Uyat – the Kyrgyz word for shame – can be a powerful mechanism for social control in Kyrgyz society, used not only to reprimand children for naughty behavior, but also to censure women’s conduct. While some feminists argue that no one should have the power to label a woman’s behavior as uyat, Saikal Jumalieva – who goes by the stage name Biykech – takes a different approach and reclaims the reproach in her new song, “Kyrk Kyz.”
The song’s title refers to the etymological myths of Kyrgyz identity – “kyrk kyz,” meaning 40 girls, morphing into “Kyrgyz” as a representation of 40 tribes that joined together as one nation. But Jumalieva told The Diplomat that the title has another deeper meaning, coming from a Kyrgyz saying that 40 houses keep a girl in line. “Instead of admonition, girls need support,” she said.
Jumalieva has a long history of fusing dance and video to draw attention to social issues; her first step into the spotlight happened when a video in which she dances to “Stayin’ Alive” in a yurt went viral in 2017. The attention was fun, but Jumalieva was serious about using the platform to show the weight of responsibility on young Kyrgyz brides.
With “Kyrk Kyz,” Jumalieva wanted to represent the alarming range and degree of physical and emotional harassment women face in Kyrgyzstan. The video opens at a strange angle; the viewer sees braids flinging and hears heavy breathing, but does not know where they are or where they are going. The perspective shifts and we see a man shove his way into a yurt with a girl flung over his shoulder; women place a white headscarf over her braids – a sign of acquiescing to a forced marriage – but she tears the scarf off.
The most explicitly editorializing moment of the video takes place in an art museum, a nod to the shameful censorship of an international art exhibit in November 2019. In the scene, Jumalieva is gazing at a painting of a young girl holding a book – “Daughter of Soviet Kirghizia,” which was finished in 1948 and became a symbol of progress and modernization – when a man walks up behind her and slaps her behind. Disgusted, Jumalieva storms away, flicking him off as she leaves the exhibit hall. The man chuckles and turns back to look at the painting, only to see Jumalieva has replaced the daughter of Soviet Kirghizia.
“Hands off boy,” Jumalieva sings, gesturing toward the book in her arms – a copy of Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code. “Your language is uyat, utterly shameful!” The man, shocked to hear this admonition lobbed at his own behavior, bumbles off. Left alone with no one to bother them, Jumalieva and a small crew of girls dance together, swinging their 40 braids with abandon.
In addition to the impressive visual storytelling, what’s mesmerizing about “Kyrk Kyz” is how Jumalieva blends modern musical forms – she raps through most of the track – with traditional sounds and symbols. Girls braid each others’ hair into 40 plaits, and traditional instruments – the komuz, a fretless three-stringed lyre, and the temir komuz, a metal mouth harp – ground the track.
While singers like Gulzada Ryskulova and Mirbek Atabekov have helped to reclaim traditional Kyrgyz instruments and lyrics, music in the “girl power” genre has tended to deviate from these traditional symbols, focusing instead on claims for social and political equality. As Jumalieva sings, “Bad daughter, when will we be free?” she jumps out of a sunduk, a trunk that carries a bride’s dowry, wearing only a coin-studded scarf around her waist and her body shimmering in gold glitter. In Jumalieva’s world, so-called “bad girls” also get to embrace and embody national tradition and culture.
“Kyrk Kyz” was released on March 20, in the early days after Kyrgyzstan’s first reported case of COVID-19. Although sheltering in place should be conducive for a pop song with a punchy video to go viral, “Kyrk Kyz” hasn’t gotten as much attention as Jumalieva was expecting, with just over 13,000 views on YouTube one month after it aired.
“On the one hand it’s a bit offensive, that the release was such a dud,” Jumalieva told The Diplomat. “I wanted to draw attention to these problems, and so much effort was invested into the video.”
The pandemic is the sole focus of the world’s collective attention right now, and Kyrgyzstan is no exception. But the social and economic issues that faced the country before the virus hit have not gone away; if anything, they have only been magnified. Patriarchal violence remains a very serious problem in Kyrgyzstan, and Jumalieva’s art reminds us not to forget it.