By Ebi Spahiu (03/19/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 5, an awareness-raising campaign in honor of International Women’s Day, conducted by a group of human rights activists from Bishkek Feminists SQ, a feminist organization based in Bishkek, turned into a violent attack at Osh Bazaar, one of the largest bazaars in Kyrgyzstan’s capital. As the activists were trying to engage with local vendors and bystanders on the history of women’s rights and provide information on domestic violence prevention resources, the crowd became increasingly hostile towards the group. As many mistook the female symbol for the Christian cross, they accused the activists of promoting Christianity and physically attacked them, leaving two of the activists injured.
For the second consecutive year, Bishkek Feminist SQ, a local feminist organization run by a group of young human rights activists, has challenged the grandeur of the March 8 celebrations - a Soviet legacy marking this day - by advocating feminist values and raising awareness on alarming statistics of gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan. Their mission is to end all forms of oppression and violence against women and this year, in honor of International Women’s Day, they decided to hold an awareness-raising campaign at Osh Bazaar, one of largest and most crowded bazaars located on the west side of Bishkek. They had prepared quizzes on the history of women’s rights and informational brochures on violence prevention resources available for women in Bishkek.
The incident took place in the late afternoon of March 5. According to activists’ accounts to local news agency Kloop.kg, a group of 20-30 people, predominantly men, gathered around the event location and started asking insulting and intimidating questions to the young activists while they were trying to conduct their activities. According to Bishkek Feminist SQ's official press statement, most men confused the female gender symbol with that of a Christian cross and began asking verbally aggressive questions to the young activists: “Why do you have crosses at your booth?” “Are you not Muslims?” “You see that kalpak? It makes me Kyrgyz. If you’re Kyrgyz, you must be Muslim!” They also stated that March 8 should not be celebrated because it “is not a Muslim holiday,” says SQ. As verbal confrontation between the two groups escalated, the men grabbed the activists by their collars, spit on them and blew cigarette smoke on their faces.
Despite the activists attempts to appease the situation, some men were forcing the activists to repeat verses from the Quran while publicly shaming them. When the activists were preparing to leave, men in the crowd smashed their stand, followed them as they were trying to move away and kicked them on the ground. The event stand was set on fire while the activists were being beaten, claims Bishkek Feminist SQ. After minutes of physical abuse, two of the activists managed to escape and approach police officers, but their request for protection went to deaf ears. They eventually sought refuge at a local district court building after being chased by an angry crowd following them. Despite their pleas for help from the court’s staff, they were met with hostility by some of the staff who demanded they leave the building. Even though police eventually arrived at the scene and assisted the activists to get out safely, they “failed to provide adequate order among the crowd and did not take immediate actions to arrest the instigators and perpetrators,” writes Bishkek Feminist SQ.
This is not the first time that nationalist and religious rhetoric has been used to instigate violence against human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan. In recent months, especially following the release of a Human Rights Watch report on police abuse of gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan, religious and nationalist groups have repeatedly called for violence against the LGBT community in the country. On January 30, Kyrgyzstan’s then acting grand Mufti issued a Fatwa against same-sex relations, calling on Kyrgyz authorities “to pay special attention to the activities of some public organizations that disseminate social discord while using humanistic ideas.” This move sparked a vocal debate in social media forums where many called for violence against openly gay community members. In addition, a new nationalist movement, Kalys, has staged a series of protests following the report’s release, calling for the adoption for an anti-gay propaganda law. According to Eurasianet.org, Kalys’ leader Jenishbek Moldokmatov “criticized HRW indirectly” and condemned the LGBT community for “screaming” about police abuse. Moldokmatov also burned a photo of Ilya Lukash, an ethnic Ukrainian blogger living in Bishkek, whom he labeled as a “gay activist” and accused him of attempting to foment a “Ukraine-style revolution in the country.”
As many analysts observe the rise of nationalism and discuss the likelihood of increasing Islamic influence in Kyrgyzstan, local human rights defenders are facing a strong nationalist and religious backlash as a result of Kyrgyzstan's aspirations to reclaim its national identity after decades of Soviet rule and respond to a Western push for democratic reforms, where at the center-stage are causes involving women, sexuality and ethnic identity. “These religious entities are influential, but there aren’t just Muslims living here in Kyrgyzstan. These statements can create negative public opinion, they bring violence and cause conflict,” says Dastan, a human rights activist from Bishkek.