A few years ago a series of Kazakh government actions restricting speech, assembly, and dissent grabbed Jam Gulzada Serzhan’s attention. “Some people were killed and it was getting worse and worse,” she says.
Responding to a call to action posted on YouTube, Jam—who had little experience in activism—and her friend Zhanar Sekerbayeva joined a protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. A sense of outrage helped Jam overcome her fears, and despite the danger she faced that day she has only become more committed to creating change in her homeland. As a Kazakh feminist, Jam is now working to protect the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women in a country where activism of any kind can be dangerous.
As an introduction to activism, the protest in Almaty was a trial by fire. “Other women and I got together and talked about the call to action. We heard some people were gathering downtown for a protest, but only Zhanar and I decided to go. Others said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you want to die? What’s wrong with you?’” But Jam says their anger was greater than their fear. Kazakhstan’s Central Bank and government had lied about pending devaluation of Kazakh currency. Corrupt insiders knew that the devaluation was coming and converted their money, but everyone else took a financial hit when their money was devalued unexpectedly. “We said, okay, why wouldn’t we protest? Should we take this situation and just be happy with it?”
The day was cold and the stakes were high at the protest. “Zhanar was so loud, it scared the shit out of me! They detained her in the morning and kept her in the police department until the night.” While Jam waited, fearing for her friend’s safety, she met people from the political opposition who were seasoned activists. They asked if this was Zhanar’s first arrest, and it was. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” they said. “They’ll fine her and then let her go. Next time she’ll get about two weeks in jail, and after that two years.”
The protest was more than a successful initiation into activism for Jam—it caused real change. Recently there was another currency devaluation, and this time the government alerted everyone beforehand. The women who told Jam and Zhanar that they were crazy for participating have since said that it was the protesters who made the difference.
Still, Zhanar was scared after she was released, and became terrified when she saw strangers lurking around her house the next day. When Zhanar was accepted to a sociology program at a university in Lithuania, Jam was relieved that her friend would be out of the country for a while.
In Lithuania, Zhanar has since connected with more activists fighting for human rights; meanwhile Jam has met more activists in Kazakhstan. She has gotten to know feminists in her profession—technology—and connected with Alma-TQ, a young organization working for transgender rights. Recently Jam participated in OutRight Action International’s OutSummit and lobbied for human rights at the United Nations. Over the distance Jam and Zhanar hatched an idea: a group called Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative, or Feminita, that would work on feminist issues, including LBT women’s rights.
Feminita’s first project is a needs assessment for LBT Kazakh women. “We are researching these women, asking where they are, what they want, how they live,” Jam explains. “Because their rights are violated, they are not open and they have to hide. But with this information we will make a statement to the government and show that lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women exist and show how their human rights are violated.” This project is a bold undertaking in a country where an anti-LGBTI law similar to Russia’s was under serious consideration for much of 2015 and where LGBTI people continue to live in fear.
Zhanar is returning to Kazakhstan this month, and Feminita’s work will expand with both leaders at the helm. Jam is planning activities to mark International Women’s Day (March 8) and Kazakh New Year (celebrated from March 21-23). Also returning to Almaty after a tech conference in California, Jam reflects on U.S. influence in Kazakhstan. “I think that America values equality and spreads that very good message all over the world. I really like that equality idea: that everybody’s free and equal. Marriage equality is really a good message. Just don’t let the next president erase that!”
However, Jam says that “there are other things that America does that the world sees” besides positive messages of equality. “As a Kazakh person who has a nomadic background, I compare this ‘civilized’ world with my parents’ nomadic world and how they differ. It was closer to nature and they didn’t do all this consuming and producing and using and throwing away.” Even as Americans promote values of equality abroad, Jam believes Americans also have a duty to “just be aware of nature, enjoy nature, take care of nature.”
You can make a tax deductible contribution to support Alturi’s partner organizations working for LGBTI human rights in Kazakhstan: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights First.
March 7, 2016
Contributed by Leah Entenmann