Independent Women, Part I

A few weeks ago in my English club, I gave a presentation about famous American people. The lesson was based on one a previous volunteer wrote 6 or 7 years ago, which involved short biographies of 8 white men. I’ve been struggling here to convince people that Americans come in all shapes and colors, so I was determined to get some racial and gender diversity into the presentation. I talked about Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Sonia Sotomayor, and it was interesting to hear students put the presentation into their own words in a discussion section after class.

My counterpart Gulbara asked the students to compare the women in my presentation to Rosa Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s first female president, who served as the leader of the interim government following the 2010 revolution. The students described Otunbayeva as “brave,” “a leader,” and “intelligent.” These adjectives don’t even begin to cover how amazing Otunbayeva is and how big of a role she has played in Kyrgyz politics. I was really inspired to hear students talk about Otunbayeva as a role model.

Roza Otunbayeva and Hillary Clinton.jpg

Photo credit: State Department photo by Michael Gross; public domain.

It’s easy to harp on gender inequality in Kyrgyzstan – bride kidnapping is still prevalent across the country, domestic violence is a widespread problem, and women are disproportionately affected by economic struggles. It’s not fair, though, to read these statistics about gender in Kyrgyzstan and make a judgment about women and their status in this country.

Some aspects of life in my country that are quite controversial and make a lot of headlines are no-brainers here. As the United States considers putting a woman on its currency for the first time (though, according to the current plan, a woman will share the $10 bill with Alexander Hamilton – ugh), Kyrgyz people see a woman’s face every time they pass a 50 som bill. Whereas barely 20% of seats in Congress are held by women, Kyrgyz law requires that 30% of national lawmakers be women. (Sure, there are problems associated with a quota system, but it also has its advantages.)

Every day, I see how notions of female empowerment are a perfect example of the cultural exchange facilitated by Peace Corps. Sure, there is a lot to share about women’s roles in the U.S., but I think there’s a lot to learn from the positions women occupy in Kyrgyz society. There’s a lot more nuance to gender equality in Kyrgyzstan than the simplistic view that “women here are disempowered and need to be saved.” I am excited to learn as I continue to live with a host family and watch men and women interact in a family setting, as I start work in a female-dominated department, and as I make friends with young Kyrgyz women. I hope to make women’s stories and women’s issues a regular feature on the blog, so stay tuned for that.

PS If you missed the reference in this post’s title, educate yourself ASAP by watching this video.

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