The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Interview with two human rights activists about the abysmal state of equality in Kazakhstan.

Following the prolonged protests and international coverage of the 2023 murder of Saltanat Nukenova by Kuandyk Bishimbayev, her husband and a former Kazakh government minister, I interviewed Gulzada Qyztaj Serzhan and Zhanar Sekerbayeva, two human rights activists based in Kazakhstan.

Saltanat’s death sparked “fresh calls for more to be done to tackle domestic abuse in Kazakhstan, which does not criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offence,” writes Viktoriya Kim of Human Rights Watch.

“Saltanat’s death has created a media storm in Kazakhstan due in large part to her husband’s public profile. But there are many stories about women who are abused and even killed at the hands of violent partners. A situation that once again exposes the systemic nature of domestic violence in Kazakhstan, and how Kazakhstan’s laws, as well as the police and judiciary, fail to adequately protect women against family violence. Saltanat’s death occurred as lawmakers are considering the partial criminalization of repeated ‘battery’ and ‘light bodily harm,’ offences commonly used in cases of family abuse, which were decriminalized in 2017,” according to Viktoriya Kim.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and English language usage.

Can you touch on the state of human rights in Kazakhstan?

Zhanar: Our politicians, especially the male ones, are usually over 50 or 60 years old. This is a common sight in Kazakh politics. Young, fresh faces are absent from the system, which is typically dominated by very old or very rich individuals. It’s essentially an oligarchy. They don’t understand. Like Putin, they don’t understand what they say. It’s always the same pattern: they blame the LGBTQ+ community for everything, just like in Russia. They don’t grasp the diversity of human experience and instead fall back on simplistic scapegoating.

What about Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov?

Zhanar: He’s very dangerous. The media echoes his opinions. He remembers what it was like. You can ask Mejler Lapan; he’s also at risk as a journalist. You can ask him questions. He feels that injustice deeply. His brother, who is an artist, recently lost their mother, and now Mejler might be under stress. He’s crucial to our LGBTQ+ activities. He found us an apartment and helped with logistics. We try to extend our activities beyond Almaty and Astana to other cities as well.

Kadyrov’s influence is insidious. His stance against the LGBTQ+ community is not just personal but enforced through media and societal norms, making life extremely difficult for anyone who deviates from heteronormative expectations. Meijer Lapan is an example of how these oppressive systems intersect, affecting not just his work as a journalist but also his personal life and mental health.

Is it common for landlords to discriminate against gay couples?

Zhanar: Yes, about 70% of the time, they will refuse to rent to you if they find out you are lesbian or gay. Many people stay silent about their sexuality to avoid this discrimination. You also need to be in a heterosexual marriage to secure an apartment. Most landlords will not rent to homosexual, transgender, or intersex partners. Discrimination is deeply ingrained in the housing market. This forces many in the LGBTQ+ community to hide their identities or face housing insecurity. It’s a significant barrier to living openly and safely, and it reinforces the message that they are not welcome or accepted in society.

Is it legal to discriminate?

Zhanar: Technically, no, but landlords often use personal requirements to justify their actions. Complaining to the police is usually futile. They might take your statement, but that’s it.

Gulzada: There’s no official discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it happens in practice.

In the U.S., conservatives call it a gay lifestyle. It’s a common trope among religious people there.

Zhanar: Recently, there was a shooting in Colorado. We’re stressed because, while we don’t see shootings here, people can still be beaten up, even by taxi drivers. If guns were allowed here, I’m sure people would shoot us for being LGBTQ+. There are a lot of hate crimes.

Do you have any official statistics?

Zhanar: Our team monitors hate crimes. We fill in the information ourselves. We also report to organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Gulzada: The OSCE provides some training for civil society activists. We collect data on hate speech, hate crimes, and discrimination. We use this data for our reports and advocacy.

Zhanar: We don’t have anti-discrimination legislation, which is why hate crimes aren’t counted by the government. We’ve been advocating for this legislation since 2017. Now, each local initiative must register and calculate statistics themselves.

Is there any centralized data?

Gulzada: No, we have our platform. We’ve been trained to monitor and add cases. We use this data in our alternative shadow reports for committees like the one for eliminating discrimination against women.

What about sexism in Kazakhstan?

Zhanar: The government’s gender policy only promotes the image of a woman as a mother with a heterosexual husband. This limits women’s roles in the kitchen. However, many young women have political ambitions. They often become leaders of NGOs because they face barriers in politics.

Gulzada: Women in business can become executives if they have connections in the government. Without such protection, they face harassment and obstacles. This system forces women to rely on male relatives in power.

Is there a lot of employment discrimination?

Gulzada: Employment discrimination exists, especially in decision-making roles. Women work hard but are often kept out of positions of power. Men dominate decision-making in parties and government roles.

Zhanar: In Kazakhstan, many women work, but few make decisions. The system keeps women under 30% in decision-making roles to prevent them from bringing their agenda to the forefront. This systemic exclusion ensures that women’s issues remain marginalized and that the status quo is maintained.

Does the media support patriarchy?

Zhanar: Yes, television shows and movies often normalize violence and the institution of “killing,” where new wives are treated like slaves by their husbands’ families. This tradition, rooted in our nomadic past, still influences how women are treated today.

Gulzada: This tradition persists despite modern technology and lifestyles. Women are still expected to serve their husband’s family and have many children to gain respect. The media’s portrayal of women and their roles perpetuates outdated and harmful stereotypes. It glorifies the idea of women as subservient and bound to traditional roles, which affects societal attitudes and behaviors.

Are younger men more sensitive to women’s issues?

Zhanar: It depends. Some are progressive, but many are influenced by conservative religious teachings, especially from mosques funded by Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. These young men often become intolerant of minorities and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Gulzada: Mosques are a socializing space for young men, but they also reinforce conservative values. Young men there are less likely to consume alcohol but more likely to become intolerant.

Zhanar: The media and mosque teachings do not promote tolerance for ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ individuals. The Soviet past of regional violence and criminal groups also affects young men’s behavior today.

Does the media enable patriarchy?

Gulzada: Yes, Kazakh media normalizes violence and traditional roles for women. This is a holdover from our nomadic past but still affects modern life. Women are often treated as strangers in their husband’s family and expected to serve and bear children.

Zhanar: This institutionalized violence must be addressed. Changing narratives in media and government policies is crucial to improving women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in Kazakhstan. To improve the situation, it is essential to address the systemic issues that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. This includes advocating for anti-discrimination legislation, changing media narratives, and creating spaces for women and LGBTQ+ individuals in politics and decision-making roles. The fight for equality in Kazakhstan is ongoing, and it requires both local and international support to make significant progress.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.