The FemAgora Central Asia festival kicked off online this week and will feature events tackling feminism, gender equality, LGBT+ discrimination, and domestic violence with the participation of several activists, lawyers, and academics from across the region through the end of September.
When it was first announced for March 8, 2018, the FemAgora festival tore down a wall of indifference to the topic in Central Asia. At the time, activists from Almaty, Kazakhstan helped organize a two-day event on gender equality, the first of its kind in Central Asia. In 2019, the experience was repeated with a week-long event and this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized all in-person events, the plan was to have a two-month long series of events, linking Women’s Day on March 8 to Victory Day on May 9. The organizers wanted to use the symbol of Victory Day as a remembrance of the contribution of women in the defeat of fascism in World War II, something that Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, who is now at the frontline of the protests in Belarus, proudly showed in her book “The Unwomanly Face of War.”
Almaty has become a symbol of the feminist fight for equal rights and non-discrimination in the region. The FemAgora festival has acted as a hub, an aggregator of activists and advocates that exchange thoughts on lived experiences and plans for the future.
The first event was dedicated to the construction of a feminist movement in Central Asia, and featured activists from across the region connected via video conference. The activists talked about the enduring oppression of women and LGBT+ people as a global problem. In Central Asia, new state initiatives to support women, however, frame them as mothers, daughters, or wives, contributing to the normalization of gender inequality and the marginalization of those who do not abide by these norms.
Naturally, as Galina Sokolova from Kiev mentioned, activism in general and cross-sectional solidarity in particular “were easier a few years ago,” when LGBT+ activism was not yet so aggressively targeted by governments. And while the equation that “feminism as a sickness is being progressively abandoned and events on women’s rights are being held, LGBT+ issues are still marginalized as too sensitive for the public,” Zhanar Sekerbayeva from Kazakhstan said.
Even more marginalized are women who become addicted to drugs. Oksana Ibragimova from Kazakhstan presented her “narcofeminism” initiative to support women in their struggle through addiction and violence.
As soon as the word “feminism” is uttered in Central Asia, the general public cringes: “There is an information vacuum about feminism, they constantly accuse us activists of being influenced from the West,” activists Anastasiya Cherepanova and Vera Sukhina from Uzbekistan said. The “Us vs. Them” geopolitical juxtaposition of a presumably pro-LGBT+ West against a traditionalist East that stands by heteronormative codes has become not only misleading, but also politically harmful to the cause of equality.
Notably, Cherepanova and Sukhina said that their experiences as pioneers in feminist activism in Tashkent have found resistance from the government and society. Elsewhere in Central Asia, this year’s Women’s Day marches have been either violently attacked or heavily policed and sanctioned.
The backlash against feminism was addressed in Altyn Kapalova’s presentation about Feminnale, a feminist art exhibition held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2019. Together with some of the artwork, Kapalova also mentioned the censorship that the event had to withstand both from the Ministry of Culture and from nationalist groups who disrupted the exhibition.
Most of the participants underlined the importance of reaching segments of society beyond urban centers, especially where local languages are predominantly used. Feminist concepts and LGBT+ terminologies ought to be translated into the experiences of the local people, especially those who are already living at the margins. Besides acting as a regional lingua franca, Russian is also used by NGOs and activists to report back on their accomplishments to the foundations and organizations providing them with funds. The vicious circle of grant dependency, however, should be decoupled from the language issue, also in light of a decolonial agenda. “Language is the medium, the message is far more important,” Sekerbayeva said.
In the past few years, feminist activism took the form of conferences, academic debates, and lectures, but also songs and art projects. The FemAgora festival brings together the faces of these debates.
During the next month, the FemAgora festival will continue with a wide range of events tackling thorny and emotional issues around the role of women and LGBT+ in Central Asian societies. The contagious public activism of its representatives could have a ripple effect on the local population, unveiling long-marginalized, multi-faceted segments.