Uyat: How Shame Keeps Us Hostage
"Uyat" (shame) in Kazakhstan enforces gender stereotypes, victim-blaming, and inadequate protection for women and children.
Women’s demands for more equality and the ability to make decisions independently are part of a worldwide phenomenon still being met with hostile laws and men’s misogynistic and sexist attitudes. Recent setbacks range from the Taliban’s ban on women attending schools and universities in Afghanistan to the US Supreme Court’s attempt to overturn Roe vs Wade and ban abortions countrywide. Even today, it seems that women of the world cannot catch a break.
But oppression doesn’t always come in the form of legal prohibitions. Sometimes it is hidden beneath a thin veil of ideology and tradition. Especially in post-colonial countries where after liberation they usually turn towards historic traditionalism — of the good old times when men could dominate the world and women could be no more than mothers and wives.
The Kazakh Example
A case in point is Kazakhstan – a nation where in Soviet times, people couldn’t even speak their own language without being labelled as ill-educated and uncultured. Since independence, many positive Kazakh traditions have been re-established, including Nauryz (the Turkic/Iranian spring equinox festival) and Tusau Kesu, a ceremony of cutting special ropes around the baby’s legs, on the day when the child takes its first steps (symbolizing a happy future life).
However, along with such positive traditions, we also see the re-emergence of misogynistic traditions such as bride kidnapping and having a toqal (second wife), both of which go against the law of the republic.
The word uyat is known to any Kazakhstani. The direct translation is “shame.” However, to understand the concept and importance of this word for Kazakh society, we must turn to real-life examples. A woman in today’s Kazakhstan is seen as a representation of the family’s honour and status. Therefore, she must be quiet, obedient, good wife material, and able to care for her husband and his family. Behaviour that goes against such stereotypes can be a cause of uyat. Although, in most cases, the main victims of uyat are ethnic Kazakh women, it affects the entire society of Kazakhstan.
Sculptures Can Be Shameless Too!
Sex remains a taboo topic in Kazakhstan, as are any signs of affection or intimacy between two people. And as with other traditional attitudes, it seems that such taboos are growing stronger in recent years. Take Tolepbay Yerbolat’s statue titled ‘Lovers’ featuring a couple. When erected in central Astana in 2005, nobody seems to have found it inappropriate. Indeed, the piece had been unveiled by none other than the then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
However, in 2016 a Kazakh man who had moved to the national capital only a month before decided to cover the girl with a large scarf. He told TengriNews that originally, he wanted to dress her in national costume, however, it wasn’t possible due to the “peculiarities of the statue”. His action brought voices of support and indignation among the public, wondering whether the girl’s scanty form might make foreigners visiting Nur-Sultan think that Kazakh women are “easily accessible.” One citizen wrote “we would not want a Kazakh woman with a bare navel to be exposed to everyone. I would still like to see the spirit of modesty and chastity come from her, and not something erotic.”
Uyatmen. Who Are They?
In 2016 Kazakh illustrator Murat Dolmanov made a series of illustrations inspired by this story. In it, we can see the journeys of an ‘Uyatman’ ready to fight against the shameless behaviour of women in Kazakh society. That same year the word uyatman (combining the Kazakh ‘uyat’ with the English ‘man’) suddenly leapt into popular consciousness and is widely used in Kazakhstan even today.
Uyatmen are those who are adamantly against any type of female “wrongdoing” and who choose to take action against “inappropriate behaviour.” This can even include marrying a foreigner: after all, Uyatmen typically view Kazakh women as objects that belong to Kazakh men. An article in the online magazine The Village Kazakhstan helps paint a picture of the problem of xenophobic compatriots ‘shaming’ Kazakh women who marry or date foreigners.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
Uyat in Kazakhstan also provides a cover for victim-blaming. Although domestic violence remains a serious problem in Kazakhstan, it is still not criminalized. Women who flee their abusive partners are often coerced to drop charges, forgive their abusers, and go back home because it would be ‘shameful,’ or in Kazakh, “uyat bolady!”
Current President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev has repeatedly promised to “tighten the penalties for sexual violence… and domestic violence against women.” However, nothing has changed so far. Human Rights Watch continues to call on Kazakhstan “to explicitly criminalize domestic violence” and to demand “greater accountability for abusers, as well as better support and protection for survivors, including in rural areas.”
Besides domestic violence, sexual abuse of women and children is another issue that the silence of uyat exacerbates. Out of fear of “what the neighbours will say,” people hide cases of assaults and abuse. Even if they have the strength to speak out, it is most likely the victim who will be shamed. Victim blaming is common worldwide, and Kazakhstan is no exception, so, out of fear of shame and/or blame, people prefer to stay silent.
Lack of Sex Education
A big issue of the Kazakhstani education system is the complete disregard for the importance of sex education. Some traditional and conservative parts of the population believe that educating children about sex will corrupt young minds. Maybe if uyatmen would take time to check statistics, they would see that not educating children about sex certainly does not eliminate the act itself. According to UNFPA Kazakhstan, the average age for beginning a sexual activity in Kazakhstan is 16.5 years, and a remarkable 16% of teenage girls fall pregnant. Of these, 62% of them give birth, 22% have an abortion, and 16% miscarry. There are all too many cases of young girls throwing away their newborn babies into the toilet, the trash container, and cases of dead newborn babies being found on the streets.
By not implementing sex education, the government is failing its obligation under the UN’s 1998 Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, “to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care to ensure, on the basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.”
Kazakh Activists Fighting Against Uyat
Some brave Kazakh activists have decided to take it upon themselves to help the young generation not to be afraid to know and talk about sex. One is Project Uyat Emes (Kazakh: ‘Not a Shame’), an educational website for teenagers and their parents. Its mission is to provide factual information about reproductive health and intimate hygiene and debunk myths regarding them. Another project is Ne Tabu (Russian: ‘Not a Taboo’), an Instagram page enlightening young followers about such important topics as how oral sex can transmit sexual diseases or what to do if a condom gets stuck inside.
In 2018, three young Kazakh women organized a simple but powerful exhibition called “Kiimdi Kinalama” (Kazakh: don’t blame the clothes). Inspired by a US precursor, it addresses the sad fact that many rape victims face the question “What were you wearing?” underlining that it’s not the clothes that are responsible but the rapists who perpetrated the crimes.
Also in 2018, The Village Kazakhstan launched a special project with illustrations by eight Kazakhstani artists defining how they see uyat showing how old-fashioned and outdated are so-called uyatmen and their demands towards others.
Then there was the brilliant TED talk by human rights activist Saule Mektepbayeva who proposed a contemporary redefinition of uyat. “It should be uyat (shameful) to go to the wedding if the bride was kidnapped” she argues, and “shameful not to call the police if you hear how the neighbour beats up his wife. It should be shameful to shake hands with a person who is a tyrant at home, even if he is your good acquaintance…” Yet, for now, none of these things fall within the way Kazakhs typically see uyat.
For Kazakhstan to become more progressive depends on its citizens agreeing to shift ‘shame’ in this direction. However, as long as uyat continues to legitimize outdated stigmas and stereotypes, it can only cause harm and stagnation and society’s most marginalized members will continue to be unprotected and vulnerable.