing about Kyrgyz men, if he drinks and comes home late drunk a woman says, ‘Why are you drinking if you do not have anything at home?’ Then tomorrow night he will come home drunk anyway because he wants to show that he does not obey his wife and he is not weak.
Both interview and focus group participants agree that poverty and the strain it creates are important causes of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. Several interview subjects raised the issue of poverty, and married women were very vocal in their belief that the stress it creates causes violence. Nodira, a 50 year old woman married 28 years from a village several hours distance from the capital said, “Money is the source of all problems,” leading to agreement from other participants. Repeatedly, women brought up the stress of poverty as a central factor leading to violence. Shakhida, a woman from the Gulcho area married 35 years remembered the relative stability of the Soviet Union fondly:
have problems. We lived during Communist times. It was good times! During Soviet times we had a strict regime. Peopl who worked didn’t drink alcoholand those who didthey used to fire them. In those times we were all equal. We didn’t have such division; rich and poor.
Her point was loudly affirmed by the other women in her group.
According to some married women respondents, some employed men feel that as the breadwinners they are entitled to behave as they wish to their wives. Older women claimed that their generation reinforced these norms, but younger women believe differently, which can cause strife in the family. Shairgul, married 42 years from Gulcho, said:
But even if a woman makes more money she anyways obeys to her husband, she does what he says, she listens to him. It is in our tradition to respect the man. For example; if I make more money than he does. And if I am going somewhere anyway I ask permission or just tell him where I am going and at what time I will come. If he didn’t let you go and you are so angry at him, anyway you stay at home. If he says “No” then you do not go. It refers to our generation. Even if he cannot do anything, his word is the law!
There was widespread agreement among married women that men have a culturally-supported need to feel superior to their wives, and when they do not, violence can occur, supporting the role strain hypothesis. The role strain hypothesis posits that individuals play multiple roles and interact with multiple roles, and this can create strain on the individual and within relationships.
The following conversation from a group in a village in the Chuy region illustrates this:
Asel (42, married 23 years): If you see one thing and you think that it should be done in another way he will not let you do it because he is not going to listen to a woman’s opinion. He feels superior to you. As a woman you have to keep silence . . . But anyway, a man’s pride will not let him obey a woman.
Nodira (50, married 28 years): And then he beats her. I think a man [men in general] does not want to show that he is weak and stupid and he shows his dominance through violence.
Women also raised the issue of sexual jealousy as a cause for domestic violence his is not a cause of domestic violence that has much credence in international discourses or the academic literature, but one that is very important for those at risk of suffering or committing violence in Kyrgyzstan. Women excuse a lot of violent behavior with a shrug and reference to the old Russian proverb, “He hits, because he loves.” I will explore the role of jealousy further in Part II of this article, which deals with men’s takes on domestic violence as well as the opinions of women who are not yet married.
Ainash and Shakhida, two married women from the Gulcho area, shared the following exchange:
Ainash: If a man loves his wife very much, he feels very jealously of her friends if they come to visit them. He doesn’t let her go to toi [important cultural celebrations including weddings and circumcisions], parties, to see her friends. Sometimes they don’t let their wives work. We became like a bird in a cage. . .Jealousy is like an illness . . . If a woman does not listen to her husband she gets punished.
Shakhida: If a woman behaves herself properly man never gets jealous. If she is a bitch then of course he gets angry.
Citing jealousy as a reason for violence is another way of blaming women for causing the violence. Women blame each other for lack of modesty or other characteristics that would “save” them from the violence of their partners, and men blame women for driving them to violence.
Elina, a 30 year old woman married 12 years from a village in Aravan expressed the frustration that many of her peers felt with this jealousy,
And we live with them with our black eyes and our bruises [provoking laughter among the other women]. We are fine with beating but sometimes when we come back from work and from a toi and from other places our husbands use words like “”Who were you with? Who did you go with?” Those kinds of words make us really mad. We cannot stand for that and we get angry and scream at them. They worsen a good woman’s status.
Nulgul, another participant from the Aravan region also tied jealousy to migration, claiming that in villages people will gossip about a woman whose husband is working elsewhere, even when she is working too hard for the survival of her family to have a relationship with other men.
To return to Asel—I do not know what became of her. She was beaten very badly when I met her, but she burned with desire to make a new life for herself and her children. She was one of the lucky few who had familial support to permanently leave her husband, but life is hard for a separated or divorced woman with children in Kyrgyzstan, and I may never know how her story ended. But she had control over one aspect of her fate, and she used it to make sure that her story is heard, by someone at least.
Kyrgyzstani women expressed a great many reasons for the violence they live with on regular basis. Part II of this series will explore this issue from the perspectives of men and unmarried women, and Part III will address the role of NGO and other organizational workers who often have very Western ideas about the definitions and meanings of domestic violence, ideas that are not always in sync with the population they share.
*All names and some details are changed to protect the confidentiality of respondent. Some versions of this work have appeared elsewhere without the inclusion of Asel’s testimony.