Queer Feminist Border Thinking in Bishkek and Almaty

Victoria Kravtsova, Humboldt Universität Berlin

This paper seeks to enrich Madina Tlostanova’s decolonial theorizing by looking for the understandings of feminism and decolonization within feminist networks of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Due to material constraints, the scope of research had to be limited to two cities, Bishkek and Almaty, which possess the vastest networks of (queer) feminist activists, artists and academics in the respective regions. The study is based on 50 in-depth semi-structured interviews, which center the positionings of activists, academics and artists regarding Russia and ‘the West’ and their understandings of decolonization. Interlocutors from both cities have agreed that they feel themselves caught between two dependencies. Many experienced ‘colonial’ attitudes from ‘Russian’ activists and struggled with the tension between decolonization and feminism. The biggest challenge for most, however, was to decolonize their own activism. My interlocutors reflected on the problematic association of feminism with the ‘West’ and agreed on the need to situate it in the local conditions. The ways of doing this mentioned most frequently included speaking about locally relevant issues, using the local language, historical examples and traditional folklore. The main aim of these means of ‘localizing’ feminism was to bridge the divide between representatives of urban and rural communities. With the help of decolonial optics, my respondents made attempts to shift their understandings of feminism to become free of ‘theoretical dogmatism,’ thus, embodying what Tlostanova described as “border thinking.”

Between the post-s

Russian theorist Madina Tlostanova describes the ex-Soviet space as a “void”1 in the structure of global knowledge production, in which the Global South has a symbolic right to postcolonialism and the Global North, to postmodernism. For her, post-socialism or post-communism as a theoretical lens is insufficient to grasp the “postsocialist, postcolonial and post imperial overtones [that] intersect and communicate in the complex imaginary of the ex-Soviet space.”2 Tlostanova believes that the Soviet approach to creating “its own New Woman in her metropolitan and colonial versions” implied that “the gendered subjects of the ex-colonies of Russia and the USSR are not quite postcolonial and not entirely postsocialist.”3 However, this specificity, as well as “presocialist local genealogies of women’s struggles and resistance, tend to be erased.”4

Postcolonial theory becomes increasingly popular in the post-Soviet contexts as processes of decolonization continue in the former ‘periphery’ of the former USSR. However, postcolonial rhetoric entangled with the new dependencies of the ex-Soviet states might also reproduce colonial narratives5 or become instrumentalized by ruling elites. The appropriation of postcolonial theory by national/ist elites stems from the wish to control gender relationships in society. This has been well-described by researchers from Central Asia6, who focused on the post-Soviet transformation of the conceptualization of “womanhood.” From the Soviet ‘double burden’ of work and care the idea of ‘women’ became ‘traditionalized’ or defined through the local interpretations of Islam. The literature on contemporary gender discourses in Central Asia demonstrates that women resist these changes through art7, nongovernmental organization (NGO) work8, activism9 and academia.10 Instead, (queer) feminists engage with the idea of decolonization in their own ways. Further attention paid to these practices of resistance from scholars would enrich the field of literature on post-Soviet feminisms, which often focuses on such visible cases as ‘Femen’ in Ukraine or ‘Pussy Riot’ in Russia.11 Developing this field of inquiry is crucial to challenge the ‘attachment’ of discourses on ‘gender equality’ to the ‘West’ and develop intersectional sensitivity among feminists from the former USSR.

Feminist discourses in the former USSR

Feminist discourse is never a discourse, but discourses influenced “by unequal power structures”12 that make the movement constantly debate its own inclusivity. Feminist ideas may both develop alternatives to global hegemonies and reproduce existing inequalities in the condensing temporal economy of neoliberal academic capitalism.13 Koobak and Marling, while writing about the countries of the former USSR, describe the self-perception of local feminists as shaped by the so-called “lag discourse.”14 As the “West’s definition of progress includes gender equality, feminism in post-Soviet states is constructed as necessarily foreign to and rejected by local women.”15 The linkage of ‘gender equality’ with the ‘West,’ enhanced by its incorporation into the agenda of development institutions, NGOs and Western-style universities, results in the detachment of the agenda of these development institutions from the needs of local women and the ‘NGOization’ of activism.16 It also helps to sustain the rhetoric of nationalist groups that accuse (queer) feminists of being ‘Western’ agents.17

Feminisms in different ex-Soviet countries today follow their own paths. However, common challenges remain. Racism and colonialism, for instance, were understood, similarly to in the USSR, as problems of the ‘West’ and the ‘Third World,’ and the ex-Soviet societies are only now beginning to find the language to discuss these topics. Intersectional, decolonial and antiracist (queer) feminists are some of the most significant contributors to the debates on decolonization and antiracism. Tlostanova18 applied the concept of “imperial difference” to post-Soviet feminisms, showing that they are not only characterized by the “lag discourse”19 in relation to the ‘West,’ but also have their own ‘Others.’ She drew attention to the blindness of ex-Soviet feminisms to race by referring to such formerly colonized parts of the USSR as Caucasus or Central Asia. Numerous authors today from the former periphery of the USSR20 are discussing the challenges of theorizing feminism and decolonization in the countries of the former USSR. The goal of this study was to enrich their perspectives by looking at the understandings of feminism and decolonization in the feminist networks of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Between two poles

My research took place in two cities which possess the vastest networks of (queer) feminist activists, artists and academics in the region – Bishkek and Almaty. I conducted over 50 in-depth semi-structured interviews during a research stay in 2019 to figure out the understandings of decolonization that circulate in the feminist communities of these two cities. The interviews centered on the positionings of activists, academics and artists regarding Russia and ‘the West,’ as well as their understandings of decolonization. I also attempted to understand the roots of these positions, and how they influence local formulations of feminism.

Interviewees from both cities have agreed that they feel themselves caught between two dependencies. As Altynai Kambekova describes it, after the dissolution of the USSR the region faced a “twofold” problem:
[…] on the one hand, the erasure of the voices, and therefore, the mere existence of the entire region, just because it could not be perceived as a separate entity outside of its former colonial center – Russia, and on the other, inevitable subjugation to larger neocolonial forces that came along with neoliberal Western capitalism.21

The legacy of the former Empire continues to have an impact on the lives of locals, many of whom experienced ‘colonial’ attitudes from ‘Russian’ activists. Zhanar Sekerbaeva 22 notes that while Kazakhstani activists know about everything that happens in Russia, Russians are generally unaware of the struggles of Central Asian feminists. Association of ‘feminism,’ ‘queerness’ and ‘human rights’ with the ‘West’ caused another problem – local activists were supposed to “internalize global norms.”23 Thus, it was crucial for local feminists to ‘situate’ or ‘localize’ feminism in their conditions to defend their independence and subjectivity. ‘Situating’ was, thus, synonymous with decolonizing. The ways of doing this included speaking about locally relevant issues, using local language, historical examples and traditional folklore. Some interviewees also expressed positions similar to those of African or Latin American feminists24, describing as “decolonial” a “softer” version of feminism that includes alliances with men and appeals to the practices that might have existed before colonization. Others, however, found these forms of localization inappropriate and described them as examples of colonial thinking.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

The feminist communities of Bishkek and Almaty have different challenges although they are connected in many ways. The proliferation of women’s rights and LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other possible sexual and gender identities) NGOs in post-independence Kyrgyzstan25 precluded that many of the Kyrgyz feminists either work or have worked in one of these organizations. Feminist networks in Almaty are comprised mostly of grassroots activists and artists, apart from ‘Feminita,’ an NGO. Thus, most participants in Bishkek reflected on the impact of international institutions and NGOs on feminism and defined themselves as “less radical” in comparison to activists in Kazakhstan. Several respondents believed that while ‘Western’ discourses had a stronger impact on Kyrgyzstani feminists, in Kazakhstan, a stronger vector of influence was that of Russian feminists. This influence was named as a reason for the bigger popularity of radical feminism that opposes the legalization of sex work and any kind of pornography.

The relationship to the USSR was also different in the two countries. Most respondents in Kyrgyzstan believed that if the Russian Empire could be described as colonial, the USSR could not, because it contained not only colonial but also emancipatory elements. For some, this position might have been informed by the activities of ‘SHTAB’ – an institution that existed in Bishkek from 2012 to 2016 and promoted so-called “queer communism.”26 In Kazakhstan, more interlocutors believed that both the Russian Empire and the USSR were colonizers. A possible reason for this, as one respondent mentioned, might have been the difference in the histories of the two countries, as a lot more people died in Kazakhstan during the Soviet times. The feminist community here seemed to be divided on the question of nationalism: while some saw the promotion of the Kazakh language and traditions as decolonization, for others, mostly non-Kazakhs, this appeared as nationalism.

The debates on decolonization within the Kazakhstani feminist movement were also influenced by Tlostanova’s writings.27 Some of my respondents believed that this influence resulted in decolonization being primarily associated with desovietization. Several interlocutors from both countries also mentioned a group of scholars and artists who identified as “decolonialists” and were in close conversation with Tlostanova’s ideas. In both Bishkek and Almaty, as one of my interlocutors said, “feminism and decolonization were brought about by the same people, both at once” – thus, entangled and inseparable. However, they were rejecting feminist ideas as a colonial continuation of the Soviet discourse of saving “the women of the Orient.” While feminists believed that such practices as the status of kelin 28 and kalym 29 can never be justified by references to tradition, decolonialists redefined them as having a positive significance. The goal of this was to return agency to rural women, whom feminist conceptualizations of gender equality positioned as ‘oppressed.’ Even though this echoed the wishes of feminist activists, some of them described the attitudes of “decolonialists” as revanchist and believed that they “devalue both feminism and decolonization.”

In the end, for both “feminists” and “decolonialists” to decolonize meant to bridge the divide between representatives of urban and rural communities and set oneself free of “theoretical dogmatism” and “elitism.” Though arguing with each other, both agreed that there is a “need to get rid of the image of ‘the oppressed woman# that NGO workers have.” As Davlabegim Mamadshoeva writes30, when doing feminist research, one always has to shift and balance between feminist knowledge and the wish to influence someone, and respect for the world views of those with whom you work, even when they say something ‘antifeminist.’ A lot of my interlocutors believed that ‘Western’ colonialism was incompatible with that of the Russian/Soviet Empire, as the latter relied on actual violence. Nevertheless, the linkage of feminist agenda with Western-style universities and international institutions implied that the divide between rural and urban populations also led to the ‘elitism’ and classism of the feminist movement. Even though examples of some of my respondents proved that an academic background was not necessary for gaining access to a position in a feminist NGO, a queer feminist agenda was still mostly available only to those who knew English and had a university education. Those interlocutors who did not possess either told me that they got information about feminist theory from their friends and colleagues. However, even for that information, one would at least need to know Russian.

Queer feminist border thinking

Aware that being a feminist is also a privilege, my interlocutors reflected on the inclusivity of feminist discourses: “The problem of many of us is that we have read a lot of things in the books and feminism in our heads is in such a vacuum condition that all divergencies seem to be non-feminism.” Those most aware of that were the ones who had experience of working in rural settings: “in the regions there is no feminism, there is no language in which it can be operationalized. When we try […] even intersectional feminists, no matter how critical you are – it all falls into pieces.” In Bishkek and Almaty, they actively looked for ways to stop reproducing the image of ‘saviors’ that haunts the feminist movement. Decolonization was a tool that helped to make feminism more sensitive towards perspectives of the less privileged, moving the gaze ‘from the center to the periphery.’ In the words of one of my interlocutors, “We usually look at the center, not onto the margins. And here it is different – not imperial center, but colonized territories, not cities but villages.” Another activist supposed that “maybe what we need is some kind of intersectionality inside of intersectionality – the fact that we are a postcolonial country does not mean that all women here are the same.”

Though having the same impulse behind it, decolonization was framed differently by my interlocutors. Some believed it was synonymous with intersectionality. Others said that intersectionality was useless in the local context without its “adaptation.” For some, decolonial feminism was similar to Xenofeminism31, “radically inclusive queer feminism concerned with not only non-women, but also non-humans.” Others believed one had depart from ‘Western’ theorizing and look more into the local history, as Sekerbayeva32 did with Kazakh tales. Paying more attention to the origin of ideas we sometimes took for granted was also recommended: “sometimes we can say that feminist theory has outlived itself, that queer theory is what we need now […] And no one goes to an archive to understand who was here before them.” Most shared the opinion that it was necessary to look for ways of creating forms of situated solidarity across difference, and question and reframe their understandings of feminism so that they would benefit local women from all parts of the society, including those without higher education and knowledge of Russian and English. This suggests the possibility of bridging the divide between urban and rural communities and constructing “more symmetrical and dialogic relations between Western and non-Western cultures and epistemologies.”33

The ways in which my interlocutors interpreted feminism were not dependent on the ideas from either ‘Russia’ or the ‘West.’ Instead, they were examples of critical “border thinking”34, which brought ‘globalized’ feminist theories together with local practices, ideas and experiences that also come from those not familiar with any kind of theorizing. As Prokopenko writes, “to decolonize oneself is not to go back to something that existed before colonization. To decolonize (oneself, a place) is to engage in the non-hierarchical relationship with the universe as a unity of phenomena – of matter.”35 The approaches to feminism in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan involved unlearning hierarchies in all spheres of life and, thus, represented decolonial thinking and doing.

Wuthnow believes that “what is needed is a conceptualization of subjectivity that allows for notions of embodiment, location and history that avoid essentialism, thus legitimizing historicized and situated ‘experience’ as a ground for the production of knowledge and political action.”36 As a solution to the ‘universalism’ and ‘elitism’ of feminist theory, my interlocutors chose to act based on the concrete issue they needed to resolve – be it a discussion with ‘Western’ academics or a project with rural women. Instead of new generalizations, they adapted a “sharper focus on the complex singularities that constitute their respective locations.”37 The activists, scholars and artists I met in Bishkek and Almaty strive to achieve new solidarities and create “infrastructures of resistance”38 – alliances based not on homogenous identity but on our locations within power structures. As “tricksters and border dwellers who switch codes and identities as a way to survive and resist”39, they move between theories, dependencies and practical needs on the ground, exemplifying “critical intersectionality” – “a living practice that precedes yet calls for theorization while resisting ossification” and helps to express “oppositional gendered being, thinking, and agency across the transcultural and transepistemic pluriversal loci.”40

Victoria Kravtsova holds an MA in International Relations from the Free University Berlin, Humboldt University and University of Potsdam (Germany) and is now applying for PhD programs. Contact: vicksel3@gmail.com.

1 Madina Tlostanova, Postsocialist ≠ Postcolonial? On Post-Soviet Imaginary and Global Coloniality, in: Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48 (2012) 2, pp. 130–142, here p. 130.
2 Tlostanova Postsocialist ≠ Postcolonial? Here p. 142.
3 Madina Tlostanova, Postcolonial Post-Soviet Trajectories and Intersectional coalitions, in Baltic Worlds 1–2 (2015), pp. 38–43, here p. 40.
4 Tlostanova, Postcolonial Post-Soviet Trajectories, here p. 40.
5 Alexnder Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, Cambridge: Polity Press 2003. This book was criticized for perpetuating aspects of the Russo-Soviet colonialism. Vitaliy Chernetsky, Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization, Montreal / London: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2007, here pp. 206–208. In addition, “postsocialist postcolonialism” in general is criticized for its imbalanced focus on Russia, see Tamar Koplatadze, Theorising Russian Postcolonial Studies, in: Postcolonial Studies 22 (2019) 4, pp. 469–489.
6 Elena Kim, Re-feminizing the Post-Soviet Women: Identity, Politics and Virginity Ceremonies in Contemporary Kyrgyzstan, in: Journal of Gender Studies 29 (2020) 6, pp. 706–716; Mehrangiz Najafizadeh / Linda Lindsey (eds.), Women of Asia. Globalization, Development, and Gender Equity, London / New York: Routledge 2019; Svetlana Shakirova, Zhenshchiny.SU – Zhenshchiny.KZ: Osobennosti Perekhoda, in: Sophia V. Kasymova (ed.), Gender: Tradit͡sii i Sovremennostʹ, Dushanbe: Shkola Gendernogo Obrazovanii͡a 2005, pp. 92–135.
7 Diana T. Kudaibergenova, Between the State and the Artist: Representations of Femininity and Masculinity in the Formation of Ideas of the Nation in Central Asia, in: Nationalities Papers 44 (2005) 2, pp. 225–246.
8 Elena Kim et al., Making the ‘Empowered Woman’: Exploring Contradictions in Gender and Development Programming in Kyrgyzstan, in: Central Asian Survey 37 (2018) 2, pp. 228–246.
9 Zhanar Sekerbayeva, Queer Activism in Contemporary Kazakhstan, in: Perekrestki 1–2 (2017), pp. 138–151; Syinat Sultanalieva, Escaping the Dichotomies of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’: Chronotopes of Queerness in Kyrgyzstan, in: Emily Channell-Justice (ed.), Decolonizing Queer Experience. LGBT+ Narratives from Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Lanham: Rowman and Littefield 2020, pp. 55–72.
10 Diana T. Kudaibergenova et al., When Your Field Is Also Your Home: Introducing Feminist Subjectivities in Central Asia, Open Democracy, October 7, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/when-your-field-also-your-home-introducing-feminist-subjectivities-central-asia (accessed July 1, 2022).
11 See, for instance, Emily Channell, Is Sextremism the New Feminism? Perspectives from Pussy Riot and Femen, in: Nationalities Papers 42 (2014) 4, pp. 611–614; Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, The Pussy Riot Affair and Putin’s Démarche from Sovereign Democracy to Sovereign Morality, in: Nationalities Papers 42 (2014) 4, pp. 615–621; Valerie Sperling, Russian Feminist Perspectives on Pussy Riot, in: Nationalities Papers 42 (2014) 4, pp. 591–603; Marina Yusupova, Pussy Riot: A Feminist Band Lost in History and Translation, in: Nationalities Papers 42 (2014) 4, pp. 604–610; Katharina Wiedlack, Lost in Translation? Pussy Riot Solidarity Activism and the Danger of Perpetuating North/Western Hegemonies, in: Religion and Gender 4 (2014) 2, pp. 145–165; Elizabeth Groeneveld, Are We All Pussy Riot? On Narratives of Feminist Return and the Limits of Transnational Solidarity, in: Feminist Theory 16 (2015) 3, pp. 289–307; Elena Gapova, Becoming Visible in The Digital Age, in: Feminist Media Studies 15 (2015) 1, pp. 18–35.
12 Richa Nagar, Footloose Researchers, ‘Traveling’ Theories, and the Politics of Transnational Feminist Praxis, in: Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 9 (2002) 2, pp. 179–186.
13 Chandra Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Durham: Duke University Press 2003.
14 Redi Koobak / Raili Marling. The Decolonial Challenge: Framing Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe within Transnational Feminist Studies, in: European Journal of Women’s Studies 21 (2014) 4, pp. 330–343, here p. 332.
15 Koobak / Marling, The Decolonial Challenge, here p. 332.
16 Sonia E. Alvarez, Advocating Feminism: The Latin American Feminist NGO ‘Boom’, in: International Feminist Journal of Politics 1 (1999) 2, pp. 181–209; Jean Féaux de la Croix, How to Build a Better Future? Kyrgyzstani Development Workers and the ‘Knowledge Transfer’ Strategy, in: Central Asian Survey 32 (2013) 4, pp. 448–461; Kristen Ghodsee, Feminism-by-Design: Emerging Capitalisms, Cultural Feminism, and Women’s Nongovernmental Organizations in Post-socialist Eastern Europe, in: Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2004), pp. 727–753; Kim, Elena et al., Making the ‘Empowered Woman.’
17 Joanna P. Hoare, Doing Gender Activism in a Donor-organized Framework: Constraints and Opportunities in Kyrgyzstan, in: Nationalities Papers 44 (2016) 2, pp. 281–298; Márgara Millán, The Traveling of ‘Gender’ and Its Accompanying Baggage: Thoughts on the Translation of Feminism(s), the Globalization of Discourses, and Representational Divides, in: European Journal of Women’s Studies 23 (2016) 1, pp. 6–27.
18 Madina Tlostanova, Gender Epistemologies and Eurasian Borderlands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010.
19 Koobak / Marling, The Decolonial Challenge, here p. 332.
20 Mariam Agamyan, Shcho novogo v moemu ri͡ukzaku, in: Feminist Critique, 2018, https://feminist.krytyka.com/ua/articles/shcho-novoho-v-moiemu-ryukzaku (accessed July 1, 2022); Altynay Kambekova, Stuck between the Past and the Present: Coloniality of Queer Activism in Central Asia, n: Feminist Translocalities, 2020, https://feminisms.co/zine/colonialism-queer-central-asia (accessed July 1, 2022); Kudaibergenova, When Your Field; Maria Mayerchyk / Olga Plakhotnik. Between Time of Nation and Feminist Time: Genealogies of Feminist Protest in Ukraine, in: Annette Bühler-Dietrich (ed.), Feminist Circulations between East and West/Feministische Zirkulationen zwischen Ost und West, Berlin: Frank & Timme 2019, pp. 47–70; Lesia Pagulich / Tatsiana Shchurko. (Re)thinking Postsocialism: Interview with Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, in: Feminist Critique 3 (2020), pp. 91–111.
21 Kambekova, Stuck between the Past.
22 Kudaibergenova, When Your Field.
23 Irina Liczek / Jens Wandel, Internalization of Universal Norms. A Study of Gender Equality in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, in: Amanda E. Wooden / Christoph H. Stefes (eds.), The Politics of Transition in Central Asia and the Caucasus, New York: Routledge 2009, pp. 205–225.
24 Deirdre Byrne, Decolonial African Feminism for White Allies, in: Journal of International Women’s Studies 21 (2020), pp. 37–46.
25 Hoare, Doing Gender Activism, here p. 282.
26 Shtab, Manifest kvir-kommunizma. Art-initiatives.org, 2013.
27 Tlostanova, Gender Epistemologies.
28 A newly wed daughter-in-law who has to do an enormous amount of unpaid labor, obeying her husband’s mother.
29 The tradition of paying the family of the bride.
30 Kudaibergenova, When Your Field.
31 Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminist Manifesto, 2015, https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/#zero (accessed July 1, 2022).
32 Zhanar Sekerbayeva, Stifled Monstrosities: Gender-Transgressive Motifs in Kazakh Folklore, in: Emily Channell-Justice (ed.), Decolonizing Queer Experience. LGBT+ Narratives from Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Lanham: Rowman and Littefield 2020, pp. 135–154.
33 Tlostanova, Gender Epistemologies, here p. 205.
34 Madina Tlostanova / Suruchi Thapar-Björkert / Redi Koobak, Border Thinking and Disidentification: Postcolonial and Postsocialist Dialogues, in: Feminist Theory 17 (2016) 2, pp. 211–128.
35 Lesia Prokopenko, Exit from the Colony. Farewell to the Empire, in: Intermodal Terminal, 2019, https://intermodalterminal.info/exit-colony-eng// (accessed February 10, 2020).
36 Julia Wuthnow, Deleuze in the Postcolonial. On Nomads and Indigenous Politics, in: Feminist Theory 3 (2020) 2, pp. 183–200, here p. 194.
37 Rosi Braidotti, The Critical Posthumanities; or, Is Medianatures to Naturecultures as Zoe Is to Bios? Cultural Politics an International Journal 12 (2016) 3, pp. 380–390, here p. 387.
38 Anna Engelhardt / Sasha Shestakova, Bolʹshie krany dai͡ut nam bolʹshie preimushchestva, Syg.ma, December 17, 2019, https://syg.ma/@anna-engelhardt/bolshiie-krany-daiut-nam-bolshiie-prieimushchiestva-1 (accessed July 1, 2022).
39 Tlostanova, Postcolonial Post-Soviet Trajectories, here p. 41.
40 Tlostanova, Postcolonial Post-Soviet Trajectories, here p. 42.

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