Gender Norms in the SKO

At the end of PST, our PCVTA trainer gave us a wise piece of final advice before our respective journeys to site. It went something as follows: When it comes to dealing with culture shock, there is a spectrum of behavior that ranges from accepting and even absorbing the cultural norms around you, to rejecting them and holding on to your prior beliefs. He told us that many Peace Corps Volunteers come to Kazakhstan on the former side of the spectrum, but leave closer to the latter. This makes a lot of sense to me. For most volunteers, learning about a new culture is a big draw of the Peace Corps experience; we want to want be open-minded, to adapt and assimilate to our new and exotic surroundings. But as we go along, we often find that some aspects of the culture strike us as not only different, but somehow undesirable. We are forced to look at our own values with new eyes, and decide what is really important in our own identities that we may not want to give up for the sake of “assimilation.” For me, gender norms has been one such issue.

After arriving to Shymkent, I realized this area of the country is a completely different ball game from both Almaty and other cities further north. South Kazakhstan Oblast (SKO) boasts itself as the capital of traditional Kazakh culture, including a greater prevelance of Islam. This undoubtedly has some relation to the pervasive inequality in gender roles that I play witness to here every day. My first host family here (I have since moved…more on that later) had two daughters in university and one 5-year-old son. The mother and daughters cooked, cleaned, washed dishes, mopped the floor, did the laundry, took out the garbage, and looked after the little one – even though they also went to work and school during the day. The father was the “head of the household,” and had the final word on all family decisions and money matters. Every evening one of the women would ask him how he wanted to take his tea; he would sit and wait while they poured and served (always serving him first), then retire while they cleared the table and washed the dishes.

More examples, large and small, followed me even when I left the house. The men who came into my workplace often greeted only the other men present, ignoring the women. And just yesterday my sitemate and I saw a middle-aged man walking down the street hand-in-hand with two young girls – one on each side. I have already met people here who accept that men – especially wealthy ones – can take a mistress on the side if he can afford to provide for her as well as his family. Though of course such behavior may not be the norm, it is certainly more likely for a man here to have extramarital affairs than a woman.

My organization did a round table on gender issues, and I was asked to present on the status of women in the U.S. I began what I thought was a relatively basic presentation about statistics in the U.S.: how many women are educated, serve in the army, participate in sports, etc. When I mentioned that nevertheless women still make $0.77 to each $1 that a man earns in the States, one woman stood up and interrupted me. “I don’t understand why women have to make the same amount of money as men,” she disputed. “Then what do they have husbands for?!!” She proceeded to tell the round table that there was already complete gender equality in Kazakhstan, as there is already a female leader in high ministry post within the government – but that even this minister knows that when she comes home to her husband (who is not a minister or anyone “important” at all), she “puts on her slippers and knows her role as his wife. She has to listen to him.” This then ignited a big debate, in which about half of the room definitely thought that the man should clearly be the breadwinner and head of the household. Some of the reasons given were somewhat based on logic though I still do not agree with them (e.g. that women should have children early in life in order for the children to be healthy, and that building up their careers during that time would hinder their ability to be good mothers), and others simply chalked it up to “it is tradition” and “this is our culture.” Almost everyone agreed that most husbands who do chores in the house would be teased and berated by all his friends as feminine and, in general, “ненормально” (not normal). As you can imagine, my eyes widened in shock at many of these statements, and I tried to make as cohesive a response as I possibly could in Russian about why women should also have opportunities to contribute to their society and achieve their life ambitions, how not all women even HAVE husbands in the U.S. (or here for that matter), and how raising a child and spending time with it should not be a job left only up to the woman but should be shared by both parents…etc. These ideas seem pretty self-evident to most Americans, but were received here as novel, unusual or even unwelcome.

Me giving my round table presentation in Russian, on “Gender in the U.S.”

I realize these issues are not simple to resolve, and that deeply ingrained generational traditions and cultural norms cannot be dismissed with simple words like “backwards” or even “wrong.” It is difficult to even grapple with the subject of gender norms without making sweeping generalizations and categorical statements of superiority and inferiority. The fact is, we still have plenty of gender inequalities in the States; for example, “Mommy Wars” still rage on about whether it is okay to give up your career for the sake of raising kids, or oppositely whether it’s okay to keep working and not spend as much time with them. The word “cultured” likewise seems ironically out of place to describe our own gender norms, as culture is the very thing that makes them so different here. Still, there is much to be talked about and so many genuine inequalities here in my immediate surroundings…so what to do now?

I decided to start a Women’s Club here in Shymkent with a sitemate, in order to provide a supportive, informative forum of discussion about gender issues. Armed with the WID/GAD (Women in Development/Gender and Development) tools we got at training, we distributed an introductory survey to 60+ young women here and found there was a strong interest in the community. We held our introductory

meeting with great success, and are already planning all the topics we will discuss with our enthusiastic participants: healthy relationships, household roles, body image, sex ed, cultural traditions that affect women, international women’s rights and laws, women in the workplace, being a good

mother/sister/daughter, friendship and peer pressure, etc. etc. We even have days planned where we will invite the men in our lives to participant in the club and do role-playing and discussion, as so many gender problems are perpetrated by men but so few women’s organizations actually reach out to them. Perhaps it is lucky that I fell into a place that provides such a huge opportunity for education and dialogue on gender norms; there is truly a need here, and much work to be done.

[Activities I put together for English Club to show common inequalities in gender roles at home and in the workplace]

[Also: check out our Women’s Club survey in English and Russian]

During PST, we were told that the most important aspect of cultural adaptation is not knowledge about the culture you are adapting to, but rather knowledge about your own. This seemed surprising to me at first, but now I truly understand why. Tell a fish in a fishbowl to describe his water, and what will he say? “This is my home. I’ve lived here all my life. It is water. What more is there to tell?” Drop the fish in the ocean and ask him to describe his fishbowl, and suddenly he will see his own home from an entirely different perspective. He will be able to tell you what he liked about it and what he didn’t, what was unique about his water, and how it compares to the ocean. I would never have considered myself a feminist in the U.S., and many connotations of the word still make me cringe. But when it comes to gender norms, being in Kazakhstan has opened my eyes to many of the things we take for granted in the States: the opportunities afforded to us in education, in the workplace, and simply in the respect accorded to us by the men in our lives. Being here has sparked a passion in me for these issues, and the desire for a genuine give-and-take dialogue about gender norms with the people I meet here. Through our exchanges, I expect to learn a lot about Kazakhstan and even more about myself. After all, the water is always clearer on the other side. 🙂

This entry was posted in culture shock, gender, Shymkent, Women's Club. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Gender Norms in the SKO

  1. katie m. says:

    I loved it!! (Especially the wid-gad drop) – but what happened with the HF?

  2. 幸存者 says:

    Just want to tell you that I love to read your blog. It's very informative. Please post more Pics.

  3. Mar says:

    Hey, great job teaching on gender issues and keep it up. I know it's frustrating! I was a volunteer in a village near Ust (Kaz 18) and remember getting frustrated sometimes (and that was on the more Russian side of things…). Good luck with your two years! They fly by! -Mary

  4. Pingback: A Eulogy to Peace Corps Kazakhstan | Nomadic Development

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