Sing the Songs of the Land You’re In 2

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 (Kyrgyz Buzzfeed, more or less) titled “32 Qualities that Every Ideal Kelin Should Possessdrew 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 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 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 babyAt 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…).


Husband in charge? | Credit: Kelin Kelgenskii music video

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?


LOL yeah right | Credit: Kelin Kelgenskii music video

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.

jooluk girls

Two of my students from JAGU, proudly showing off their new jooluks after getting married the week before



Informal $avings Groups and Women’s Economic Empowerment in Kyrgyzstan

As a Peace Corps volunteer, money can be a contentious topic. On the obvious front: I have to make $250 cover my living expenses for a month. Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan is a pretty cheap place to live, and I can’t really whine about being short on cash. So, while I could go into detail about the price-based analysis that goes into my instant coffee habit or how cool it is to pay $0.25 for my daily round-trip commute, there are way more interesting things I’ve observed about money in the last year that I can share here.

Georgetown required all students in the School of Foreign Service to take four semesters of economics. I rolled my eyes through all four classes, but living in Kyrgyzstan has forced me to reconsider the real-world value of international trade and finance theory (and I’ve also had to glance back over my notes on international economics).


100 som: $1.81 or $1.30, depending on the date

Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, has been rollercoaster ride over the past year and a half. When I first visited Kyrgyzstan in October 2014, $1 = 55 som; in April 2015, when I first arrived with Peace Corps, $1 = 60 som; in January 2016, at the som’s lowest value, $1 = 75 som; and now, in May 2016, $1 = 68 som. The som’s value been all over the place, and there were several days this winter when I’d leave work with significantly less buying power than I had when I arrived in the morning. People with actual economics knowledge think the currency fluctuations are connected to Kyrgyzstan’s recent accession to the Eurasian Economic Union and Russia’s own economic struggles, but I hear less about the impact of the ruble or other neighboring currencies than about the dollar. This makes sense, given that a lot of import/export businesses deal in dollars, and at the more local level, many people have taken out mortgages or loans in dollars. When the value of the som falls against the dollar, these people lose money on their investments. With few natural resources relative to its oil-rich neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has never been a super wealthy country; people don’t have money to lose over technicalities of currency exchange.

The currency troubles of the last year are nothing compared to the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Kyrgyz people have developed creative strategies to deal with economic uncertainty over many decades. Gap groups, sometimes known as chernaya kassa and sherine, are rotating savings networks that are especially popular among women.

Gap groups usually consist of 6-12 women, one of whom serves as the leader and sets rules, takes care of accounting, and manages the calendar. The group meets at set intervals, usually once a month; at each meeting, members contribute a fixed amount of money (I’ve most frequently heard 1000 som, $14.70). According to the calendar, a different woman hosts the gap group at her home, treating the members of her group to a multiple-course dinner and drinks. When a woman hosts the gap group at her house, she collects the lump sump payment.

Any one woman might be a member of several different gap groups – one with her family members, another with her colleagues, and yet another with her neighbors. Zulfiya Tursunova considers these savings groups a source of empowerment. Her academic work focuses on Uzbekistan, but the situation is similar in Kyrgyzstan: women here are often limited in choices because of gender-based, patriarchal economic norms. Gap groups give women (especially younger women) a sense of autonomy and agency, both in social and economic terms.

A woman’s monthly salary (whether she’s a teacher or works in the informal agricultural economy) is rarely enough to invest in a big purchase, and it can seem impossible to save enough for a cow, a computer, or a wedding when there are regular household expenses to account for. By investing 1000 som a month into a gap group, a woman can then receive anywhere between 6000 or 12000 som at one time. Sure, she could eventually save 6000, 10000, or 12000 som on her own, but the gap group model complements the collectivist culture in Kyrgyzstan and ensures that a woman’s family or neighbors are also benefiting from this saving.

Cholpon Eje, my host mom in Issyk-Kul, invited me to her neighborhood gap meeting in April. The 12 women of the group made their way to Venera Eje’s house, where we ate salads, cookies, manty dumplings, and cake for hours. Every woman gave a short toast (a toast means a shot – you do the math: that’s a lot of vodka), wishing everyone in the group a successful tourist season and giving special good wishes to Venera, who would take home the pot that month. By the structure of all gap groups, it’ll eventually be my host mom’s turn to host — I can’t wait for that, both for the social reasons (party at our house!) and for the economic benefits Cholpon Eje will enjoy.

blogging challenge

I’m a Grown Woman (Maybe)

I feel the weight of this overprotection most strongly in the morning, when leaving the house is often a battle. I try to put back a few pieces of the loaf of bread my host mom tried to feed me in my packed lunch; she catches me, scolds me for not eating enough, and puts the bread back into the plastic paket. While slipping out the door as quietly as possible, I am more often than not caught with a wrinkly shirt and pulled into the laundry room to fix it. In the first phase of training, I dreaded this part of the day, having to iron my shirts, knowing that they would just become wrinkly again after the commute to the training site. In an effort to maintain the peace and have more control over whether I am late, in this third phase of training I have been proactive and made an effort to iron my clothes every morning – I do it loudly and very visibly, so that my host apa would see and notice me taking her advice.

Today, though, the ironing board was hidden in a different room than normal, and it refused to stay standing long enough for me to do anything to fix my shirt. I had no problem finding the ironing board in the bedroom, but apa refused to let me carry it to the laundry room – “It’s too heavy for you,” she said, setting it up, plugging in the iron, and laying out my shirt. She hovered over me, pointing out parts of the shirt I should iron again, until she just took the iron away from me and finished the shirt for me. “It’s too hard for you, give it to me.”

(Granted, I should say that I appreciate having someone there to pack my lunches and iron my clothes, the little things that don’t always get done during this stressful, busy time of training.)

There are probably a lot of factors at play in the overprotectiveness of my host moms. One likely reason is that Peace Corps, a U.S. government organization, has entrusted me, a young, American woman, in their care. “Make sure she’s well fed! Gets enough sleep! Takes enough showers!” the woman who organizes our housing told the host families at trainings. I’ve been reading a lot of Peace Corps volunteers’ memoirs recently, and this is a common theme in female volunteers’ work – that locals perceive foreigners in general, and more often foreign women, as more fragile and in need of strong support than local women of similar age.

I think there’s something else at play though: the interplay between gender, marriage, and adulthood – which come together in the Kyrgyz words for “girl” and “woman.”

Kyz is the Kyrgyz word for girl. Ayal is the Kyrgyz word for woman. Like most Kyrgyz words, kyz and ayal have other meanings. Kyz also means virgin, which basically implies a pre-marriage state, while ayal means wife. The dividing line between girls and women is marriage; without a ring on her finger, a girl cannot be a woman.

I’m not married and have no intention to get married anytime soon – I hold on to the idea of being a “grown up,” maybe to clutch to some semblance of independence and control that I’ve largely had to set away in the Peace Corps, maybe as a form of posturing to make myself seem older than I am. At a certain point, though, it will be easier just to accept my status as a kyz and learn to flourish and function within that role.

In the United States, adulthood means personal responsibility. It’s about learning to manage one’s own life, to take care of finances, health, and relationships. There’s a long period of adolescence, a lot of time and space for exploration and mistakes and being selfish and learning about oneself. Here, where women are married young (I’m approaching old maid status), that time doesn’t really exist. Kyrgyzstan is a collectivist culture, so as people grow up, they are forced to come to terms with responsibility for the whole, for the family unit. Even very young girls learn to help with chores, taking care of siblings, giving up free time to help the family function more smoothly, more harmoniously.

I recently talked with a friend about being selfish. We both expressed worry about being too self-centered, and talked through how we can give back. I laughed at myself, that even as a Peace Corps volunteer, I fret about being too selfish. Even though I’m volunteering, going for two years without earning money, I think I have a lot to learn from Kyrgyz culture about balancing self-care and independence with attention for others and the bigger family unit. Coming to terms with the fact that I’m a kyz, and not yet an ayal, even though in English I am (maybe? not quite?) a woman, though definitely no longer a girl, could help me along that journey.

Again, if you didn’t get the lyrical reference in the title, educate yourself. Or the reference right there at the end, double educate yourself.


My host apa, Mairamgul, preparing dill for the winter.

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.