In a Bishkek TV studio on a recent afternoon, a group of Kyrgyz women from varied backgrounds came together to discuss how women in their country can combine traditional and modern lifestyles, in a segment for a program called Sisterhood, or “Eje-signdi” in Kyrgyz.
Launched in June 2017, first as a radio program produced by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service before being promptly picked up by Kyrgyz national TV and adapted for that format, Sisterhood serves as a unique platform for discussion about women’s issues and social taboos, subjects often overlooked or avoided by media in the region.
Program topics have ranged from weighty themes like domestic abuse, misogyny, and sexual harassment, to practical advice on balancing career and family, the ethics and repercussions of posting photos of your children online, and why New Year’s celebrations, with all of the cooking and planning involved, are so stressful for Kyrgyz women. With over 60,000 views online, the most popular show to date asked the question, “Does artificial beauty make women happy?”
Hosted by well-known blogger and freelance TV producer with the Kyrgyz Service, Aliya Suranova, Sisterhood is a space for Kyrgyz women to discuss taboo subjects about their lives while respecting their cherished national culture and the particular sensibilities of their viewers.
“Although the show deals with serious issues, the idea is to keep it light-hearted and funny,” Suranova tells RFE/RL’s Lady Liberty. “There are bad connotations around feminism in Kyrgyzstan, as it is viewed as something dangerous and Western. We like to keep things simple on the show, without forcing any strong opinions.”
There is no specific guest profile on Sisterhood, and Suranova invites smart women of all ages and social backgrounds on the show to join the conversation. Politicians, teachers, historians, anthropologists, and actresses, among others, have all had their say on Sisterhood. Prominent men are also invited on the program from time to time, with one of the most popular panels featuring famous Kyrgyz comedian Boronchu Kudaibergenov, who took on society’s negative perceptions of women who laugh and joke in public.
Although there is a sizable women’s rights community in Kyrgyzstan, Suranova says before Sisterhood there were no TV programs addressing women’s issues in the Kyrgyz language. Most of Sisterhood’s viewers are from rural areas and are more comfortable in their native Kyrgyz than in Russian, the second most common language in the country.
“Most of the time, Kyrgyz media actually reinforces gender stereotypes instead of creating space to discuss them,” she said. “It is important that we started the discussion in Kyrgyz, because a lot of topics are taboo in our society, and as a result, there is a painful number of unaware and uninformed women whose lives turn into tragedies because of it.”
Sisterhood has had an overwhelmingly positive audience response. “Women send in messages thanking our speakers for inspiring them and for introducing them to new opinions,” says Suranova. “Kyrgyz women living around the world have also shared their joy that these issues have finally been given a platform on national TV.”
The biggest challenge for women in Kyrgyzstan, in Suranova’s view, is that patriarchal values are still deeply ingrained in Kyrgyz culture, and place barriers on women’s opportunities and choices. “Women go straight from being under the control of their family to that of their husband. There is a lack of knowing what their options are, a lack of independence,” she said.
Despite these difficulties, Suranova is confident things are changing for women in Kyrgyzstan, albeit slowly. “In the meantime,” she says, “we’ll keep on talking. There is always something new to discuss—we’ll never run out of topics.”