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East: Women's Rights Project Employs Film As Advocacy Tool

Sairash, the main character in the film "Elechek," in March 2006 (RFE/RL) NEW YORK, November 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Seven short documentary films have emerged from an ambitious project by the Open Society's Institute's Network Women's Program to focus attention on the plight of women in post-Soviet societies. The films confront some of the most acute gender problems in countries like Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine --strained transitional societies -- through the eyes of local directors.

The OSI's seven-film project is called "Gender Montage," and was produced by local filmmakers in cooperation with women's rights advocates and researchers. Some of the accounts are grippingly eloquent. The best of them transcend "in-your-face" moralizing to probe humanity under inhuman conditions.

Three's A Crowd

In the Kyrgyz film "Elechek," Take Sairash is a woman who rejects her husband's polygamy. Spurned for a younger wife by a man with whom she has spent the best years of her life and whom she still dearly loves, Sairash refuses to accept the situation but finds it increasingly hard to fight. Scornful relatives, a judgmental community, inequitable divorce laws -- nothing seems to protect her.

Breaking the shackles of tradition and prejudice, Sairash eventually discovers herself and emerges as strong and independent -- capable of standing up for her own beliefs.

Nurgul Asylbekova, from the OSI's Women's Program for Kyrgyzstan, which produced "Elechek," tells RFE/RL that four in 10 Kyrgyz women who seek psychological counseling are affected by the stress of being sidelined as second or third wives. Sairash's case is not isolated, she says.

"Usually the first wives turn [to counseling], but also the second and even the third," Asylbekova says. "First wives are looking for advice on their property rights and psychological counseling. Young wives are also looking for advice because they are vulnerable in the property issues, they worry about children's rights, and so on. Why has this problem been resurrected? After [Kyrgyzstan] gained independence, women were sidelined on a massive scale everywhere. The industries [in which women worked] are in disarray -- women who were employed in the light industries and had some rights are now practically on the street. They have no social protection at all and no guaranteed social rights."

Asylbekova claims that such factors have led to a revival of a more patriarchal attitude in Kyrgyzstan -- regarding women as property, as objects of desire and pleasure, but also as a work force.

With no women in parliament, legislative help is probably far off. Prevailing "traditional" wisdom dictates that it is better for a woman to become a second or third wife than to remain out of wedlock.

Asylbekova says polygamy has become fashionable and has even led to heated competition among Kyrgyz men for multiple wives.

Migrant Lives

"New Penelope" is another documentary from Central Asia -- this time Tajikistan. Women whose husbands have left for Russia to work as migrant laborers evoke comparisons with the eponymous wife of the mythical Greek hero Odysseus, who waited patiently for him to return from war.

The men's absence places a heavy burden on these Tajik women, who must provide for themselves and their children until the men can send money home.

Sometimes the money never comes, forcing wives to enter polygamous marriages simply to feed themselves and their children. Marital bonds are tested and often break apart. But the wives at home and their husbands abroad face similar fates: grueling labor and abuse.

Zuhra Halimova, the executive director of OSI-Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL that the effects of thousands of Tajik men leaving to find migrant work can be seen within all layers of society, and in the film.

"It's actually talking about the generations of women: the mothers who are feeling sorry for their daughters, the wives who are waiting for their husbands and feeling sorry for them because they know that the conditions in which [their husbands] are living are not pleasant -- they had to leave and they also suffer," Halimova says. "And at the same time, [the film] provides an opportunity to actually look at human capacities in which the constraints in life due to the circumstances are making them act differently from the way they would usually be in their traditional context."

Halimova says that polygamy in Tajikistan is a result of class and economic diversification in the society. Those who can afford it take second or even third wives.

Armenian Collision

Armenia provides another of the OSI project's works, called "Women's Happiness Or Men's Dignity." This film examines the conflict between tradition and modernity through the lives of two women: One protagonist is a divorcee who as a struggling artist liberates herself and finds creative fulfillment; the other is a widow who dreams of happiness within a male-headed household.

Despite their places at opposite ends of the social spectrum, both women work hard and raise families as single mothers:

Armenuhi Tadevosyan, the Women's Program coordinator of OSI-Armenia, tells RFE/RL that the drive for modernity -- or as she calls it, "Europe-ization" -- of Armenia collides with tradition.

"The characters...have two extremes, and it is really the same in the society," Tadevosyan says. "There is polarization, and you can see two camps in the society -- for example, one that is following traditions, [and] the other one that is protesting. And sometimes it is very difficult to set up discussions between these two camps."

Although each of the seven films examines specific issues, there is a distinctive thread that unites them all: an increasing drift from what it is still described as "post-Soviet." Even the lingua franca of the former empire -- Russian -- has given way to local tongues.

But the each of these films' settings appears to be pursuing its own path of development 15 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- and they have fewer and fewer common strings.

Central Asian Cinema

Central Asian Cinema
Gulnara Abikaeyeva's June 29 presentation in Prague (RFE/RL)

EAST OF THE WEST: On June 29, RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center hosted a presentation by GULNARA ABIKEYEVA, director of the Central Asian Cinematography Center in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Abikeyeva is a leading expert on Kazakh and Central Asian cinema, a chairwoman of the jury of this year's East Of The West section of the Karlovy Vary film festival. Abikaeyeva gave an overview of major trends in Central Asian cinema since the 1960s. Abikeyeva has just completed a major DVD collection of the most popular films of the five Central Asian countries and is now beginning work on a similar collection of Central Asian documentaries.


Listen to the complete presentation (45 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

Other Articles On Central Asian Culture:

Silk Road Revival Grows As More Sites Protected

Central Asian Directors Discuss Issues Behind The Camera

Ancient European Music Meets Central Asian Masters

Central Asian Masters Revive Old Ways Of Teaching Traditional Music


To view an archive of RFE/RL's reporting on culture throughout its broadcast area, click here.

THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.