Although International Women’s Day has long since passed, I originally meant to write about one of my favorite legends from Kyrgyzstan – and one of the only ones about a woman. Once long ago, there was a woman who lived and fought and led a people, and to me, it says a lot about Kyrgyzstani women today.
Once, not too long ago, lived a woman in Kyrgyzstan’s wild south called Kurmanjan. That was not her only name, some called her the Tsarina of Alai, others the Queen of the South. In Kyrgyz history, her name is Kurmanjan Datka – a revolutionary general and a woman fighting for the dignity of her people.
After running away from an arranged marriage at 18, Kurmanjan fell in love with the leader of the Kyrgyz clans of Alai. Their marriage was an equal partnership until her husband’s assassination, when Kurmanjan became the political and military leader of the people in Alai – one of the only known female leaders in Central Asia at the time. She inspired great loyalty in her people, saving a crumbling kingdom and leading an army of thousands in the southern mountains.
In 1876, the Russian Empire annexed Kyrgyzstan through diplomatic treaty and military invasion. Kurmanjan Datka and her hoard of soldiers defended the South on horseback, defying Russian control of what is modern Kyrgyzstan’s provinces of Osh and Southern Jalal-Abad. Recognizing the limitations of her people, Kurmanjan mediated a tenable peace with the new Russian governorate, but defended the preservation of the culture and life of the nomadic south. Her power continued, building relationships and acting as an unofficial head of state and dedicating her life to the betterment of her people.
Small uprisings continued in the Russian-controlled south, forging out an underground economy based in generations of Kyrgyz life. Unable to tax or control the people, Russian officials began arresting those they accused of smuggling, including Kurmanjan’s sons. Her favorite son, a leader himself of the Alai people, was sentenced to hang in Osh’s town square. Kurmanjan was counseled to raise her armies to defend her family, but she refused. Her son was her blood, she countered, but her private hopes and ambitions could not be cause of the greater violence against her people. That her personal suffering was outweighed by the potential of her people’s suffering should a war with the Russians begin, and that as a leader, her concern was for the greater good.
Her lament became a treasured poem, and she watched her son hanged in the town square. She withdrew from public life after that, living surrounded by her remaining family outside of Osh until her death in 1907. She is remembered as a leader who gave everything in service to the people she lead, a rare account of a politician sacrificing personal gain for the protection of her community.
In Kyrgyzstan, she personifies strength, commitment, and sacrifice – and also a story about the role of women in this country. This was a woman who turned down an arranged marriage to a man she had never met, and through a relationship of equity and love was empowered to lead a nation. Her value as a mother extended beyond her own children to the people she lead, as well as her voice, leadership, and dedication to the people of Kyrgyzstan. Her story is unique and heroic – but that is part of the problem.
Her story shouldn’t be unique.
How is it that a celebrated woman over 100 years ago is in such stark contrast of the value of women and girls today in Kyrgyzstan? This woman was empowered, engaged, vocal about the rights of her people, and dedicated to the betterment of her country and her community. Why is that not broadly true of modern Kyrgyzstani women?
Kurmanjan was one of the first respected female leaders, showing extreme dedication and political and military acumen in her community. Kyrgyz women today are significantly more likely to be passed over for a job if there is a male applicant, and are expected to be responsible for cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Kurmanjan proved you could do both. Her face adorns the 50-som note, but Kyrgyzstani women are often paid significantly less than their male counterparts despite their experience or education.
In meetings, I often see men speaking over women, sometimes ignoring them completely, while Kurmanjan’s voice was respected as the voice of her people. Women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions, in politics, and as business leaders. While Kyrgyz girls are statistically more successful in education and represent a larger number of students in higher education, they are also more likely to have their education interrupted by marriage or childbirth, limiting their opportunities.
She is celebrated for standing against an unwanted marriage. Today in Kyrgyzstan, there will be many women kidnapped and forced into unwanted marriages, many of whom are underage or include acts of sexual violence (reports claim as high as 12% of bride kidnappings are girls younger than 18). The official laws that protect women in this country are often unenforced, and the unofficial cultural code of shame around sexual violence often precludes seeking help.
I was told the story of Kurmanjan by another Peace Corps Volunteer one night walking home from dinner. I asked a Kyrgyz friend about it, a young woman from the Alai valley, and she said she didn’t really know the story of the Queen of the South. It seemed significant, somehow, that a new generation of young women working towards gender equality and achieving their potential in Kyrgyzstan had lost touch with one of their great stories of the power of Kyrgyzstani women. One of their only stories from history that celebrates women as an independent entity, not as a wife or daughter. A story of empowerment and revolution and equality.
There is power in telling stories and understanding history, but its often the women who are left out. Women’s voices are important and too often absent, and it should be a bigger conversation than March 8th of every year.