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Kyrgyz Mother Vows To Continue Matronymic Campaign Despite 'Death Threats'

Kyrgyz feminist activist Altyn Kapalova (file photo)
Kyrgyz feminist activist Altyn Kapalova (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz feminist activist and single mother Altyn Kapalova says she won’t be deterred by the death threats she has received over her campaign to allow mothers to give their children a matronymic instead of the traditional patronymic if they so wish.

Many Kyrgyz in the former Soviet republic still use the Russian-style patronymic, an addition to one’s first name that derives from a father’s first name with the ending “evich” or “ovich” for boys and “evna” or “ovna” for girls.

The campaign by Kapalova led to an unprecedented ruling by the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court two weeks ago to allow adult citizens to swap their patronymic to a matronymic based on their mother’s first name.

Kapalova’s campaign to legalize a matronymic began in late 2020 when she decided to change the names of her three children, giving them her own surname and a matronymic in place of their fathers’ names.

Explaining her decision, Kapalova said the fathers of her children were absent from their lives, never provided any moral or financial support, and often created legal problems by refusing to sign parental-consent forms.

Kapalova challenged the existing rules through several courts, including the Supreme Court that upheld the lower courts’ ruling that prevented Kapalova from giving her children matronymics.

But the Constitutional Court decided on June 30 that the Kyrgyz Law On Acts Of Civil Status -- which only allows patronymics -- is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The court ruled that citizens at the age of 18 or older can swap their patronymic with a matronymic if they wish.

The court, however, ordered that children will still be given patronymics from birth to prevent them from bullying in Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchal society.

Kapalova runs a feminist art museum in Bishkek. (file photo)
Kapalova runs a feminist art museum in Bishkek. (file photo)

Kapalova, 39, said the court decision marks a partial victory for her. She vowed to continue her campaign until a child can have a matronymic from birth.

Kapalova, who runs a feminist art museum in the capital, Bishkek, said her cause hasn’t been “activism” but that it’s a “family issue” for her and her children.

Divided Opinions

In an interview following the court ruling, Kapalova said she faced death threats and even calls for her to be thrown out of Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim-majority Central Asian nation.

“I am not going anywhere. That is only your wishful thinking,” she said.

Public opinion has been divided on the court ruling that effectively legalized matronymics.

Some welcomed the court ruling as a step forward in gender equality. But others condemn it as pro-Western propaganda and incompatible with traditional Kyrgyz values.

Many women wrote online that it was a victory for single mothers who face legal hurdles in making important decisions for their children -- such as taking them to the hospital and changing their school -- without a consent letter from absent fathers.

Many Kyrgyz mothers raise their children alone with little or no financial support from their former husbands, many of whom work in Russia.

“Thank you on behalf of all single mothers,” Nurjanai wrote on Instagram. “I have long been angry about this, but my small protest was only limited to me using my mother’s name on my Facebook account. I would not have the strength to fight against the system.”

“Amazing news,” wrote Kyrgyz social-media user Aliya Tulibaeva. “I entirely support your position.”

“You demonstrated that even one person can change the system,” wrote Leila Salimova.

Critics wrote that people like Kapalova should have no place in Kyrgyzstan and that her children will face harassment because of their matronymics.

“A radical feminist.... Only after you learned how to get pregnant and have children without the participation of men, you then want to give matronymics to your children,” commented Aisha Sharapova. “I feel sorry for your children.”

“These kinds of people should be sent to exile to Siberia like in the past,” wrote another on social media.

Opinions were divided among Kyrgyz politicians, too.

The head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev (file photo)
The head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev (file photo)

“There is no such thing as a matronymic. Whoever approved it, they must cancel it too,” said Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the State Committee for National Security. “This is my personal stance,” the security chief added to his Facebook comment.

Presidential adviser Cholponbek Abykeev said he was against the use of matronymics as it goes against Kyrgyz cultural norms.

“We, the Kyrgyz people, have a tradition that requires us to know the names of our seven ancestors from the father’s side. Knowing your ancestry means preserving your genetics and origins,” he told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. “To know the names of your ancestors, we need to preserve your father’s surname.”

But Kyrgyz author Olzhobai Shakir argued that the latest court ruling on family names reflects the reality of people’s lives today.

“There are many men in our society that don’t fulfill their parental duties and abuse children. This is not only about women, but also about children too,” she told RFE/RL.

“We must not deny people [the right] to get a family name of their choice just because we have had certain traditions,” Shakir said.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service

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