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Getting to know oneself: enforced heteronormativity in the Kazakhstani educational system

Malika Mukhamejan(@mali.mali.ka), 2019, Almaty.

From Foucault’s “docile bodies” to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick” in the Wall, education has long been recognized as an inherently political institution that is intrinsically tied to the project of identity building. Schooling systems are not neutral and inclusion of any school subject in their curriculum can be used to diagnose social development.

One of the recent instances when the high school curriculum was dissected and questioned by the Kazakhstani public, took place when in 2020 feminist activist Fariza Ospan shared on her social media snippets of a ninth-grade textbook of the özin özi tanu (self-knowledge – Kazakh) school subject. The explicitly gendered language of the textbook caused a wave of backlash on the internet.

It is unclear whether this controversy or, more likely, a general move of the President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s administration away from Nursultan Nazarbayev’s legacy triggered the process of exclusion of özin özi tanu from the state-wide curriculum but in February 2022 it was announced that the subject would be removed from an obligatory schooling program for grades one to 11 and will now be offered only as a supplementary subject for one academic year. While expulsion of özin özi tanu from the school curriculum represents a welcomed change, it is important to understand how the subject fits into a larger context of gendered state policies and why its presence even in the supplementary curriculum should be questioned.

In my research published in 2021, I argue that the curriculum of özin özi tanu teaches its young students one-dimensional ideas about femininity and masculinity while simultaneously stigmatizing behaviors deviating from them. Locking children and teenagers into rigid standards of femininity and masculinity presents harmful consequences ranging from social alienation and lack of agency to the normalization of public shaming and violence. The latter was the case in October 2021 when an eighth-grade male student of Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Almaty committed suicide after he was apprehended by the school administration for wearing a skirt at a formal dance event. This is an illustrative example of how systemic stigmatization of certain gender expressions can have tangible effects on adolescent lives.

What is özin özi tanu / samopoznanie?

Kazakhstan’s school curriculum does not include a separate course in sex education. An alternative offered in some schools across the country is a subject named ‘valeology’, the science of healthy living, which is taught in middle school. The questions of bodily anatomy related to sexuality, such as menstruation, are also covered in biology classes. Some topics related to sexuality, relationships, and gender roles come up later in high school during özin özi tanu classes.

In 2001, Sara Nazarbayeva, the wife of Kazakhstan’s first president who ruled the country for over 30 years until 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev, introduced özin özi tanu as a school subject in the country. On the official website of özin özi tanu, it is described as a form of moral and spiritual training and an educational program to provide pedagogical support for students in order for them to “find themselves, develop the best qualities, retain their dignity, and always remain an individual in the highest form.” The discipline positions itself as a moral guide, which implies that the behaviors condoned in its textbooks fall outside of the moral and respectable norms. From the content of several chapters of özin özi tanu textbooks, it becomes clear that heteronormative standards of femininity and masculinity are an integral part of the moral compass that the discipline constructs.

In 2018, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan amended the program of özin özi tanu in Order No. 522. According to this Order, özin özi tanu teaches students “knowledge of universal values through the prism of national culture.” The end goal of the discipline is described as students readily displaying civility and patriotism. The government has thereby established a firm connection between a subject taught in school and the national identity, which is rooted in morally correct behavior that filters all values through the perspective of national culture. Knowing oneself is equated with knowing one’s place within the nation.

As previously mentioned, özin özi tanu had been offered throughout all school grades except for the first one. All of its last issued textbooks could be found on various Kazakhstani educational websites. The discipline does not include texts on gender roles and family up until the ninth grade when Kazakhstani students usually turn 15 years old. For grades nine through 11, topics of femininity, masculinity, and family make appearance in one or two chapters per textbook, while the rest touches on the importance of kindness, aid, friendship, philanthropy, patriotism, etc. The textbooks are usually written in the form of anecdotes and parables with questions for discussion and self-reflection provided at the end of each chapter.

Textbook heteronormativity

The 2019 edition of the özin özi tanu ninth-grade textbook has two chapters related to gender in its section titled “Being Human.” One is titled “Women’s Destiny” and another – “Man as the Embodiment of Duty, Responsibility, and Discipline.” The former chapter poses a question of whether femininity is still relevant in contemporary societies before promptly arguing in its favor and stating that femininity is homogeneous, as opposed to many different forms of “unfemininity.” Femininity is defined by a woman’s ability to be sensitive and understanding towards others, as well as by a woman’s need for “emotional connection.”

According to the textbook, young girls who choose to engage in traditionally ‘masculine’ behaviors such as smoking, making inappropriate jokes, and being rude eventually face the threat of being viewed as ‘one of the boys’ thus hindering their ability to find husbands. The ninth-grade textbook essentializes such qualities as patience, emotional malleability and sensitivity, and compassion as gendered features assigned to women in contrast to men’s decisiveness and protectiveness. This teaches young students about skewed power dynamics within heterosexual marriages where the wife is expected to be understanding and accommodating and perform most of the emotional labor, while the husband is the breadwinner.

What is at stake here, according to the textbook, is a woman’s ability to keep a husband and build a happy family in the heteronormative sense of the concept. “It is an unwritten obligation, a moral duty of a young woman, to be feminine! To be feminine so that a man can be masculine.” According to this textbook, guiding men through the relationship with grace, tact, and finesse is a skill available only to feminine women. Women are instructed to remain in the subordinate position of serving their male partners. Furthermore, the chapter on fatherhood also argues that a mother takes on the role of a primary caretaker while normalizing a certain distance between fathers and their children “because it is the mother who is the natural nurturer of her children.” The textbook, thus, wants its students to equate femininity with emotional labor of care while constructing masculinity as naturally void of nurturing abilities and reciprocal emotional intimacy.

The tenth-grade textbook, also published in 2019, directly comments on the “change” in family values in modern society in its “In the family circle” chapter. The book condemns civil unions as degradation of familial responsibilities. “The attitude toward family values has changed. Living in a civil union has become normal. […] The notion of familial responsibility is being reconsidered. The once steady, unextinguishable family hearth no longer exists. You are living together, you do not like something, you leave.” This overt prioritization of heterosexual monogamous marriage contributes to the stigmatization of choices outside this kind of relationship, which may deter young people from asking questions and instill shame for having desires and interest that fall outside of heteronormativity.

In the context of a patriarchal society, the duty to family and the emphasis on legal marriage over civil unions imply that being sexually active outside of marriage and having partners without the purpose of marrying is wrong. This might not deter teenagers from being sexually active, but it might amplify the stigma and shame around sexual activities and foster a poor level of sex education. Furthermore, the textbooks teach the students the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity based on strictly heteronormative understandings, which tether a woman’s value to her ability to find and keep a man and nurture children, while trapping men in a one-dimensional understanding of masculinity and discouraging emotional intelligence.

The 2018 UNFPA report found that almost 30% of the surveyed Kazakhstani adolescents aged 15 to 19 engage in sexual activities, with 16% of female respondents having experienced pregnancy and 14.8% of all respondents contracted an STI at least once. This demonstrates the need for quality sex education for the country’s younger generations has not been eradicated with such disciplines as özin özi tanu that prioritize moral teachings about femininity and masculinity. The fact that 62% of impregnated teenage girls completed pregnancy to term and 62.6% of STI-positive teenagers did not seek out medical help further corroborates gendered norms surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, as well as the stigma of sharing the sexual history and problems even with professionals.

The eleventh-grade textbook follows the same line of logic by proclaiming in the chapter titled “Social roles” that it is a woman’s “destiny to be a mother, transmit moral values to the children, as well as preserve peace and harmony within the family.” Women are decisively assigned the roles of wives and mothers. In these roles, they do not have much room for self-interpretation or modifications as the textbook insists that wives and mothers have specific obligations for which they have to prepare themselves and sacrifice their other roles and interests, such as vocation and career.

“A woman can always be replaced at work but not within a family which is why every young woman should receive true knowledge about duties and responsibilities of being a mother and a wife.” The textbook advises young women to make a choice between “career, wealth, pleasures” and “creating a happy family,” implying that the morally right choice would be the latter. In my other essay on nationalism and victim-blaming in Kazakhstan, I demonstrate how weaponizing women’s bodies as tools of a nation’s biological and cultural reproduction enables the Kazakhstani public to shame women for their sexual and romantic choices even when they fall victims to sexual violence. The özin özi tanu textbook contributes to said weaponization by teaching its students that women are “the nation’s heart and breath.”

Gender and nation in Kazakhstani policies

Özin özi tanu is just one example of how the Kazakhstani government institutionalizes its reductionist ideas of gender roles. If we look at the official text of the 2006-2016 Strategy for Gender Equality in Kazakhstan, the importance of national cultural values is coded in the section “Achieving gender equality in the family. Strengthening of the family and an increase of parenting in the family.” While the strategy outlines key aspects of national culture in need of critical examination and modification, some parts of it remain reductive about what constitutes gender equality and women empowerment. For instance, the section on gender equality in the family focuses extensively on high divorce rates, the increase in the number of single men and women, and the tendency not to have more than one child. At the same time, the document brushes past the patriarchal power structures of the family that could be at the root of high divorce rates.

Classification of high divorce rates and low birth rates in the document as the main ‘threats’ to achieving gender equality within the family does not seem germane to the cause. Outlining these ‘threats’ and ignoring the recognition of other underlying issues such as the unequal division of household work, marital rape, and domestic abuse paints a picture that the government of Kazakhstan is mostly concerned with preserving families without dismantling the gendered power dynamics of the familial institution. The current Concept of Family and Gender Policy until 2030 contains similar narratives.

The importance of the preservation of Kazakh national traditions in the family for the state is further evident in the strategy’s tasks of the revival of “moral values and the cultivation of a positive image of family and marriage” and the revival of “the best familial, ethnocultural traditions that contribute to the strengthening of spiritual and moral foundations of marriage and family.” “Moral values” and “ethnocultural traditions” confirm the supremacy of specific ethnic traditions and norms that are being endorsed by the government as essential features of functional families in Kazakhstan. This insinuates that Kazakh ethnic traditions are to be preserved and protected from external influences, which is what the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements are often labeled as. The insistence on preserving ethnic traditions and the moral standards of family in the gender equality strategy reinforces the state’s rhetoric that indelibly recognizes women as mothers and wives first and individuals second.

By normalizing specific forms of respectable behavior, such as women having to be feminine and dedicated to their families and men being emotionally distant breadwinners, özin özi tanu establishes stigma around women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy and also suggests that femininity and masculinity are one-dimensional concepts not subjected to change. This excludes non-heterosexual and non-monogamous identities and relationships, which contributes to the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community in Kazakhstan while cementing women’s role as carriers of culture and biological reproducers rather than recognizing them as full members of Kazakhstani society. As the UNFPA report has shown, Kazakhstani teenagers similarly to their peers across the globe, are curious and prone to experiments in their sexual and social lives. However, the schooling system reports to the patriarchal values outlined in the state policies, including gender equality legislation, and continues to ignore the pressing need for quality sex education. 

Aizada Arystanbek is a Kazakhstani intersectional feminist activist and sociologist specializing in gender and culture, nationalism, and decoloniality. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. Aizada sees her work as an intersection of research and activism and is dedicated to contributing to the non-violent production of knowledge on Central Asia. You can find her on Twitter.