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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 14:28 GMT
Kazakh women see familiar limits
By Robert Greenall
BBC News, Almaty

Women in Almaty - archive image
Kazakh women enjoy more economic and social freedom
For a country in a region where feminism is at best a Western oddity, Kazakhstan is positively teeming with successful, independent and enterprising women.

The biggest city, Almaty, is awash with fashionable clothes shops. Beauty salons are on virtually every corner, and many bars and clubs have a predominantly female clientele.

Those in power are also anxious to promote the role of women, as part of what they see as an enlightened society in Kazakhstan.

A pro-government international advertising campaign - ahead of Sunday's presidential elections - points to the successful career of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's daughter and possible successor Dariga, and the presence of four female ministers in the cabinet.

Hold 11% of posts in central executive
Hold one in 10 seats in national parliament
17% of local councillors are women

But despite the outward signs of progress, some analysts say there are limits to how far women are allowed to go.

None of Kazakhstan's akims, or regional governors, are women, nor any of the five candidates for the presidency. Women tend to be deputy leaders rather than leaders.

Women's groups say this suggests a lack of trust in women.

"Men are not letting women into power," according to Raushan Sarsembayeva, head of the Association of Kazakh Businesswomen.

Raushan Sarsembayeva
Women had to do business out of necessity, in order to survive and live decently
Raushan Sarsembayeva

Recently, several women's groups led by the Feminist League took the unusual step of "gender profiling" the election candidates.

The results were not encouraging. All five were accused of "extreme masculinism characteristic of a patriarchal world view". Their language was said to contain too many aggressive words, such as "tough" and "crackdown".

Women are more in evidence in business than politics.

Their success is put down to the Kazakh nomadic tradition - for centuries women had to fend for themselves and their families as they travelled across the steppe.

And though most Kazakhs have long since ceased to wander, the collapse of the Soviet Union - and Kazakhstan's independence in 1991 - reawakened their survival instinct.

"Women had to do business out of necessity, in order to survive and live decently," Ms Sarsembayeva said.

Helped by favourable economic conditions, many started out in small and medium-sized businesses, though few have risen to the very top.

Victims too

Despite these relative economic and social freedoms, women in Kazakhstan still fall foul of the same problems as those elsewhere in the region, and the world.

Nadezhda Gladyr
It's a myth that only socially vulnerable women are affected
Nadezhda Gladyr
Almaty's Podrugi (Girlfriends) crisis centre has spent the last eight years helping physically and sexually abused women, giving psychological and legal support.

They provide a refuge for women with nowhere else to go, a place where they can receive food, clothes, medicine and - if necessary - hospital referrals.

It is one of only two refuges in a city of over one million people, and has only 15 places.

The centre's director, Nadezhda Gladyr, said she saw victims from all social classes.

"It's a myth that only socially vulnerable women are affected," she said. "It can be when a woman is very independent economically."

But has some men's failure to adapt as well as women to a changing society - or even jealousy towards women's success - fuelled a tendency to commit domestic violence?

While Ms Gladyr recognises that such factors may contribute to the problem, and are inflamed further by alcoholism, she says they are not the underlying reason.

"We believe that the problem is deeper," she says. "The roots are in the family, what was the family background of the girl or the boy."


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