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Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Women and Radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine
Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine
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

Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine

Originally published in Aljazeera

Countries with ‘feminist’ foreign policies need a sharper gender framework for addressing Ukraine’s predicament.

Even before the Russian military fired its first strikes in its assault on Ukraine, there were signs that this conflict, like all wars, would upend the peacetime relations and identities of men, women, and people of all genders and inflict suffering on them in very particular ways.

Writing about World War II, the Russian author Svetlana Alexievich reflected that, “Women’s war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”

Last week, the image of a wounded and pregnant Ukrainian woman curled on a stretcher appeared on the front page of nearly every British newspaper, and Western leaders, as well as the Ukrainian president, mentioned the horrors facing women and children in every address calling for unity. But the Western supporters of Ukraine, especially the US, NATO, and the European Union, who have insisted for more than two decades now that women’s security shapes their approach to dealing with war, have done little to show that gender will be their framework, or even a framework, for addressing Ukraine’s predicament.

We already see this war cementing old gender roles and inflicting terrible harm on people of all genders in the process. The forced universal conscription of men in Ukraine and Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are resurrecting binaries of men as defender-warriors and women as fragile and needing protection. At the same time, the dozens of Ukrainian women signing up to fight, and the narrative imagery of these gun-strapped blonde soldiers skittering across social media, makes it hard to talk about gender and this war in conventional ways.

Ukraine is contending with the tensions of a masculine narrative playing out in border policy and the narrative of brave Ukrainian female warriors rising to repel the advancing enemy. Grimmest of all is the imagery of mobilised children. Recently a picture of a little girl with a lollipop in her mouth perched on a window with a weapon circulated online. What might prove most challenging for a traditional gender-sensitive approach to this war is the emerging and dominant glorification of the militarisation of an entire society.

Despite universal forced conscription, many men do not wish to fight. Men trying to leave the country have been shamed by crowds for not wanting to stay. Trans women who are identified as men in their paperwork have been stopped at the border and prevented from leaving.

We know from other contexts where there seemed no alternative but to mobilise men of fighting age that it often causes further problems down the line. In Nigeria, too, communities saw little option but for young and middle-aged men (and some women too) to join fighter groups to defend themselves from the attacks of Boko Haram. Protecting the family and community was integral to what it meant to be a good man so men and even adolescent boys faced significant pressure – from their friends and others in their communities, from the state, and from themselves – to join such groups. This development blurred the line between fighter and civilian and meant all people living in these locations were seen as fair targets.

In conflicts where similar dynamics are at play, we see little time in the urgency of battle to train these civilian men and women (and others) who mobilise. Any training provided tends to focus on arms handling skills rather than vital concepts of how to wage war in ways compatible with human rights, international humanitarian law, and civilian protection standards. Not surprisingly, levels of human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are higher in conflicts where civilians are mobilised in this way. Indeed, new Ukrainian laws make it legal for anyone to kill invaders. Yet, discussions around military support to Ukraine so far have failed to sufficiently centre the need to mitigate civilian harm during the course of operations.

The response to date not only disregards the potential dangers of forced conscription for men and boys, but it also does not fully consider the risks it creates for women and girls. It is possible that Russia’s floundering war may yet be slowed by compromise, but it appears that for the foreseeable weeks, women will be left to navigate ways to safety, and tasked with their own wellbeing as well as that of their children and the elders they have with them, without the customary support of their partners. Because women without men are seen as more vulnerable, they are more likely to be preyed upon. The strain of finding shelter and food, access to healthcare and education will be acute, and even worse for those with disabilities. Yet, there is insufficient attention paid to these intersectional and gendered vulnerabilities with people with disabilities saying they have been left to fend for themselves. Nor to the 100,000 to 200,000 children segregated from society in Ukraine’s orphanages and at risk of violence, abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labour.

Gender also seems missing from the discussion on non-military responses. The unexpected Western unity and quick sledgehammer of sanctions brought down on Russia by Ukraine’s allies may initially be felt most acutely by the well-off and internationally-oriented middle class, but over time, as the economy tanks, those who are already most marginalised and vulnerable will be hurt the most. We know from the most punishing sanctions regimes of recent memory, imposed on Iran and Venezuela, that these measures erode women’s labour force participation and leadership in key sectors, sap feminist activism, and boost securo-patriarchy, as skittish governments double down on masculine propaganda. The international reverberations of the sanctions – the rise in gas prices, and the grain shortages that are already ensuing from a break in Russian and Ukrainian supplies – will also be felt by the most vulnerable people worldwide, including the disproportionate numbers of women, people with disabilities, and children already facing hunger and poverty.

The conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of military forces.

And we know that during times of both conflict and economic uncertainty, levels of gender-based violence increase. How the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of military forces is already well-documented. The journeys across borders and into the homes of strangers undertaken by the more than two million Ukrainians who have fled so far (mostly women and children) leave them vulnerable to human traffickers and sexual exploitation. Women selling sex may be at risk of violence by soldiers and further human rights abuses. Not even when the fighting stops will there be a respite. Other conflicts show that gender-based violence rises during fighting and can increase even more when the bullets stop and men suffering from war trauma return home, to find women have been forced to take on decision-making roles during their absence.

Indeed, Russia’s security anxieties and the revival of NATO have reconfigured the Cold War. But before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s optics of bare-chested horse riding and emphasis on his physical manly prowess signalled he saw his country’s path as militant-minded, if not actually yet militant, and showed how militarism is linked with this very particular notion of masculinity.

Russian disinformation campaigns have tried to lodge the idea that entrance into NATO will require the acceptance of Western gender relations and the excising of traditional values. This clash of gender norms and associated masculinities finds the greatest resonance in the conflict bros, the foreign legion called for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and endorsed by Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary. Missing from this picture – whether it be the all-male Cabinet shared in Zelenskyy’s Telegram videos or the Biden-Putin-Zelenskyy triad – are women with feminist perspectives. They are largely marginalised in real decision-making at both national and global levels in this conflict despite feminists in Russia and elsewhere mobilising against war.

The last two weeks have highlighted how quickly countries resort to old ways of acting in times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic and climate crisis, resources that proved difficult to find for provision of decent basic services and reshaping economic systems in more (climate-) just ways have been quickly mobilised for defence expenditure. To widespread applause, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, announced the immediate establishment of a fund of €100bn to boost military strength and a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years. Sweden, Denmark and Poland also agreed to bolster military expenditure.

Is this arms spending race, action that seems certain to hurt gender equality, and world of militarised masculinities really the future we want? Alternatives seem impossible to imagine right now. In the midst of crisis, the drumbeat to war is overwhelming. Time to think, analyse, and reflect before acting seems like a luxury for another time. Yet, we have been here so many times before and it is vital to react differently.

Countries like Canada, France, Spain, Finland and Sweden say they have a feminist foreign policy. Yet, mentions of the deeply gendered harms inflicted by this war and how to better protect people of all genders, have been few and far between in the responses of nations who say they are committed to gender equality and women’s rights thus far, eclipsed by a focus on boosting arms deliveries and economic sanctions. These states should not only aim to apply these policies to the Global South battlefields where they usually administer their Women, Peace and Security agenda. They need to translate to being more prepared, vocal, and mitigating gendered harms during an unfolding war in Europe itself.

Contributors

Project Director, Gender and Conflict
AzadehMoaveni
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Chitra Nagarajan
Activist, writer, and researcher working on conflict, gender, human rights, and peace-building