Female Heroes in a Man's World: The Construction of Female Heroes in Kyrgyzstan's Symbolic Nation-Building

By Blakkisrud, Helge; kyzy, Nuraida Abdykapar | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Female Heroes in a Man's World: The Construction of Female Heroes in Kyrgyzstan's Symbolic Nation-Building


Blakkisrud, Helge, kyzy, Nuraida Abdykapar, Demokratizatsiya


In 2014, the historical drama "Kurmanjan Datka - Queen of the Mountains" was released in Kyrgyzstan to great fanfare. The most expensive film ever produced in the country, it presents the story of a famed 19th-century female ruler of the Kyrgyz in the Alai Mountains in what is today southern Kyrgyzstan. The film was sponsored by the authorities, and clearly represented an attempt to bolster patriotism and national consolidation in the wake of the 2010 ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the subsequent ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan.1 But how do Kurmanzhan Datka,2 and female heroes as symbols and role-models more broadly, fit into the heavily male-dominated narrative that Kyrgyz nation-builders have traditionally promoted? How are female heroes constructed and presented? And how does this add to the gender dimension of symbolic nation-building3 in, to use Rogers Brubaker's term, a "nationalizing state"?4

When Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the nation-builders had to re-engage with national history. In the process of rediscovering - and reinventing - the pre-Soviet history of a staunchly patriarchal society, they also promoted a small number of female characters. In order to explore how these female heroes - some historical, others mythical - are introduced in the official nation-building discourse, and, thereby, to investigate the gender dimension of Kyrgyz symbolic nation-building, we have turned to a key instrument of nation-builders: the state-approved history curriculum.5

Our point of departure is that nations are imagined - or socially constructed - communities. Consequently, ideas of the nation must be reproduced continuously, in order for them to endure. While the film about Kurmanzhan Datka can be interpreted as a case of "hot nationalism,"6 as a unique, one-off celebration of a Kyrgyz female hero, history textbooks, through which a whole generation (or more) of children are introduced to the state-approved version of the Kyrgyz past, are likely to play a much more formative role in shaping perceptions of gender relations - past and present. Based on our reading of the history textbooks currently in use in public secondary schools in Kyrgyzstan, we argue that not only is the sex ratio fundamentally skewed, but the few female heroes included in the national narrative also appear to be equipped with masculine attributes or traits.

While questions of the historical correctness of the official narrative as well as the reception of these female symbols in the population at large fall outside the scope of our discussion,7 this article contributes to the literature on Kyrgyz symbolic nation-building by examining the role of female symbols in the nation-building discourse. In this way, it adds to the exploration of the hitherto neglected gender dimension of Kyrgyz nation-building. Further, we aspire to supplement the wider literature on gender and nationalism by investigating the role of official history textbooks in reproducing and reinforcing gendered national identity.

We begin with a brief presentation of the general literature on gender and nationalism, as well as an introduction to some of the main tenets of post-independence symbolic nation-building in Kyrgyzstan. We then turn to secondary school history textbooks, in order to survey how female characters are represented in the official nation-building narrative. Engaging in a gender analysis of the history textbooks allows us to identify the gender gap in quantitative terms. Next, we single out four female characters for special scrutiny, examining how they have been constructed as national "heroes."8 We conclude by discussing what values these female symbols appear to represent and which roles they have been assigned in the process of post-independence Kyrgyz nation-building - as well as the consequences this may have for the reproduction of hegemonic gender conceptions.

Researching Gender through Disaggregating Nationalism

The theorization of nationalism has, according to Glenda Sluga, traditionally "relied upon ungendered historical narratives which reinforce depictions of nationalism, nation-building and national identities as having 'universal' and sex-neutral significance. …

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