Almaty, located in the extreme southeast at the border with Kyrgyzstan, is the largest city in Kazakhstan. A lush mix of Russian and Central Asian styles, it used to be the state capital and the country’s commercial and cultural center until 1997. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, currently in power, became the country’s first president following its independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991. In 2010 he was granted the lifelong title of “leader of the nation” by the Kazakh parliament. During an interview he affirmed that “economic progress is more important than democracy” and, for this reason he proposed the move of the capital from Almaty to Astana, which took place in 1997. The new capital, located in the desolate extreme north, is close to rich minerals and oil wells. During this shift, Almaty experienced a big and radical change in terms of population composition. All government offices and activities moved away from the city and with them the workers too. Most men abandoned the city leaving the women behind in Almaty. This explains why the city has become a place where the gender ratio leans heavily towards women, making it one of the cities with the highest number of females in the entire world (890.000 out of 1.426.000 people —  62.4% of the city’s population — are women). The deep southeast location confers to the city a different climate from the north where temperatures reach down to -30°C in the winter, the cold Siberian wind relentlessly blows in from the north and it is possible to enjoy just a couple of months of nice weather. In Almaty, summers are hot and until October trees offer a colorful backdrop and the mountains with their wonderful lakes surrounding the city become an ideal scenery for a painter. This time of the year is called BAB’E LETO in Russian, literally Old Women’s Summer; its meaning implies something that is already gone and will never come back, just like a summer fading into winter. It evokes those women in their late forties who will never be young and beautiful again, like a blooming flower before withering.

Kazakh culture is still patriarchal, especially outside the biggest cities. Women usually get married very young (18 — 25 years old), they have many children and don’t work in order to fully dedicate themselves to their family needs and children. Divorce is permitted and men tend to get married again or take up some unofficial wives without particular problems. Things are different for women: they just cannot get married a second time. Many of them are lost. However, in Almaty it is very common to meet lone women who have become as strong as the pain they had endured: they raise kids, they own a flat, they drive a car, they have a job. They have a successful life and an important role in society. During the week the business city is full of working women who are struggling to support their families but at the same time are strong mothers. On weekends, nightclubs are often crowded with more women than men. Women working associations have sprung up to give women a chance to spend time together and dedicate themselves to a hobby, to teach them financial matters or social issues like the relationship with sex that is often a taboo subject within families. 

In general, in Central Asia women conditions are very difficult, especially outside the big cities. Even today, women are often kidnapped, raped and given up as brides to their rapists. When a woman is raped, her family (whether traditional, poor or little educated) often prefers to give the daughter away in marriage to save the family honor instead of calling the authorities. In April 1995, President Nazarbayev asserted that one of the Republic’s goals would be to create an economy in which a mother can work from home, raising her children. This conviction seems to have taken root: almost no women hold senior positions in the country, neither in government nor in the private sector. Kazakh nationalist parties have attempted to ban abortions and birth control, they have also made efforts to prevent Kazakh women from having children out of wedlock. Women’s health issues have not been addressed effectively in Kazakhstan. Maternal mortality rates average 80 per 10,000 births for the entire country, but they are believed to be much higher in rural areas. Of the 4.2 million women of childbearing age, an estimated 15 percent have born seven or more children. Nevertheless, in 1992 the number of abortions exceeded the number of births, although the high percentage of early-stage abortions performed in private clinics complicates data gathering. According to one expert estimate, the average is one abortion per five women. 

Almaty is an exception to all this. Almaty is THE CITY OF WOMEN, a place in which BAB’E LETO does not seem to exist. Here women have an opportunity to have a second chance, for them it is possible to attain important roles in society and a large number of independent young women are bringing new ideas to many work fields (finance, commerce, fashion, journalism, advertising, politic, theatre, cinema, sport). They live a sort of second youth, resistant to the cold winter. At the same time new generations of women have strong independent roots and original ideas. Kazakh women are trying to carve out a place for themselves to create a better future in a male dominated society. A society where men seem to think that women become weak after a divorce, and where people consider unmarried women over the age of 25 to be people with problems.

This is a story of women, this is a story of female loneliness, this is a story of human strength.

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Summer is fading Winter
is coming

Almaty | Kazakhstan| The city of women

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