A viral video depicting a man’s twisted torture of his wife in southern Kyrgyzstan has revived a nationwide conversation about domestic violence. Of course, this conversation never went away for victims or activists, but the case of a man who hung tires over his wife’s shoulders and doused her with cold water has brought gender-based violence back into focus after the COVID-19 pandemic dominated Kyrgyzstan’s media space for months.
The incident occurred in the southern region of Jalalabad on June 8. By the time the video emerged on June 12, the woman had already filed a complaint with the police. The video quickly gained attention on social media, and many responded with fury and deep sadness. Artist Tatyana Zelenskaya’s drawing, which depicts a woman wrapped in barbed wire with tires strung across her shoulders, her hair draped over her face, came to stand in for sharing the graphic video itself.
Indeed, the outrage that followed the video reflects the magnifying power of images. Social science research has shown that visuals trigger stronger emotional reactions than spoken or written information. Technological developments – like wider internet access and the spread of smartphones with high-quality cameras – have changed the process of sharing images.. As the rise of amateur photography in the 1960s was a boon for the civil rights movement in the United States, amateur videography and the means to share clips far and wide has shifted the power over official narratives. In many ways, social media gives a voice to those on the periphery, and the aggregation of these stories can force change in political and social institutions.
One thing that differentiates the Jalalabad video from other bystander clips meant to shed light on hierarchical violence, however, is the motivation behind the recording itself. This instance of abuse was not exposed by a whistleblower, someone who shot the scene in secret with the intent of gathering evidence of abuse. Rather, the man wanted the scene to be recorded, asking repeatedly whether the camera was still rolling. As if the cruelty of his actions were not painful enough, he wanted the woman’s family to see his wife’s humiliation to “teach her a lesson.”
Just as videos and memes that make their way through social media networks can destabilize violent institutions, images and videos can also serve to reinforce harmful norms.
Herein lies the tension of this particular moment becoming a symbol of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, this instance of especially twisted violence has shown incredible awareness-building and mobilizing potential. On the other, this woman’s most shameful private moment – filmed with the very intention of humiliating her – has now been seen by thousands.
Publicity is no guarantee for justice, and indeed, overexposure can in some cases be counterproductive. On June 15, the local Department of Internal Affairs reported that the woman had forgiven her husband and written a follow-up statement asking him not to be charged. Human Rights Watch pointed to “stigma, pressure on women to maintain the family unit and reconcile with abusers, and family members, police, and judges dissuading them from filing or pursuing complaints” to explain why the woman withdrew the complaint against her husband. Certainly, she faced these pressures, but it is also important to consider the poor track record of Kyrgyzstan’s justice system when it comes to enforcing laws against gender-based violence.
On June 18, less than a week after the video from Jalalabad emerged, several politicians spoke out against proposed amendments to existing laws against domestic violence that would have heightened the punishment for abusers. A district court in Bishkek ruled that the police repression of the March 8 protests was lawful, and instead fined the women who’d been detained 3,000 soms ($40) each for participating in a rally that was derailed by masked provocateurs. Police continue to harass protesters who draw attention to gender-based violence.
While it is tempting to point to weak state capacity as an explanation for inadequate responses to cases of gender-based violence, this interpretation overlooks the ways that the channels for citizens to demand protection and accountability are being strangled from within.