In Kyrgyzstan, calculated outrage over sexual-health education is a political pastime: In the late 1990's, a reactionary group organized a public burning of books printed by the government for youth on healthy lifestyles, claiming the section on sexual education was immoral. Now rhetoric is heating up over a series of sex-ed pamphlets printed by the Alliance for Reproductive Health (ARZ), funded by the German development agency, GIZ, and the UN.
In this Q&A, Gulnara Ibraeva, a prominent sociologist and expert on gender and sexuality, formerly of the American University in Central Asia, explains to EurasiaNet.org what Kyrgyzstan’s growing “generation of blank minds” means for the country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EurasiaNet.org: The Alliance for Reproductive Health brochures have suddenly caused a stir. Why? And are they necessary?
Gulnara Ibraeva: In the school curriculum this kind of practical education is absent. More than one generation of sexually illiterate people, people who don't understand basic aspects of sex, have been raised. There are many examples of how the absence of this sort of education negatively impacts schoolchildren. People know nothing about their bodies. They don't even understand how they function! They have medieval perceptions about the body, even now in schools – a totally medieval understanding of real adult sexual life.
EN: Is this why there are perceptions about sexual education being shameful? Or somehow antagonistic to the idea of a Kyrgyz identity or Kyrgyzchylyk [sometimes loosely defined as “Kyrgyzness”]?
GI: In principle if we talk about why society perceives it this way, as shameful, we have some symbolic, “magical” words. Kyrgyzchylyk: this is a very important word. Anything can be ascribed to it. … There are some who employ [this word] for nationalist, populist ends. It is very popular to do so.
To digress for a moment, I want to say that those who are [fighting the sex-ed brochures], they are only populists. This Mavlyan [Askarbekov], who started this party [Erkin El]: this party is incredible. … They always attempt to tear something down; they are never constructive.
There are no parties here that have a forward-looking program: consistent, open about their goals, working for the future of the country, etc. But [Erkin El] is trying to find enemies of the so-call “real Kyrgyz.” When Mavlyan and I talk he says “You would not be able to give these [sex-ed] brochures to your children, right?” And I say, why not? I've shown them to my son.
In our culture it’s not just a problem of “being Kyrgyz,” it’s that there is a culture of silence between parents and children about the body, how it functions. I'm not even speaking about sexuality, just reproduction and so on. We don’t even speak about that. Sometimes even basic sanitary skills are not taught.
EN: So do you see the debate about the brochures as symptomatic of larger societal trends?
GI: Those in populist positions, they're trying to build on this fundamental lack of knowledge [regarding sexual education]. For politicians who only deal in hounding others, the brochures are an easy target. They’re ideologically easy to misinterpret. You can point out the enemy with your hands, you can find enemies of the state right away – those who want to kill us, to destroy us, to lead us to the point of extinction, etc.
Despite this, members of society can see that deep socio-cultural changes are happening. Traditional family relationships are changing rapidly. What was believed to be “moral” previously simply doesn’t work anymore. Unfortunately this is manifested in different, negative ways through forms of violence: violence in the home, within the family, in the form of public conflicts. ... People don't understand what's happening, they're trying to find answers and find a enemy so they can say, “let's kill our enemy and we can go back to old times like when the elderly were respected, when everything related to sex was taboo and people were conscientious.”
EN: Is this a serious trend?
GI: [Yes.] Among populists, even of different stripes, a consensus has happened. Under the pressures of globalization people are trying to preserve and justify “natural” or “traditional” identities. Globalization is unavoidable: Think of how many people are migrating, experiencing new cultures, engaging the world in different ways. But people feel anxiety about the world changing around them and seek to simplify their lives. Their worldview expands...people are not staying the same, but they are trying to be “real Kyrgyz” because being unique is a real universal human need. The attempt to preserve uniqueness through nationalism is understandable, but the process of how to understand it, how to help people make their own choices about what cultural knowledge and traditions are needed, there are no discussions like this in society.
As part of this, there is an effort to copy the Russians in banning NGOs as “foreign agents,” spies. We all know the authors of these initiatives, they speak out on this openly. Mr Tursunbai Bakir uluu [a member of parliament] spoke out on this to such an extent that you can read a paper where he says that we need to “really find out who is GIZ [the German development agency] and why they are supporting these dubious endeavors [of making educational brochures].” To me it would be interesting to ask Mr Bakir uluu: “When we receive external aid, when a significant donor like GIZ is in our country, why are you not acquainted with them? Why are you, an MP, signing off on their aid to Kyrgyzstan, but then pull these populist stunts? Why did you sign off on this and later ask, 'Who are these people?”
EN: What’s behind this apparently contradictory position?
GI: When broken down, it appears to be an attempt to gain greater control over NGOs. So, this effort is of interest to politicians who are developing new types of civil society organizations that are built around Islamic religious values. They also receive foreign aid yet no one talks about it. I think these fights with “liberal” organizations, like the circumstance with ARZ now, is an attempt to exterminate [the NGOs] to allow these new Islamic groups to fill their roles. This is being done by politicians who are trying to make a name for themselves.
It’s so much easier for these politicians to be critical, to “lead the fight,” to point out yet another enemy instead of being productive. Creating something beneficial for people: this is hard. They don't help people; they organize conflict.
EN: So how are these trends affecting Kyrgyzstan's future?
GI: I feel pessimistic: Every year I see more and more symptoms of intellectual degradation in society. I think there is a need to work more with people to improve their education, but unfortunately mass media does not engage in any kind of practical education, and neither does the education system. There are no lessons in critical thinking skills, no one has communications skills, no reproductive health knowledge. This is where our problems come from.
The level of knowledge is getting lower and lower – and here it’s not just the quality of formal education, it’s also what people find acceptable to believe. I meet with young people. High school graduates tell me with all seriousness that, if you give blood in a hospital, then Satan will enter your body. I never imagined that people could believe this!
But now multiple generations of people who believe things like this have been brought up, and for politicians, having people like this is beneficial: They are a generation of blank minds. Any politician can [buy these people]. Then, when politicians vying for the minds of these people start competing, the situation can become dangerous. It can lead to civil war, perpetual conflict.
Our situation [in Kyrgyzstan] today has many sorts of on-going conflicts: we have ethnic conflicts, religious and denominational conflicts, socioeconomic conflicts, all of these are sources of conflict, and I won't even mention conflict based on gender. But still, we can't understand the source of these conflicts. Society still doesn’t understand that only through education and raising awareness can we reduce conflict. So I'm pessimistic.