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Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 176 / Europe & Central Asia

Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s in­creasingly authoritarian government is adopting a counter-productive approach to the country’s growing radicalisation.

Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s in­creasingly authoritarian government is adopting a counter-productive approach to the country’s growing radicalisation. Instead of tackling the root causes of a phenomenon that has seen increasing numbers, including many women, joining groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), it is resorting to heavy-handed police methods that risk pushing yet more Kyrgyz towards radicalism. The authorities view HT, which describes itself as a revolutionary party that aims to restore by peace­ful means the caliphate that once ruled the Mus­lim world, as a major security threat. But for some men and ever more women, it offers a sense of identity and belonging, solutions to the day-to-day failings of the society they live in, and an alternative to what they widely view as the Western-style social model that prevails in Kyrgyzstan. Without a major effort to tackle endemic corruption and economic failure, radical ranks are likely to swell, while repression may push at least some HT members into violence. This report focuses pri­marily on the increasingly important role that women are playing in the movement.

HT is banned in Kyrgyzstan and operates clandestinely. There are no accurate membership figures. It may have up to 8,000 members, perhaps 800 to 2,000 of them women. To join, individuals participate in formalised training, take examinations, an oath of loyalty and pledge to recruit others. But while HT’s membership is still small, support for it in the wider population is growing.

In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where many have responded to 70 years of atheism by embracing religion, HT’s un­compromising Islamic message has gained considerable acceptance. Women, especially those living in rural or con­ser­vative areas where traditional gender norms pre­vail, turn to HT to find meaning in their restricted social roles. The party’s activists regard the growth in those who count as sympathisers if not actual members as a critical component of a long-term strategy – a currently quiescent element of society that would be ready accept a caliphate once it begins to take form.

There are limits to HT’s expansion. In other countries, HT has sought to function as an elite organisation, not a mass movement based in the poorer sectors of the society, and there is no clear sign that the Kyrgyz party has as yet been able to substantially expand its appeal to the educated, middle class, either male or female. The degree to which it has spread from its original, pre­dominantly Uzbek, base in the south into the majority ethnic Kyrgyz community in the north is unclear. And HT’s restrictive view of women’s roles in an avowedly revolutionary party could well limit its growth among female sympathisers who may be deeply critical of the regime but unwilling to abandon the freedoms they enjoy in a secular society.

The government hardened its position on Islamist groups following an October 2008 protest in Nookat, prose­cu­ting and imprisoning a number of HT members, in­clud­ing two women. Officials justify their response to the incident by saying that HT had become too militant in its challenge to the state and had to be taught a lesson. They insist that energetic police action is coupled with political dialogue with believers. In fact, however, secu­rity methods prevail. Civilian elements of the govern­ment tasked with reaching out to the religious com­mu­nity take at best a distant, secondary part. They are either too inefficient and uncoordinated, or simply reluctant to do anything that impinges on the responsibilities of the powerful security establishment.

A policy based on repression will play into HT’s hands and may even accelerate its recruitment. HT has a sophisticated political organisation that resembles that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even, to a degree, successful communist undergrounds. It thrives on the perception of social injustice, economic collapse and repression. It views prison as the ultimate test of party resolve and will regard a crackdown as an opportunity to provide new martyrs and draw new recruits. Women, whether presently members themselves or not but whose husbands are arrested, may feel compelled to assume a more public role in petitioning authorities.

Despite the pro­­­­minent role they played in the Nookat protest, the government has not implemented policies aimed specifically at discouraging women from joining HT. Kyr­gyzstan’s progressive legislation on gender equality and its quotas for women representatives in government have little impact on the lives of those most likely to join HT. Religious women in particular feel that women in government do not represent their views, because most are proponents of secularism. Non-govern­men­tal organisations (NGOs) are not reaching out to such women. They suffer from a lack of credibility with religious women and feel compelled to concentrate on projects they can secure funding for from donors rather than grassroot initiatives such as helping mothers by providing after-school programs for young children – something HT does for its women members.

The only effective long-term strategy is political. For this, however, Kyrgyzstan – and its neighbours in Central Asia, all of whom face similar problems – needs to take serious steps to eradicate systemic corruption and improve living conditions. Economic crisis and rigged elections strengthen HT’s appeal to those who feel socially and politically dispossessed and buttress its argument that Western democracy and capitalism are morally and practically flawed. All states in the region need also to differentiate between a political struggle against HT and the desire of large segments of their societies to demonstrate renewed religious faith by adopting some traditional attributes of Islam – beards in the case of men, for example, and headscarves for women. As Central Asia becomes a major supply route for NATO’s expanded war in Afghanistan, Western powers with an increased interest in the region’s stability should caution against repressive policies.

Bishkek/Brussels, 3 September 2009

Activists take part in a march on the eve of the commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Santiago, on 22 November 2018. Martin BERNETTI / AFP

Protecting Women’s Space in Politics

Women human rights defenders around the globe are facing heightened threats of violence and repression. Sometimes they are targeted for being activists, and sometimes just for being women. World leaders should do much more to secure space for women’s safe participation in public life.

In early January 2019, unknown gunmen shot dead Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva, a 60-year-old Colombian land rights activist on a small farm near the Caribbean city of Santa Marta. Her killing was a stark reminder that speaking out on social and political issues in Colombia – whether land disputes, women’s rights, or the political violence that endures despite the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement – is dangerous business. For Maritza’s death is not an isolated incident: in the last three years, guerrillas (FARC remnants and others), criminals and mystery assailants have killed more than 300 activists (both men and women) like her.

Nor is Colombia the only country in its neighbourhood where violence against all human rights defenders is putting prominent women activists at risk of physical attack and other abuse. In 2018, our global conflict tracker CrisisWatch recorded several such murders elsewhere in Latin America – including that of Guatemalan indigenous activist Juana Raymundo in July and that of Colombian women’s rights activist Maria Caicedo Muñoz in October.

Women who are in the public eye as they challenge established norms and take on powerful interests, from governments to insurgencies to criminal gangs, are prominent targets; and women leaders representing neglected constituencies – such as the poor, ethnic and sexual minorities, displaced persons or migrants – are also preyed upon. The murder in March of Brazilian Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city council member, is a case in point. In addition to being a campaigner against corruption and police brutality, Franco was a powerful advocate for black women, the LGBT community and youth. The investigation has moved slowly.

In addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse.

From a global perspective, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst highlighted in a 2019 report that in the current political climate – where there has been both a backlash against human rights around the world and a rise in misogynistic rhetoric among political leaders – human rights defenders who are women “have been facing increased repression and violence across the globe”. The report suggests that these women are sometimes targeted for the causes they promote, and sometimes simply because they are women who are publicly asserting themselves.

Moreover, in addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse – which can include stigmatisation, public shaming (as a perceived way to damage their “honour”), threats of sexual violence, online harassment and killings. In April 2018, individuals seeking to undermine and intimidate Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub threatened her with sexual violence on social media and used a fake pornographic video to tarnish her reputation. In June, unknown individuals ransacked the home of journalist and activist Marvi Sirmed, who has done much to highlight the central role of women’s rights and the rule of law in Pakistan’s political transition. In July, an unknown man attacked with sulfuric acid anti-corruption campaigner Kateryna Handzyuk in Kherson, Ukraine; with burns over more than 30 per cent of her body, she died from her wounds in November. And in September, masked attackers opened fire on Soad al-Ali, a leading human rights activist and mother of four in her mid-forties, in broad daylight in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. During roughly the same period, three other influential Iraqi women, including social media leader Tara Fares, were killed, or found dead in suspicious circumstances, at other locations.

World leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life.

One concern about the threat of violence or attack on women activists is that it not only affects their safety, but could chill their participation in public life, where women are already under-represented. Globally, only a quarter of parliamentarians are women, and nearly all heads of state or government leaders are men. This is not to say that addressing risks of political violence will by itself increase women’s representation in politics, as there are many possible reasons for the low numbers on women’s political participation worldwide. Nor does progress in this regard necessarily correlate with lesser danger to women. (Latin America, which has some of the highest rates of violence against human rights defenders in the world, boasts a vibrant women’s rights movement, and several of its parliaments have relatively high levels of female representation.) But making it safer for women to participate in public life can only help. States and their leaders should use the tools at their disposal – from good laws to strong enforcement to hold those responsible for abuse to account, to ensuring that security forces are attuned to the protection needs of women – to combat violence against women activists.

Protecting women’s space in politics is especially important in the conflict resolution area. Despite women’s longstanding role in informal dispute resolution, their near absence from peace talks and similar international security processes and mechanisms, as in Yemen or Afghanistan, requires particular attention. Sidelining conflict-affected women – or women representing those with perceived low status in society due to their socio-economic status, age, education, ethnicity or religion – is no way to build inclusive and lasting frameworks for peace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, world leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life. They should take more measures to prevent and condemn verbal and physical attacks on women human rights defenders or political leaders and their families. They should also carve out greater and safer space for civil society, including women’s groups, to enable them to have a say in government policies affecting their lives.

The implications of violence against women activists and politicians are broad, not just for families, but also for the well-being of societies at large. Failure to protect women like Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva and Marielle Franco sends a terrible signal to women and girls wanting to raise their voice in the public square. Chilling their participation in public life would be a tragedy not just for the women whose potential is being squandered but for the communities in which they live.