All posts by Mohira Suyarkulova

Mohira Suyarkulova is a queer feminist communist and a scholar of Central Asia, living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Since completing her PhD in International Relations at St Andrews University (UK) in 2011, she has held a number of research and teaching positions in Europe and Kyrgyzstan. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Sociology department at the American University of Central Asia. Dr. Suyarkulova’s latest work focuses on the politics of gender and sexuality in Central Asia, engaging in participatory action research located at the intersection of scholarship and activism.

Becoming an activist scholar: towards more politically engaged and socially accountable research practices in Central Asian studies, by Mohira Suyarkulova (American University of Central Asia)

Editor’s note:  Here we present the full text of one of the invited key note speeches at this year’s annual conference, which was held at George Washington University in October 2019.  We thank Mohira Suyarkulova for her permission to reprint this transcript of the speech here.

Becoming an activist scholar

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be here today and have this opportunity to address a room full of ‘Central Asianists’, people who have dedicated a significant period of their lives, their intellectual capacities and passions to the study of the region I call home.  I myself embody the dual identity of a Central Asian and a ‘Central Asianist’, a native researcher, a kind of a self-referential scholar, socialised and trained through a combination of home schooling and academic migrations.  I am a Central Asian in a truly transnational sense – in that I was born in Tajikistan, from where my family had to leave during the civil war. We then migrated to the hometown of my maternal grandparents – Bukhara – and then to Tashkent, the capital of the newly independent Uzbekistan, where I went to a Turkish high school and completed two years of undergraduate studies at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy; I then received a George Soros-funded scholarship to become an exchange student in Vermont for a year, and then transferred to the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My postgraduate studies were all in the United Kingdom at St Andrews University, where Will famously met Kate. During my masters’ year funded by a Chevening scholarship, my family back in Uzbekistan were subjected to background checks and told they did not qualify for Uzbek citizenship – our citizenship was revoked, passports taken away, new identities of ‘persons without citizenship’ issued.  Since then I have received a Russian citizenship, and while the rest of my closest family members now reside in Kaliningrad (a curious geopolitical exclave of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania), I have moved back to Bishkek, where I teach at my alma mater. (I am telling you this personal life story not because my life has been extraordinary, but because it reflects some of the processes and events in the region which I tried to reflect on in my research.) My move to Bishkek for the second time signified another watershed moment in my life – I became an activist.

Illustration of the author, by Michael Feaux.

In this talk, based on my personal journey as a researcher, teacher and activist living and working in/on Central Asia, I will share my reflections on whether and how research done in and on the region of ‘Central Asia’ has an emancipatory potential.  Born out of the orientalist tradition and Cold War rivalry, and resurrected as part of the War on Terror, can area studies serve the interests of the “wretched of the earth”? Who is an academic accountable to? How can we engage in a more responsible intellectual labour under the conditions of permanent crises and precarity? What is at stake when we ask certain questions and pledge our energies to specific intellectual pursuits? These are some of the dilemmas that I would like to invite my fellow Central Asianists to reflect on.

When I received the invitation to give this keynote address, I had to fight an urge to decline due to a nasty flare-up of a condition called “imposter syndrome” – ‘chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence’, which makes me feel inadequate and undeserving of the position I occupy, despite the external proof of success and competence I may get.  I spent the months since in constant anxiety, pondering possible topics, takes, arguments. Despite all the doubts and concerns I might have, the most pressing matter to me today is to talk about my transition from a native researcher to an activist scholar. I am a queer woman, a communist and a feminist and my research and teaching reflect my politics. I teach courses on critical theory, discourse analysis and theories of sexuality. I am also one of the founding member of the “Queer Academics AUCA” initiative at the university, which organises public talks and serves as a peer support group. When I wrote my short bio for the announcement of this talk I wondered if such public self-representation was a smart career move.  Will I be taken seriously, I asked myself.  Is my recent focus on the politics of gender and sexuality a professional suicide? In this talk I am in search of myself and the particular position I occupy within the field of social sciences and Central Asian studies by researching and teaching on gender and sexuality.

Four years ago Sarah Kendzior delivered a keynote address to the Central Eurasian Studies Society at Indiana University and entitled it “The Future of Central Asian Studies: A Eulogy”.  With striking clarity and precision, she identified the key issues at stake and mapped out the landscape of a field in a state of crisis. “Our field is a great example of how funding impacts knowledge, and how without money and jobs, research on a region declines. Our field is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of linking independent academic research to military intelligence, and what happens to scholars when the wars that indirectly fund their training end. And our field is also a fine example of the challenges of research in authoritarian states, and the limitations of what scholars can do in restricted information environments,” she said. While all of these still very much hold true, in my talk I would like to present a different set of challenges as they are seen by me as an activist scholar living and working in the region, albeit, admittedly, I occupy a rather privileged position residing in Bishkek, the San Francisco of Central Asia, while teaching at the region’s most liberal university.

Kath Weston in her book Long Slow Burn (1998) makes a case for placing the study of sexuality at the center of social sciences, reclaiming its historical influence in shaping the intellectual foundations of all social science disciplines as we know them.  She argues that the formative debates in many a social science discipline relied on examples from the ‘realm’ of sexuality: “… consider, for one, that eminently contemporary and highly contentious debate on reflexivity in social science. As researchers ponder whether or not to use “I” in their work, they are in effect, grappling with aspects of cultural categories (narcissism, confession, self-indulgence, kiss-and-tell) that have become parcelled off, boxed up, and increasingly marketed under the rubric of sex” (4).

Billboard on a street in Bishkek reading ‘Folks, where are we going?'” Source: Kaktus.media

For all the attention recently garnered by studies of gender and sexuality in Central Asia (as evidenced, among other things, by the programme of CESS conferences in recent years), this subject remains marginalised and viewed as a soft-touch area of knowledge. Inspired by Weston’s call to overcome the ghettoization of the study of gender and sexuality in the social sciences, I want to also emphasize that one can never ‘just’ study gender and sexuality in a neat separation from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of concern to the social sciences/Central Asian studies – history, class, ethnicity, race, diaspora, migration, environment, urban politics, religion, electoral behaviour, community mobilisation, to name a few. Once you start deploying the gender and sexuality sensitive optics, you begin to perceive a myriad of phenomena and events in a new light.

My own work since I completed my PhD on Tajik-Uzbek relations in 2011 has evolved to examine the less ‘hard-core’ yet no less complex intersections of nationalism, gender and sexuality and dress, urban life, sociality and human-environment interactions. Nationalist movements in Central Asia have constructed certain conceptions of authenticity, pride and autonomy on the backs of local women and gender-and-sexually-variant-and-noncomforming people. Dress modestly. Clothe yourself to swim. No talking to men who are not mahram/ men of other ethnicities. Behave like a man. Control your women. I am interested in uncovering how these gendered beliefs and practices are implicated in larger structures of oppression, and whether and how a radical change is possible.

My contention is that not only do such studies enrich our field with invaluable empirical materials, but also that significant theoretical insights and methodological advances can be made. Most importantly, critical studies of gender and sexuality bear emancipatory potentiality – they are already generating a possibility of praxis – a process whereby theories and knowledge gained through research are enacted, embodied and realised through action aimed at advocacy, community mobilisation, education and political direct action.  Gender and sexuality scholarship in and on Central Asia is a budding curious “assemblage of paradigmatically dissimilar studies and academic practices” (Kondakov 2016, p. 114). As Alexander Kondakov beautifully put it in relation to the field of queer studies in Russia (but which also applies to Central Asian scholars of gender and sexuality),“It is activism and science at the same time, but even more, it is love in the form of scholarship” (115).

I am by no means a lone warrior in this army of lovers. I am preceded by pioneers of the field such as Marriane Kamp, Adrienne Lynne Edgar, Deniz Kendiyoti, Anna Temkina, Douglas Northrop and Collette Harris.  More recently, Juliette Clezou, Lucia Derenberg, Aksana Ismailbekova, Diana Kudaibergenova, Sophie Roche, Julie McBrien, Cai Wilkinson, and many others have made invaluable contributions. And walking along with me are faithful comrades, whose faces and names I recognise not only from the seminar rooms, conference halls and article pages, but who have been engaged in feminist and LGBTQ organising and activism in Central Asia –  Anara Moldosheva, Mehrigul Ablezova, Altyn Kapalova, Syinat Sultanalieva,  Zhanar Sekerbaeva, Dilya Mamadshoeva, Elena Kim, Nina Bagdasarova, Asel Myrzabekova, Georgy Mamedov, Joanna Hoare, and Anna Kirey.

Yet, though I do not feel lonely and isolated in my intellectual pursuits, the context my fellow gender and sexuality scholars function in is far from nurturing and encouraging. John D’Emilio once wrote in reference to university professors’ stance on LGBTQ issues, “Having been granted the extraordinary privilege of thinking critically as a way of life, we should be astute enough to recognize when a group of people is being systematically mistreated” (quoted in Kondakov 2016:108). This is not the case in Kyrgyzstan, supposedly the most liberal of the Central Asian states, and certainly not true for the rest of the countries in the region.  In many institutions of higher learning and research centers in Central Asia, the scholars fear the consequences of speaking out of turn and engage in self-censorship. Some even appoint themselves as mouthpieces of the ruling ideology, purporting to speak on behalf of the ‘common people’ and ‘national interest’.

It would be easy to label Central Asian scholars as belonging to either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ camp, according to the place of their employment, their educational background, their working languages, where they publish their research and the names of the authors they cite in their texts. However, such classification would not be an accurate reflection of the complex institutional politics and contradictory personal positionings of individual scholars within these configurations of power and ideologies. Unfortunately, a PhD from a prestigious western university is not a very good predictor of one’s politics, as evidenced by one recent encounter I had with a professor at AUCA, who accused a former colleague of having ‘openly promoted LGBT among students’.  This was dropped into the conversation casually as an example of how one must not teach gender studies at the university during a discussion of a gender studies concentration offered to the students of the Liberal Arts department of the university.  The exact wording of this ‘casual’ remark in Russian was ‘открыто пропагандировал ЛГБТ’, which is a direct reference of the homophobic law adopted in the Russian Federation in 2013.

The ‘gay propaganda’ norm in Russia outlawed any positive or neutral discussion of the issue of homosexuality among minors. Propaganda of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ bill framed homosexuality as a menace to the whole nation brough from outside. Essentially, it gave a licence to discriminate against the LGBTQ people, has led to the dramatic increase in hate crimes and violence crimes against non-heterosexual and gender noncomforming people (Kondakov 2017).

A similar bill was proposed by some members of Kyrgyz parliament in 2014, but it went even further than the Russian version – criminalising any positive depictions of homosexuality regardless of the age of the audiences.  If passed, the law would amount to outlawing the work of LGBTQ organisations and would send to prison anyone who dared discuss this matter publicly.  A coalition of civil society actors united in opposition to the bill, galvanised further due to the fact that the ‘gay propaganda’ bill was being pushed through in conjuction with a sister-bill (also plagiarised from a Russian counterpart) on ‘foreign agents’ that in reality targetted all NGOs.  Although, thankfully, the bill has not been passed (it has been stuck in the pipeline after the second reading and no one has so far tried to resurrect it), it still has had a negative impact on the lives of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan.

Despite not being an official law of the land, the homophobic norm already exists in the minds of people who enforce it in their interpersonal and professional relationships, leading to fear and (self-)censorship.  So now, even though I have a legitimate reason and right to discuss LGBTQ issues in my classroom and in my research, I can easily be labelled as having an agenda/engaging in propaganda, thus threatening my employment status and future. This is a case of a law which doesn’t exist becoming a part of the transnational shared media field and shaping everyday social relations and institutional arrangements. Despite bearing the proud title of an ‘associate professor’, I am not tenured or on a tenure-track, and like most of my colleagues I have a one-year contract, which means it is extremely easy for the administration to terminate my employment.  Along with many other academics in the world, I am part of the growing class of precariat.

Nevertheless, feminists and queers have persisted and the past several years have been remarkably prolific.  Despite the increased vigilantism and violence of nationalist groups, paranoia of the authorities, police harassment, secret services’ surveillance and the media hype that accompanied and followed the debates regarding the ‘propaganda’ bill, the past several years have been really productive. For instance, Labrys, one of the region’s oldest LGBTQ organisations (founded in 2004), succeeded in advocating for the adoption of a manual for medical and social workers regarding assistance for transgender people. This means that people are no  longer required to undergo surgery in order to receive new identity documents.

Image from the call for applications to become a co-researcher in the participatory action study of LGBTQ lives in Bishkek (Labrys 2018) led by Mohira Suyarkulova.

Additionally, Central Asia has entered the European chapters of international LGBT organisations and advocacy groups like ILGA-Europe, TGEU and EL*C.  This means that now the region is viewed as part of the same political field as European and Caucasian former Soviet republics, aligning with the existing activist networks and funding streams. Initiative groups in other Central Asian countries, where it is impossible to officially register a feminist or LGBT organisation and to work openly, get supported by their Kyrgyz counterparts, who serve as fiscal sponsors, with Bishkek being the regional hub for training and meetings. Local LGBT organisations run community centers and a shelter, engage in hidden advocacy as well as open political action.

There is a sense of pride of what we have been through and what we have managed to accomplish despite the odds. And although international support and solidarity are key, local activists have increasingly sought to articulate specifically Central Asian agendas and visions, resisting the homogenizing influences of global identity politics whereby the loudest voices and concerns tend to be those of North American and Western European counterparts.  People in activist circles who have access to resources and educational opportunities have already started to write the history of the local feminist and LGBT movement through their PhD dissertation and publications. Yet once again, such opportunities are usually found far away from Central Asia and often do not reach the audiences they concern the most.

We want to write our own history and empower our communities through research and education. One such project is the ongoing participatory action study of sexual lives of LGBTQ people in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which I designed and led.  The study started in 2018 and involved co-researchers recruited from among the LGBTQ people in Bishkek, who were trained in research methods and conducted over 90 in-depth biographical interviews with their peers. The purpose of the study was to create a sex education curriculum that reflects the experiences and needs of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan, not simply reproduce the heteronormative medicalised view of our sexuality. We have now transcribed over one hundred hours of audio recordings. The resulting data set is a unique archive of queer lives in Kyrgyzstan, which will become the basis for assessment of the needs of the community, inclusive and sensitive sex education curriculum, and advocacy efforts.

The study has already resulted in a series of public sessions on queer sex ed at a community center, which I teach each month.  Every lesson starts with a set of direct quotations from the interviews, we pose questions about our relationships, bodies, desires, practices and families, and I take my audience on a journey through the ideas and concepts I discovered when reviewing existing literature. These sessions have proven to be among the most popular and well-attended events at the community center. It has definitely been the most fulfilling teaching experience for me. We plan to make the knowledge generated by the project accessible as a book and/or a website.

Another noteworthy event took place this year in Bishkek. In collaboration with AUCA’s Center for Critical Gender Studies, Labrys organised a conference dedicated to LGBT lives and politics in Central Asia. My comrade Georgy Mamedov and myself were the connecting links between these two institutions and the chief organisers of the conference, as we are both AUCA faculty and LGBTQ activists (Georgy is the Chairman of Labrys’s board, while I am a member of the General Assembly of the organisation, also having worked in their Advocacy and Education Programme).  The conference title was “В теме”.  Non-heterosexual and gender nonconforming people in Kyrgyzstan mostly refer to themselves and others in the community as tema or v teme (Russian, literally ‘theme’ and ‘in the theme’). This code-word means people “in the know” or those with the insider knowledge.  The word has many derivatives (temnyi, tematicheskii, temshchik, etc) and is primarily used to refer to specific modes of queer sociality rather than sexual identity, desire or practice (Mamedov 2018). This word is used pretty universally in the post-Soviet space, as opposed to the ‘LGBT’ used in activist circles and kvir used also by some activists, scholars and people from the contemporary art scene. We chose such title deliberately – as a prompt and a provocation to start a conversation about LGBTQ lives in Central Asia.

Open call for submissions to participate in symposium “In the Know: Sex, politics and life of LGBT people in Central Asia”, 22-23 march, 2019, AUCA.

The conference took place in the central forum of AUCA’s new building, with conference presenters speaking into a microphone, in Russian, their presentation slides and videos projected on the large screen, so that despite it being the spring break it was a visible event.  Additionally, the conference program was published on Labrys’ web page, where it was picked up by local journalists, who then reprinted on their sites.  This was an important intellectual and activist event (even if I say so myself), where leading scholars and activists from Central Asian countries, Russian provinces, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as established scholars like Dan Healey, Elena Gapova, Julie Cassiday and Olga Sasunkevich spoke. It was very different from the usual formats of conferences where LGBTQ issues are discussed, where the main focus in usually on HIV prevention, human rights and psychological well being. The above issues are of course of great importance, but they do not reflect the entirety of queer existence in Central Asia.

We believe that social life can be recorded and made sense of in a variety of ways, which is why we encouraged a variety of formats – not only academic presentations, but also works of art, performances, poetic, journalistic and activist notes from the field. We talked about recording and valorising local queer histories and history writing methods, about LGBTQ (auto)ethnographies of the region, about queer cultures and institutions, about the influence of the global LGBTQ politics and agendas on us, and about how we could go beyond the politics of identity that we are offered as the ‘bright future’.  The conference also featured a series of cultural side events, which were held at the local LGBT club “London”, as well as an exhibition and a fashion show at the university.

What was remarkable to us, however, is that the reactions of our colleagues to the event fell into one of two positions, both devaluing the intellectual merit of the event although each in its own way. The first type of reaction was easy to confuse with admiration or a compliment. It went something like “You are so brave! I did not think such a thing would be possible here.” The second reaction pointed out the contentious nature of the subject matter in either an overt or covert form – “It is such a sensitive issue” or “Why don’t you go and discuss these disgusting things behind closed doors and away from children.”  Further, the university administration received calls from the authorities and warned us that in the future we should coordinate (read, seek permission for) such events with them.  Such concern was justified by the complex political situation in the country. “We do not want jigits (lads) on horseback to come to the campus and destroy everything here,” the polite warning was.

Just a couple of weeks prior to the symposium, feminist and LGBTQ groups participated in the march dedicated to the International Women’s Day, which this year attracted a record number of participants and a lot of media attention, due in part to the attempts by nationalist groups, secret police and city authorities’ to ban it and stop it happening.  March organisers published a manifesto listing a broad range of social and political issues, yet the detractors of the march chose the age-old strategy of trying to discredit the movement by pointing out its links to the ‘gay agenda’.  One local newspaper front page headline read “Fags and lezzos staged a coven gathering in the center of Bishkek” with pictures of my comrades and myself posing with rainbow and trans flags.  This, however, once again brought media and public attention to the feminist and LGBTQ agenda – journalists sought comments, live TV shows broadcast debates between nationalists and feminists, and major news sites reprinted Labrys’ statement on “What do the LGBTQ people have to do with it? Why Labrys marches on the 8th of March”, which I authored.  As many activists jokingly noted after the homophbic bill was introduced back in 2014, the attempt to ban propaganda had become the greatest propaganda for the LGBT movement since it sparked a public discussion on the matter.  Likewise, attempts to stop the Women’s march and to smear the protest by calling it a ‘gay pride’ brought into the relief the invisibility of lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer women (even for the international and local organisations whose mandate includes the defense of the rights of all women) and the affinity between the causes of feminism and LGBTQ people. And since the authorities are likely to continue this tactic, we are likely to get even more attention in the future, which we should use to our advantage.

Women’s Day march, 8 March, 2019, Bishkek. Source: Kloop.kg

My intention is to continue to unapologetically engage in ‘propaganda’ in the classroom as well as outside of it.  We must recognise that our work as scholars is always already implicated in politics, whether we intend it to be or not.  Being deliberate and self-conscious about our political and social positionings is what sets apart critical scholarship.  We are all already engaged in some kind of propaganda – the question is not whether you engage in politics, but rather what are your politics. Yet it is usually only those politics that are challenging the status quo that become visible, while the established views are naturalised as eternal, universal and ‘common sense’.

So I would like to conclude this talk by echoing the call from previous generations of radical and critical scholars – for Central Asianists of the world to unite in a praxis – action or engagement upon the world that seeks to create emancipatory change.  Social scientists must aim their research at the alleviation of social problems and must make their results available and informative to the people they concern (Osmond 1983: 50). Marx gave us the legacy of praxis most famously in his eleventh thesis on Fuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. This might not be an easy path to follow, I recognise that, but I believe it is the most meaningful and rewarding one.

i Mamedov, Georgy. 2018.  Unpublished conference paper, Indiana University.