A brief but explicit tweet was enough to thrust an official at the city hall of Kyrgyzstan’s capital into a protracted verbal battle between secular and conservative camps this week.
It all began quite harmlessly, when low-key parliamentarian Makhabat Mavlyanova took to her personal Facebook page to share her views on wedding dress designs.
“I appeal to parents not to allow girls to wear such flashy dresses! At any wedding, a girl is appearing before her husband’s relatives for the first time and might attract undesirable attention,” Mavlyanova wrote, attaching a photo of a woman wearing a shoulder-baring wedding dress by way of illustration.
“We must preserve the ancient Kyrgyz traditions.”
In the pocket of rural southern Kyrgyzstan that Mavlyanova hails from, such viewpoints are likely uncontroversial. But takes like these tend to go down badly with citizens of a secular stripe, typically Russian-speaking residents of the capital, Bishkek.
The post quickly sparked fears her personal sentiments on wedding wear could evolve into legislation restricting the rights of young women. A couple of websites ran stories on the post on May 19.
That is when Bishkek city hall PR specialist Gulya Almambetova entered the fray.
“Poshla na hui”, she wrote on her private Twitter account in response to Mavlyanova. In other words, “f**k off.”
The tweet, which earned hundreds of likes, was quickly written up by the same media outlets that covered Mavlyanova’s posts.
Traditionalists were incensed.
"This provocateur from the [City Hall] couldn't even hold her tongue during the holy month of Ramadan," Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a former presidential candidate, wrote in a Kyrgyz-language post on Facebook. "Is this dirty-mouthed behavior fitting of a woman?"
Almambetova appears to be unbowed by all the clamor. City Hall apologized on her behalf, however, and pledged unspecified “disciplinary measures.”
Despite her sometimes sharp tongue, Almambetova has proven an effective public face for Bishkek authorities and her position looks secure.
This may explain why Mavlyanova was not eager to drag out the confrontation, despite public encouragement from some of her colleagues to fight back.
On May 21, she clarified in a video released by the parliament’s official press service that her post had been purely motivated by respect for elders and that Almambetova should stay in her role.
“A good specialist should not be fired over an emotional statement,” she said.
The saga was at once low-stakes public drama and a revealing snapshot of what makes Kyrgyzstan tick these days.
Along with brewing culture wars, key talking points have included the boundaries between the public and private online presence, foul language on social media and the role news outlets played inflating the scandal, said Medet Tiulegenov, a professor at the American University of Central Asia.
“Then there is the parliament, public opinion of which seems to sink to new depths all the time,” Tiulegenov told Eurasianet.
As Almambetova returned to the business of promoting municipal initiatives, such as paid carparks to reduce the choke on the city's roads, she was being hailed as a hero.
More than one user on Twitter — where the more urban, secular types do their opining — nudged her to run for office.
And then there were those dissatisfied with the conciliatory ending and irked that Mavlyanova had had the audacity to comment on Almambetova's employment status.
“Tell her to eff off again,” implored one Twitterer.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty. Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.