• Home
  • Zhanar Sekerbayeva’s Fight for LGBTQ-Women’s Rights and Intersectional Feminism in Kazakhstan

21 May 2024

Zhanar Sekerbayeva’s Fight for LGBTQ-Women’s Rights and Intersectional Feminism in Kazakhstan

Queer rights activist and co-founder of the feminist initiative Feminita, Zhanar Sekerbayeva, shares the results of research on anti-gender narratives in collaboration with the CFLI (The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives), the realities of LGBTQ women’s lives in Kazakhstan, and her goal of becoming a lawyer.

Zhanar Sekerbayeva

Image: courtesy photo

Zhanar Sekerbayeva has been at the forefront of women’s rights in Kazakhstan for the past ten years. However, its beginning stems from rather different circumstances. One day in 2014, Sekerbayeva and her friend and future colleague Gulzada Serzhan held a demonstration opposing the devaluation of the Kazakh tenge, for which they were arrested. Once the news came out, the public’s initial sympathetic reaction diverged into questioning the women’s gender. “People wrote how brave these people are, and then seeing our photographs [they] began to doubt our gender identity,” the activist explains. “This was a turning point for us to talk about who we are.”

In response, Sekerbayeva and Serzhan launched the feminist initiative Feminita that same year. Unlike other feminist initiatives in the country, it focuses specifically on the rights of lesbians, bisexuals, queer women, disabled women, and women in sex work. As she explains, “LGBTQ women experience double discrimination; we are lesbians plus the fact that we are women.”

Despite their focus on queer women’s rights, Feminita worked together with other feminist initiatives in the country, as they all had the same goal to fight against a common enemy, the patriarchy—until now. “Even within the feminist community, unfortunately, we have a division into those who say that LGBTQ women are seizing the agenda, and feminists want to remain with purely feminist demands,” Sekerbayeva says, adding that due to the ongoing pressure from the government, some feminists were questioning whether it is due to the presence of LGBTQ-women and their issues that they are unable to advance the feminism agenda further. “I believe that this is a deplorable result of our once friendship.”

Due to disagreements with other feminists, Feminita “decided to create a separate organizing committee that would be inclusive and intersectional.” “We don’t want activists who were once with us, feminists, to tell us that we LGBTQ women do not have the right to talk about some problems related to violence, discrimination, blackmail, and the inability to study at a higher educational institution due to discrimination of sex orientation and gender identity,” the activist explains. “I believe that such accusations that LGBTQ women take away all the attention are unfair, and we cannot be in solidarity with such activists and feminists. I see inclusive, intersectional feminism as the way of the future because it doesn't cast other women aside.”

Yet Sekerbayeva has no time for feuds within the feminist communities. She has recently returned from her trip to NYC, where she attended the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women. “We always try to take part, to talk about the situation with the rights of lesbians, bisexuals, queer, and trans women in Kazakhstan,” she explains. Around the same time, she was a guest speaker at Harvard’s Davis Center for their Queer Focus series. They asked me to talk about the experience of activism in Kazakhstan, what we are experiencing as LGBTQ activists, and what is happening here.”

In addition to her full-time activism, she is currently pursuing her law degree. “I plan to become a brilliant lawyer who will deal only with the LGBTQ community in Kazakhstan,” the activist says. “I do this to show people that nothing is impossible and to say that law is one for all. Each of us has the right to non-discrimination, and it is important to remember this.”

Her devotion to education, among other things, is remarkable. She has multiple degrees from all around the world. Among them is the L. N. Gumilev Eurasian National University in Astana, Kazakhstan, the Moscow State University in Moscow, Russia, the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania, and finally, her PhD degree in Social Sciences from the University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba, Japan. Despite living abroad for many years, Sekerbayeva also planned on returning to Kazakhstan. “I always wanted my competencies and knowledge to be useful to the country where I grew up. Men would call it patriotism, but for me, it is more than that word; it is much broader,” she says.

It seems that her biggest pride is the Feminita’s so-called graduates. “Feminita has a kind of free university; over the past ten years, there have been many graduates who today are activists, who work abroad or in Kazakhstan, who have chosen the path of law or teaching,” Sekerbayeva explains. However, among them, those who are trying to get into politics need more help, she adds. “It is very difficult to get into the political field; our focus is on guiding girls into the political space.”

The role of Feminita is not limited to education and local activism. They recently collaborated with the CFLI (The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives) to research anti-gender narratives and movements/activists in Central Asia. Although they are still finalizing their findings, Sekerbayeva shared that the study about four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan (excluding Turkmenistan due to a lack of connection with the researchers)— demonstrated different results per country. “The key thing is that in our countries, there is no single phenomenon of the anti-gender movement. It looks different in our countries. But in all of them, there is affiliation with the state,” she states. 

With recognition from the Western world, back in Kazakhstan, Feminita continues fighting for its right to exist. It is yet to be registered, as in the ten years of its existence there has been nothing but refusals from the government. This year alone, they “tried to register three times and received three refusals.” “We will continue to sue,” Sekerbayeva says.

Additionally, the physical and verbal attacks that the activist and her colleagues face make their work even more dangerous. That’s what happened back in May 2021, when Sekerbayeva and Serzhan arrived in Shymkent, a city in the South of Kazakhstan, to hold a meeting regarding LGBTQ women’s issues and a group of unknown men physically attacked them, and Sekerbayeva states that “in 2023, a taxi driver recognized me and wanted to hit me; I managed to jump away.”

“Through your interview, I want to say that if you think that a woman who declares activism as her mission, especially LGBTQ activism, which is stigmatized and marginalized, and who has been doing this for ten years [can be stopped], I’m sorry, but you won’t stop me. This is my mission, which I put above many of my other personal interests and will remain so for me for a long time. Scaring me with attacks, spying on my phone, and finding my address absolutely does not scare me. I work within the legal framework; there is nothing for which I could be prosecuted under the law. On the contrary, my laws are violated only because I am a lesbian,” Sekerbayeva concludes.