Four young women attempted suicide in a small village of Kara-Balta, just 50 km (31 miles) from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. An ambulance arrived in time to rescue them.
In a suicide note, one of the young women wrote that she had decided to take such a desperate step on January 19 because of threats she had received from men who accused her of prostitution. Those who have shamed women are known.
A self-proclaimed “Youth Committee” – a group of young men, met in Kara-Balta earlier in the day to demand the closure of local saunas, where women worked as waitresses. According to them, saunas are a place of sin, where young women sell their bodies.
“We demand the closure of three or four saunas in the city of Kara-Balta. They engage in prostitution. For the sake of the future of the girls and our sisters, we demand that these wrongdoings stop. If you don’t act, we will!” the men said in a message to the president they posted online.
Women’s shaming is nothing new in predominantly conservative Muslim Kyrgyzstan. The belief that women’s destiny is to stay home and have children is common, and many say it is part of the national tradition. The practice of bride kidnapping, the infamous “ala kachuu”, is still practiced.
Kyrgyzstan ranked 82nd in 2019 on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, but in recent years women have become more vocal and started fighting for their rights.
In some cases, the struggle meant organizing marches and women’s activism. In more conservative circles, that meant getting a job or refusing to marry.
As the conflict between conservative and liberal forces in society deepens, shame has become one of the tools to suppress women’s liberation.
Nazira Aitbekova, a well-known Kyrgyz actress, TV presenter and mother, was the victim of an online hate campaign after posting a revealing photo of herself on Instagram in December. She woke up the next day with thousands of shameful comments.
She then decided to publish another photo that was even more revealing.
“For us Kyrgyz, the shame ends with the clothes. You can do anything if you’re dressed,” she captioned the photo.
“Killing a person is not a shame. Neither is beating your wives. It is not a shame to rape your sons, your daughters, the children of your relatives. It is not a shame to rape a person, to get up and leave.
“It’s no shame to conceive a child and then refuse to pay child support. It’s no shame to gossip, hate and envy. (…) In general, this It’s no shame to trample on humanity, but for some reason it’s a shame to show off what nature has given us!
Many followers started supporting Aitbekova, reposting her photo to shed light on the problem of online shaming and harassment. But for the 36-year-old, it wasn’t his first experience of hate online.
“In 2017, after my divorce, I received a wave of shameful comments. People blamed me for what happened because as a woman I could not save the family and close eyes on my husband’s infidelity,” Aitbekova told Al Jazeera.
“I was in terrible stress and felt really bad about my appearance. He got married a month after our divorce but people directed all the bad emotions at me.
“I then did a photo shoot. I saw myself in the photo and I thought: ‘I am beautiful, young, I still have a future!’ It was only with such thoughts that I posted this photo on social media,” she said.
“It got even worse, because people started writing that I was dressing up even though I don’t have a husband, they called me dirty. I only got through this through sessions with a psychologist.
While Kyrgyzstan has passed various international laws to address violence against women, law enforcement agencies still fail to protect women from online and offline harassment. Victims of violence continue to be blamed for what happens to them.
“Discriminatory social, cultural and religious stereotypes and norms, as well as traditions, affect women’s position in the family and society and control women’s freedom, including their sexuality,” Elvira Tilek told Al Jazeera. lawyer specializing in human rights.
“Until now, most of society believed that a woman’s place was at home and married. And survivors of gender-based violence are afraid to press charges for fear of being blamed.
“There is criminal liability for the threat of the use of violence dangerous to life and health (Article 139 of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic). But criminal liability only arises if there are sufficient grounds to fear the threat will be implemented,” she said.
“Of course, you can collect evidence, register all threats even if they were received on social networks and contact the police. But there are very few successful cases and it is difficult to prove that such threats can lead to a crime.
But some Kyrgyz women, especially in the capital, are determined to fight for their rights.
“I get threats all the time and I never know if they turn into reality,” says Aitbekova. “But the photo shoot I posted recently was definitely a major victory over my fears.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organizations may be able to help.