Early Soviet policies of women’s emancipation in the Kazakh steppes

by Mohira Suyarkulova

korkpoThis post reflects on a controversial and ambivalent page of Central Asia’s history by turning to a booklet authored by Antonina Nurkhat – a women’s movement activist from Bashkortostan, who worked and travelled widely in Central Asia in the 1920s –“Nomadic Yurts: On the Work of Women’s Red Yurts” (Tsentrizdat, 1929). This lively brochure, written as a dialogue with women-activists working in a so-called ‘red yurt’ in Kazakhstan, gives the reader a glimpse into a fascinating local history of khujum – early Soviet campaigning for emancipation of women in Central Asia. The majority of Kazakh population in the 1920s was rural, nomadic and dispersed over steppes. Red yurts provided a means of putting the Soviet emancipation agenda into action among Kazakh women. They performed many diverse tasks: serving as points of eradication of illiteracy, lecture halls, mobile libraries, providing a gathering space for women and functioning as healthcare facilities. The Kazakh women were mobilised into cooperatives and empowered through learning new skills as the Soviet state sought to enlist their support in the construction of socialism and overcoming the region’s perceived ‘backwardness’.

The brochure dedicates a great deal of attention to discussions of the locals’ lack of basic hygiene and access to modern medical knowledge. From Nurkhat’s perspective, the squalid conditions and disease in Kazakh households stand for the moral and social depravity of pre-Soviet society as a whole. The red yurts were set up with concrete goals, which are listed by Nurkhat as follows: “to raise the cultural level of the women’s masses, to instil in them cultured habits and skills, to organise them for the struggle with backwardness and uncivility, a fight with filth, diseases, mortality among children …” (Nurkhat 1929, p. 8). The author writes:

These tasks were set by life itself. Nomad Kazakhs live in the most anti-sanitary conditions. They never wash their laundry, dishes, or themselves, and do not know how to prevent contagious diseases. They are predominantly illiterate, especially women … Soviets are only starting to attain influence in the nomadic and semi-nomadic regions, while women are rarely involved in their work. Meanwhile, despite being under the Soviet rule for some 7-8 years, the situation of women in Kazakhstan is as desperate as it was before the revolution. Kalym [bride price], marriage of minors, polygamy and such practices still exist (p. 9).

Nukhat notes that women’s labour occupied a central place in nomadic economy and, therefore, women would have to play a key role in lifting the nomads out of their ‘unculturedness’. To that end, the red yurts taught Kazakh women how to do laundry and wash their kids, bake bread and produce cheese and butter, plant vegetables in kitchen gardens. They promoted principles of cooperative enterprise, taught women to read, to write, to think and to speak ‘Soviet’. Often rather dramatic means had to be used in order to compel women to participate in this project.

A striking illustration of this is found in the story about a show trial over a dirty dress and a filthy cooking pot staged by the activists (pp. 40-44). A real judge and a jury came to the village and the whole community was invited to attend. The role of the prosecutor was performed by Nagime, a local activist, who came up with the idea of the event. The defence attorney was played by a local Komsomol member. The red yurt director concealed by shawls spoke in altered voices for the dirty dress and the filthy cooking pot presented to the public’s view, telling their tales of misery and neglect. Nagime demanded the ‘capital punishment’ for the ‘culprits’, while the defence asked for leniency. When the jury announced the verdict – life sentence under strong isolation – a dead silence stood over the crowd of spectators. After the performance Nagime recapped its meaning and called on everyone to observe cleanliness of their houses, dress and bodies. The show had a great effect on the people of the village, according to Nurkhat’s narrative. For a long time people joked and chuckled over it. Nurkhat further describes how enrolment in the house economics club at the red yurt doubled following the mock trial, with women diligently attending all meetings. As a result, she writes, during inspections of households the red yurt workers observed visible changes in standards of cleanliness. Although inanimate objects were put on trial and sentenced, the ultimate responsibility for maintaining cleanliness was clearly placed with women.

This story about the mock trial demonstrates how women were mobilised to become agents of Soviet modernisation – at times by means of public shaming and humiliation – by not only entering the paid labour force, but also by taking upon themselves additional household responsibilities and performing unpaid reproductive labour. This brand of paternalistic emancipation resulted in so-called ‘double burden’ for Soviet women despite granting them unprecedented degree of social, political and economic liberties and opportunities.

Click here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Mohira Suyarkulova obtained a PhD degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in 2011. She is a research coordinator of the Central Asian Studies Institute and an Associate Professor at the International and Comparative Politics Department of the American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.