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Women and marriage

If your wife is shrewish and nasty, it matters little that she is pretty.
Kyrgyz saying

Women in Kyrgyzstan traditionally had assigned roles, although only the religious elite sequestered women as was done in other Muslim societies. Because of the demands of the nomadic economy, women worked as virtual equals with men, having responsibility for chores such as milking as well as child-rearing and the preparation and storage of food. In the ordinary family, women enjoyed approximately equal status with their husbands, within their traditional roles. Kyrgyz oral literature includes the story of Janyl-myrza, a young woman who led her tribe to liberation from the enemy when no man in the tribe could do so. In the nineteenth century, the wife of Khan Almyn-bek led a group of Kyrgyz tribes at the time of the Russian conquest of Quqon.

In many ways, Kyrgyz women are much better off than most of their Central Asian sisters. The casual nomadic attitude to Islam has been traditionally favourable to women and the years of Soviet rule brought them greater opportunities than they'd had before. Soviet education statistics show that both Kyrgyz and Kazak women achieve higher levels and have lower dropout rates than those from traditionally sedentary societies. That said, the patriarchal system which governed traditional nomadic society for hundreds of years never truly disappeared under the Soviets and has been strongly revived since the fall of communism. Today, much controversy surrounds the ancient custom of 'bride kidnapping', which still genuinely frightens many young Kyrgyz girls. In its worst form, the woman is forcibly kidnapped by a stranger or casual acquaintance, normally with the complicity of the man's parents, and occasionally her family. To do this he may trick her into going somewhere with him or just snatch her of! the street. She is then taken to his parents' home, where his relations put pressure upon her to accept the marriage.

Even if she rejects the marriage, her family may refuse to take her back, especially if she has spent a night away from home, something still considered deeply shameful. Not surprisingly, many women feel they have little choice hut lo marry the man. One young woman in her mid-twenties, kidnapped live years beforehand, shrugged her shoulders and said to us: 'What can I do? It's our tradition.' In urban areas, however, young women are increasingly stating their unwillingness to submit meekly to a marriage they have not sought.

These days the 'kidnap' is most commonly employed for the sake of tradition and is planned jointly by the couple. An elderly shepherd in his seventies, when asked why he had kidnapped his wife, laughed and said, 'Simple answer: do you know such a thing as love? I stole her but she knew about it. We made an appointment and I took her to my house.'

Simply 'running away together' is a common way of arranging a marriage. The prospective husband takes his bride-to-be to his parents' home. In the evening his parents contact her family to tell them they no longer have a daughter: 'She is with us, she's our daughter now.' According to tradition, her family then asks her if she really wants the marriage, and urges her new family to look after her.

All marriages are conducted by the imam (Islamic clergyman). Before the ceremony the bride spends three days veiled behind a curtain at the home of her new parents-in-law. Friends and family make congratulatory visits. Anyone wishing to see the bride must pay a small sum, US$0.50 or less, in a custom called gorunduk (the word also applies to seeing a newborn baby). Meanwhile the husband pays the kalym, or bride price, to his bride's family. There is no fixed sum but it is supposed to reflect the value he places upon her. Her family usually gives a bed, blankets and pillows as a wedding present.

After the marriage the couple traditionally live with the groom's parents. One man, explaining why he was so keen to have a son after five daughters, told us: 'My daughters are not my children, I am raising them for someone else.' This does not mean Kyrgyz parents don't love their daughters, more that it reflects the sense that a woman's allegiance is to her husband and his family after marriage.

In the family hierarchy, the daughter-in-law has the lowliest place, at least until the birth of her first child. She is never allowed to sit in the tyor, the place for honoured guests; her role is to serve guests and attend to domestic chores. A daughter-in-law must behave with decorum in the presence of her husband's parents, which includes always wearing the headscarf adopted in public by married women. Traditionally she must never refer to her husband's father or other senior male relations by name but instead by their position in the family, such as 'your father's eldest brother'.
Despite such strict social conventions, Kyrgyz women are much more active in all walks of life than in neighbouring Central Asian countries (apart, perhaps, from Kazakhstan). Today, women go to university, run their own businesses and are increasingly asserting themselves in personal relationships (one reason for the rising divorce rates). In many ways they are the backbone of modern Kyrgyz society.

In modern times, especially in the first years of independence, women have played more prominent roles in Kyrgyzstan than elsewhere in Central Asia. As a result of the December 16, 2007 parliamentary elections, 23 women representing three political parties have positions in parliament. As of 2007, women held several high level government posts, including minister of finance, minister of education and science, minister of labor and social development, chief justice of the Constitutional Court, the chair of the State Committee on Migration and Employment Issues, and chair of the CEC. As of 2007, no women occupied the positions of governor or head of local government. In August 2007, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed into effect an action plan on achieving gender balance for 2007-2010. Between 2007 and 2010, women members of parliament introduced 148 out of the 554 bills that were considered on the floor, covering issues from breastfeeding protection in health bill to the adoption of a law guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities for women and men. In March 2010, opposition politician Roza Otunbaeva rose to power as caretaker president following a revolution against Bakiyev's government, becoming Kyrgyzstan's first female president. She served as the President of Kyrgyzstan from 7 April 2010 until 1 December 2011. She is a former foreign minister and head of the parliamentary caucus for the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan.