Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Ethnicizing the Subject: Domestic Violence and the Politics of Primordialism in Kazakhstan./Ethnicisation Du Sujet: Violence Familiale et Politique Du Primordialisme Au Kazakhstan

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Ethnicizing the Subject: Domestic Violence and the Politics of Primordialism in Kazakhstan./Ethnicisation Du Sujet: Violence Familiale et Politique Du Primordialisme Au Kazakhstan

Article excerpt

When an honoured guest arrives at a Kazakh home, the male head of household, prior to the welcoming feast, performs maldy soyu, the ritual slaughter of a lamb. (1) With a large, freshly sharpened knife, the host makes one quick, deep cut to the animal's throat, being careful not to sever the head from the spinal cord. When this ritual was performed for me in a village in southern Kazakhstan, the children of the house looked on excitedly, staring at the bright blood spurting into an enamel bowl beneath the animal's neck. My companion, who was also a guest and a member of a Muslim women's association, explained over the youngsters' chatter that the lamb's head is turned westward during this ceremony so as to face the holy city of Mecca. She added that a man, if he was a true Kazakh, should know how to perform this rite.

I was later reminded of this graphic picture of animal slaughter while sitting in a dimly lit office of the Ministry of the Interior in the northern city of Petropavlovsk. My colleagues and I were in town as part of a US-funded development project to help Kazakhstani law enforcement respond to domestic violence, and the local police had been eager to share their information. (2) Officers showed us crime scene photographs of women who had been killed by their husbands. Most of the Kazakh victims in the grim black and white images had had their throats cut. These horrible scenes of murdered wives ostensibly, at least, invoked the methodical slaughter of maldy soyu: the low-tech but lethal blade, the single skilful wound, the violent expression of male power and authority. I later learned that these homicide pictures were somewhat misleading as additional fieldwork revealed many other ways in which both Kazakh and Russian women are killed or abused by their intimate partners. But I also learned that I was not alone in my immediate, if fleeting, compulsion to associate particular forms of violence with ethnic identity in Kazakhstan. I soon found that police and women's activists regularly invoked ethnicity as they confronted the serious social problem of violence in the home. But I also discovered that the way in which these individuals used ethnicity in their work varied quite distinctly.

My first aim in this article is to highlight the complexities of ethnic constructions and how these are performed within the framework of domestic violence in a specific socio-political setting. Drawing on interviews and participant observation among law enforcement officials, victim advocates, and other women's activists in Kazakhstan, I examine how essentialist or primordialist notions of ethnicity are variously transmitted through these groups to frame domestic violence in distinct ways. My second goal is to show how each group employs these primordialist framings of ethnic identity, a process that I call 'ethnicizing', as competing political assertions about gender behaviour, religion, and the function of the law. These assertions are put forth not only in the general setting of Kazakhstan's post-Soviet transition, but, more specifically, in the context of explaining domestic violence to outsiders as part of an international assistance project as well as in the process of dialoguing with state power and historical experience. In some cases, appeals to primordialism justify the ineffectiveness of police in helping victims of abuse. In others, ethnicizing is utilized to reshape gender and religious identities in order to combat domestic violence at the grassroots level. Primordialist positions are also employed to devise better ways to engage state institutions about the issue in the context of national revitalization. Yet irrespective of the ways in which ethnic representations serve to explain the phenomenon or to shape assistance to victims, I also find a slippage between how people link domestic violence to ethnicity and how and among whom cases of battering empirically occur. I therefore discuss not only how these disparate identity positionings and performances serve as local explanations and/or solutions to domestic abuse, but also how they may inevitably contribute to concealing the problem in a multi-ethnic society. …

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