Kyrgyzstan: Women Challenging Stereotypes & Virginity Tradition


A wedding in Kyrgyzstan is a huge celebration. For most girls it is an event they await from their birth. Parents spend a great amount of money preparing the dowry and the feast. However, there is one moment that can ruin not only the outcome of the event and the fate of the bride, but also tarnish the family honor - the display of the first night bed sheet. A great disgrace befalls a woman whose sheet remains clean. Ironically, at the same time it is expected that the man should have had a sexual experience before the marriage, and it is a great shame for him to be a virgin at his wedding. These traditional views vividly display that women in Kyrgyzstan not only lack sexual rights, but are even stigmatized for their choices. 

In 2008, neighboring Uzbekistan was shocked by the premiere of a documentary film called “Bremya devstvennosti” [The Burden of Virginity]. Despite an authoritarian regime and strict censorship, the filmmakers showed the film. It divided the audience. Some liked it for being a true reflection of reality; others criticized it for distorting traditions.

More liberal Kyrgyzstan has not raised the issue. While Kyrgyzstan is fulfilling obligations it made under the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by establishing quotas for numbers of women in government, ordinary women receive little support from the government in changing the cultural status quo.

Zuhra M., age 25, is a beautiful woman with a great smile. Talking over this delicate issue she cannot meet my eyes and has a guilty look despite the fact there is nothing she should be ashamed of. Zuhra got married when she was 18, but her marriage lasted only for two days. “Uzbeks have their first night a day after the wedding. All day my husband was with his friends and I was at home at yuzochty [a ceremony after which the bride can unveil her face]. In the evening my husband and I went to our bedroom. Around ten women were sitting in a room next to our bedroom. Since my husband was too drunk he could not do anything. After one hour or so a woman started to knock at our door demanding the sheet. He opened and said to everyone that I am not a virgin. The next moment they kicked me out of the house and my parents came to pick me up,” says Zuhra sadly.

It is very hard for her to remember all of the humiliation she and her family had to go through. When Zuhra's husband’s family demanded her family pay for the wedding expenses, Zuhra’s mother insisted on a medical check-up. She asked her ex-in-laws to select a gynecologist, and she took her daughter there. After the doctor proved Zuhra’s virginity to her ex-husband’s parents, they asked her to return.

“I could not live with people who made my family and me go through such humiliation. Now I am divorced - another stigma - and still a virgin,” shares Zuhra.

Two years ago with the help of her parents and brothers Zuhra bought an apartment. Now it has become a shelter for her community group. The sign at the entrance says “Sewing Courses” because she is afraid that people in the neighborhood would not welcome her initiative. Zuhra still carries the pain and sorrow in her heart, but finds strength to overcome her personal problems and help other young divorced women, non-virgins, and sex workers who face similar discrimination.

“In my community group I help young women facing discrimination to obtain professional skills and start earning money. I think having their own money will make them less vulnerable and will enable them to obtain a respectful place in our society. But the most important thing I want to show them is that they are not alone and there are people who want to help.” In total Zuhra has helped 13 women start over.

• Flowers in the bride's hands. 
Photograph courtesy of the author. •
One of the most respected gynecologists in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, Anara Jumakulova is a slight woman with green eyes. Despite her age she has a liberal view on the “first night sheet” tradition. “I have restored hundreds of hymens. Maybe it is unethical or even sinful but I think that doing so preserves all those girls from discrimination and disgrace. Before the wedding women bring their future daughter-in-laws and ask [me] to prove their virginity and that the hymen was not restored. Sometimes I lie,” Anara tells me frankly. “For example a month ago I had a girl who was raped during the war [inter-ethnic clashes of June 2010]. She had a restored hymen and was afraid that I would tell the truth to her future in-laws. But I could not add on more sufferings to this poor girl.”

Today medical centers in Kyrgyzstan offer this service for approximately 5000 KGS [$105 USD] or at a private gynecologist for 3000 KGS [$63 USD]. Considering the average monthly salary is 2300 KGS [$50 USD] this solution seems to be quite expensive. Anara believes that since most Kyrgyzstani men are sexually active before they marry they could easily identify for themselves whether the bride is a virgin or sexually experienced. "I am not trying to look like a hero," she tells me. "I just I think it is an out-dated tradition and society must accept that a woman has to decide herself to lose or preserve her virginity."

Dinara Karimbekova, chair of the women’s NGO BINGO and department head at the Ministry of Economic Development of Kyrgyzstan. She has been working on women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan for almost 15 years and has worked for the government for almost a year.

“It is hard to fight with something that has a long history and became part of people’s values. But society needs to change and whether it wants to or not, it will. Every day I see young women who don’t want to accept the old rules. They select their partners, perform well at their careers, marry at their own choice, and determine how many children they want.” says Dinara.

BINGO is also preparing a draft amendment to the criminal code on legal punishment for “Kyz ala kachuu” [bride kidnapping] another age old tradition that discriminates against women in Kyrgyzstan. 

Today Kyrgyzstan is undergoing major political, economic, and social transformations. A new government is trying to start reforms and bring changes to the country. The first woman president in the entire CIS territory, Roza Otunbaeva, has come to power. Maybe her presidency will improve the situation for women’s rights, however, it is unknown whether Ms. President will get involved. In the meantime, ordinary women of Kyrgyzstan will continue their struggle until both men and women have an equal right to express their sexuality without fear.

About the Author:
Gulayim Myrzaeva
 is a pseudonym of a woman from Kyrgyzstan. She graduated from the American University-Central Asia and worked in various diplomatic missions and international organizations. After inter-ethnic clashes in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in 2010, she fled to Russia. Now she works at a construction company. Also she organized free Russian language courses to help Central Asian migrants to improve their language skills and chances for getting a better job.