There’s a Kyrgyz saying: Кимдин жерин жердесең, ошонун ырын ырдайсың, Kimdin jerin jerdeseng, oshonun yryn yrdaisyng. The literal translation is clunky, so I prefer this more poetic rendering: “Sing the songs of the land you’re in.”Having lived outside the U.S. before, I was used to being out of touch with American Top 40 lists, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s part of my job to be familiar with the local culture. “Sing the songs of the land you’re in,” right? At first, Kyrgyz pop seemed cheesy to me, but I’ve come to love the music that plays on marshrutkas and on TV, and I cheer with everyone at weddings when my favorite songs blast on the loudspeakers. And so begot this (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.
Up this time: Azamat Ismailov’s “Kelin Kelgenskii.”
Келин (kelin) is the Kyrgyz word for daughter-in-law, but it also conveys the broad set of responsibilities a young married woman has for her husband and his parents. Kelins in super traditional families are entirely responsible for cleaning, cooking, watching children, and pouring tea during meals. An article posted on limon.kg (Kyrgyz Buzzfeed, more or less) titled “32 Qualities that Every Ideal Kelin Should Possess” drew a lot of criticism for perpetuating the expectation that a kelin should be a paragon of servitude and obedience. Quality #8 prescribes that an ideal kelin “understands the ‘hierarchy’ in her home and among her husband’s relatives.” This hierarchy puts a kelin at the bottom of the totem pole; in fact, a kelin isn’t supposed to call her relatives by name but rather by “title,” mother-in-law, husband’s uncle, etc. Some consider the kelin culture and the hierarchy it perpetuates to fuel the practice of bride-kidnapping and domestic abuse, given that a woman with no married sons gains a lot of status (and is freed from many household responsibilities) when she gets a kelin of her own.
It’s easy to read articles like this and feel outrage at the patriarchy and at strict gender norms in this country, but as an outsider it’s actually really hard to pass judgment on kelin culture. I’ve only lived here a year, which isn’t enough to understand the complexities of the tradition and how it’s lived in different parts of the country. My experience with kelin culture is largely limited to my work at a university here. Students who were active participants of my class on Tuesday came back on Thursday wearing a ring and a jooluk (a white headscarf young woman wear once they’ve married); unfortunately, their new responsibilities at home often meant they had less time for homework and coming to class. If the limon.kg article is to be believed, this is because the ideal kelin is busy making sure her home is always clean and orderly, carefully folding up toshoks, cooking tasty beshbarmak, and speaking quietly and politely to her husband’s family.
But, if as this Global Voices article points out, the limon.kg article is satirical… what then can we make of modern people’s take on kelin culture and the heavy expectations Central Asian cultures put on young women? We can add to the cultural debate Azamat Ismailov’s song Kelin Kelgenskii, which follows a young kelin from her wedding, to her household chores, to having a baby. At first glance, the video glorifies her dutifulness: the young kelin is immediately at the scene, ready with a freshly-pressed suit, when her husband gets splashed with water; she smiles as she spoon-feeds her husband salads; her husband posts a selfie with his wife vacuuming in the background to Instagram (I can only imagine the caption…).
A more critical watch that considers the song’s author (Azamat Ismailov is a talented comedian and performer on “Tamashow,” a Kyrgyz-language improve show) reveals that the song pokes fun at the institution and the idea that the ideal kelin “respects the family hierarchy.” The question of whether the music video is satirical is decided at the end, when 3 years of marriage have passed and the family has expanded from 2 to 3. We find out that the kelin actually has a name, Arina, when her husband calls out from the kitchen. The viewer might expect him to ask when dinner will be ready, given the trope that an ideal wife is always attentive to her husband’s needs and wishes… Instead, her husband (who doesn’t get a name in the video) sheepishly asks whether Arina and the baby are coming to drink tea and eat dinner anytime soon. Arina reminds her husband to prepare the food well and dismisses him back to the kitchen. How’s that for gender roles and hierarchy?
In all of the families that I’ve been fortunate to live with in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve seen that kelin culture is way more nuanced than just “women are oppressed by traditional gender roles in Kyrgyzstan.” My host brothers in Jalal-Abad were responsible for doing the dishes and cleaning the house, and my host mom and dad in Cholpon-Ata seem to share responsibility for their shop and hotel businesses equally — these stories would be ignored by someone who takes the hardline position that kelin culture harms women and limits their opportunities. This isn’t to say that it’s easy to be a young married woman in Kyrgyzstan… just that songs like Kelin Kelgenskii, silly and satirical as it is, keep the debate real.