Old and Young Generations
Yet in spite of radical changes and strong urbanisation in Kazakhstan, its society is still characterized by strong solidarity between the old and young. This can be attributed in large part to the importance of learning the art of survival under the tough conditions of nomadic life. Traditionally, the knowledge necessary for the maintenance of an extensive pastoral agriculture was acquired through decades-long observation of the weather, vegetation growth and animal behaviour. Thus young people developed a huge respect for the elderly and experienced, which remains noticeable in Kazakhstan to this very day. Particularly in the countryside, an aksakal-'white-beard"-is a venerated person given honour by all. Important decisions are only made after asking the aksakal for advice, and at family parties he is addressed in a most respectful manner, gets the place of honour and the best piece of meat.
In a Kazakh family, adult children never abandon their parents. Either the youngest son or a daughter stays in the parents' house and lives there with their family. They, and a daughter-in-law in particular, are required to be obedient towards the family elders. It still remains the custom, though no longer obligatory, that grandparents bring up the first grandson. The young parents hand over their son as soon he has been weaned. This tradition relieves the young parents, who often have their first child very early, from the multiple burdens of education, work and the child. Moreover, it allows the grandparents' rich experience in life to be passed on to their grandchild and later on the grandparents can rely on the support of the child when it grows up.
Another factor explains the closeness between young and old generations. The social structure of a family-again particularly in rural areas-does not allow it to live scattered n small units. A large family is an economic community; several generations live together a single roof, take care of the livestock, cultivate a piece of land and keep the family's cash inflow for their joint disposal.
Officially, women have always enjoyed great freedom in Kazakhstan. They have never been forced to wear veils or robes down to their ankles. Traditionally they took part in many mounted sports and could freely put their strength to the test. A particularly fine example is the kyz syny contest during the New Year festivities, when girls and young women compete against each other with poems, songs, proverbs and epigrams, but also in their knowledge of the national cuisine.
However, in spite of this, there are sometimes major distinctions in equality between men and women. The great writer Abai Kunanbayev noted that poverty often put women in a position of dependence and injustice. The days when a wealthy bey could abuse a poor orphan girl and get away with it are long gone, but poverty is still particularly severe on women. The nightlife in major cities gives ample evidence of this, with prostitution as evident as in developing-and developed-cities the world over.
In the north of Kazakhstan, as well as the metropolises of Astana, Almaty and other cities, women are equal in terms of civil rights, showing no real difference with nearby Russia. Women here are well-educated, qualified employees and many of them hold responsible positions.
By contrast, in the south and in Kazakh-dominated rural regions, women are still often confined to the role of mother and spouse. The influence of Islam is noticeably stronger here, and the cultural conditioning of women's lives accordingly more rigid. Though prohibited by law, the traditions of bride kidnapping and polygamy still occur. It is true that often the ritual of kidnapping takes place with the bride's consent and is motivated by the need to save on a costly dowry and the no less costly traditional wedding party. But this aside, cases of violent kidnapping of women still occasionally take place. The causes of polygamy vary from social aspects such as "taking over" a deceased relative's wife in order to take care of her and her family, to womanising out of An honoured aksakal. or "white heard", on hedonism or for prestige.
The official minimum age of marriage in Kazakhstan is 16. Marriage between elderly men and very young women is relatively common. Men tend to explain this trend with the succinct observation that women in Kazakhstan tend to age rapidly. In the countryside especially, this explanation turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy due to frequent childbirth and hard physical labour.
As elsewhere in Central Asia, women in Kazakhstan find themselves caught between their traditional role and the broader possibilities of emancipation, with the latter either officially propagated as a legacy of Soviet times, or imposed by economic necessity and the prospects of a market economy. The fact that a significantly greater percentage of university students is female gives an indication of the fairer sex's willingness and motivation to succeed in every level of society. One thing also cannot fail to catch the visitor's attention: women in Kazakhstan are beautiful, self-assured and extremely feminine.