Two months after the events of “Bloody January”, as Kazakhs call it, feminists organised a women’s march in the country’s largest city, Almaty – only the second to be approved by authorities in recent history. Under the law on public assemblies adopted in 2020, activists have to notify local administrations about planned protests. If they fail to get a green light from officials, they risk being detained and fined – some can be arrested and spend up to 15 days in jail.
When the rally was held in March, many Kazakhs were still traumatised by the January violence, and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine had cast a pall over the wider region. Yet a thousand people turned out, with many holding banners supporting Ukraine.
Zhanar Sekerbayeva, a well-known LGBT activist, scholar and co-founder of the Feminita organisation, was on the organising committee for this year’s march. She said there was widespread “anxiety” in the air throughout. During her years of activism, Sekerbayeva has been detained several times, harassed by police and beaten by unknown men.
“It seemed to me that [people] were scared because we have no trust in the government, no trust in government institutions,” she says.
Yelena Shvetsova, executive director of the human rights organisation Wings of Liberty, believes the situation in Kazakhstan will change only with more political power and representation for women.
“Over the past couple of years, more people have started to talk about women’s rights and the gender agenda,” she told Impact, but warned that the government had limited appetite for real change.
“There is a new wave of young women needed who will fight for their rights,” she says.
In the future, many of those young women may be able to trace their path to activism back to the events of Bloody January. The events of 2022 in Kazakhstan have shown that civil society is growing, and will not back down easily.