Vagina Monologues exposes divide in Kyrgyzstan

21st April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Two decades after the fall of Communism, women in conservative Kyrgyzstan remains trapped by traditions and Islamism.

Bishek – The lights in the Soviet-era theatre cut out, plunging the packed hall into darkness. Three young women, bathed in a spotlight, explained the topic of their performance, almost as a warning.

"We are going to talk about our vaginas," said a university-aged performer in a tight-fitting red dress.

First came the laughter, followed swiftly by a chorus of chatter from the back of the hall. Then at least a quarter of the audience, their faces bursting with laughter or flushed with anger, began to file swiftly out of the hall.

The first Russian-language performance of "The Vagina Monologues" in Central Asia, held in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek last week, exposed the deep cultural divides that still exist here almost two decades after the fall of Communism.

Traditional practices such as bride-kidnapping have proven resilient even as a more austere Islam has taken hold in some regions, and many here feel that what little progress women have made is tenuous at best.

"Women want to talk about these things but they don't have an outlet, they don't have the space," said Selbi Dzhumayeva, 22, a student at the American University of Kyrgyzstan and the driving force behind the performance of the internationally acclaimed women's rights play.

Situated at one of the world's great cultural and political crossroads – the site of the ancient Silk Road – predominantly Muslim Central Asia is often described as a region trapped between several worlds.

Dominated for two centuries by Imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union, this vast land of mountains, steppe and deeply conservative tribalism was flooded after independence by foreign Muslims eager to re-introduce Islam.

Today, amid the decaying Soviet-era apartment buildings of the relatively cosmopolitan capital increasing numbers of woman are wearing the Islamic headscarf, a practice that dwindled in the Soviet Union.

While Islam is making inroads, Kyrgyz traditions that date back to ancient nomadic times also hold strong in the country.

A large proportion of marriages in Kyrgyzstan are still the result of bride kidnapping, where a prospective suitor and his family abduct their chosen bride with or without the consent or her family.

For a Kyrgyz girl there is no space for anger

Whether from the influence of the conservative clerics who hold sway in the country's rural heartland or simply from traditions that critics say are hostile to women, activists say they feel the pressure on them increasing.

Two weeks before the performance, Dzhumayeva found the first of a series of threatening posts directed towards her on the social-networking site Facebook.

"He said 'you should get bullet-proof glass (in front of the stage) if you want to arrive home safe'," she said.

Although the threats proved to be empty, it was precisely these concerns that led Gulnara Ibraeva, a professor of gender studies and a towering figure in the women's rights community, to discourage her students from putting on the play.

"You might think my reaction when I heard they were going to perform the 'Monologues' in Russian was strange, but I just wanted to protect them from any negative reactions they might encounter," she said.

For Regina Berdybaeva, 22, like the more than two dozen other performers, those risks were worth taking.

A confident business student with flawless English – and herself the daughter of a "kidnapped" bride – Regina spent what little free time she had during the rehearsal period counselling a friend who was recently raped.

"There is very little room for expressing anger for women here. For a Kyrgyz girl there is a code of what is considered decent ... and there is no space for anger there," she said.

"Women need to speak up and of course most of the real victims, they don't do it in Bishkek, but we can speak for them, maybe."

In the conservative countries of the former Soviet Union, negative reactions like those of the audience in Bishkek are not uncommon at performances of the piece by US playwright Eve Ensler, which is based on several hundred interviews with women around the world and celebrates female sexuality and focuses on the abuses women suffer.

In 2005, the first performance of the "Vagina Monologues" in Moscow was disrupted by catcalls and many of the performers refused to use some of the racier language out of fear of reprisals.

But Dzhumayeva, who was born and raised in authoritarian Turkmenistan, says she doesn't see the ideals of feminism as incompatible with local culture either here or in Russia and blames nationalism for much of their woes.

"I was brought up in this culture, I am this culture and we should get over this romanticisation of our culture," she said.

AFP / Expatica

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