BISHKEK -- It was an event meant to highlight the many problems and pressures women in patriarchal Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere face in society.
The Feminnale of contemporary art in Bishkek was able to showcase Kyrgyz society’s attitudes toward women, but not in the way the organizers had hoped.
The exhibit -- Breadwinner. Economic Freedom. Women -- infuriated conservatives and nationalists in the Central Asian country who said some exhibits and performances at the event violated Kyrgyz ethical codes.
At the heart of the controversy was the performance art of Danish participant Julie Savery, who appeared in the nude at the show to highlight the lack of rights for sex workers.
A punching bag in the shape of a woman’s torso -- emphasizing domestic violence against women -- was another element that angered some Kyrgyz.
Criticism first began on social media as the Feminnale opened at the National Art Museum on November 27 with more than 50 participants from 22 countries.
A group of detractors, most of them men, complained to Culture Minister Azamat Zhamankulov, who readily met the group and reportedly told them that he, too, didn’t support the holding of such events.
The exhibition cost one of its main organizers her job.
Mira Zhangaracheva, the head of the art museum, resigned, citing “threats” she had received.
“There were so many threats in the past five days -- threats of retaliation directed at me, my colleagues, organizers of the Feminnale -- that I fear for [the safety] of my colleagues,” Zhangaracheva told RFE/RL on December 2.
“I didn’t know that the nationalist-patriotic groups, who are against contemporary art, have so much influence on our country’s politics,” she said, adding that the situation demonstrates that Kyrgyz society “is not open.”
Just three days later, the Culture Ministry appointed Zhangaracheva’s former deputy, Aigul Mambetkazieva, as the new head of the museum.
The ministry said the exhibition will continue until December 15 as planned, but without its more controversial elements. Nudity and the punching bag had to go.
Detractors 'Never Been To Museum'
The scandal at the art museum also mirrored divided opinion -- about the exhibition, women, and national values -- both among the public and the country’s political elite.
Among the critics was female lawmaker Mahabat Mavlyanova, who called the exhibition “alien” and “incompatible with Kyrgyz culture.”
At a parliament session on December 5, Mavlyanova said such events have no place in a national museum and should have been held in a private building.
“We must maintain our own culture [and] national ideology,” Mavlyanova said.
Meanwhile, former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva defended the exhibit as a “normal, smart, serious, and deep” event. Those who criticized it “haven’t even been there and don’t even know what a museum is,” Otunbaeva said.
Speaking at a separate event in Bishkek, Otunbaeva told detractors that their actions “are not acceptable” and urged them to “try to learn to be more cultured.”
Zhangaracheva said many people -- including many parents with children -- continue to visit the exhibitions and admire the artwork, despite the criticism.
Zhangaracheva fired back at conservatives, including the self-styled nationalist Kyrk Choro (40 Warriors) organization, asking why the angry activists don't protest when Kyrgyz women and children fall victim to rape, violence, and bride kidnappings.
“Where were they when Burulai was killed?” she said, referring to the case of 20-year-old Burulai Turdaaly-Kyzy, who was stabbed to death at a Bishkek police station in May 2018 after seeking to get out of a forced marriage.
Turdaaly-Kyzy’s attacker was a man who had abducted her as part of a long-standing but illegal Kyrgyz practice known as "bride kidnapping."
While Kyrgyz women have a strong presence in the country’s workforce and enjoy equal rights to education and other opportunities, domestic violence in the country of 6 million is not uncommon.
In recent years, women have also come under attack by self-styled patriot and nationalist groups like Kyrk Choro, which came into existence in 2010.
Kyrk Choro members raided a Bishkek bar in December 2015 and forced Kyrgyz women at the club to line up before a video camera. The two groups accused the women of selling their bodies as prostitutes to Chinese men.
In 2016, a video was posted on YouTube purportedly showing two Kyrgyz women in Moscow being verbally insulted and physically assaulted by their male compatriots for dating non-Kyrgyz men.
Kyrk Choro and other groups also threatened participants of a gay-pride parade in Bishkek in March 2019 and condemned officials for permitting the march to be held.