On a Thursday afternoon in September, 19-year-old singer and activist Zeré Asylbek dropped the music video for her debut track Kyz (Girl) before heading to the cinema with her sister. She never expected to walk out of a two-hour screening to find her social media blowing up with hundreds of messages.
The music video features a motley crew of young Kyrgyz women — some showing off tattoos and piercings, a few sporting brightly-coloured hijabs and another wearing only a bikini — running freely through the steppe to lyrics (sung in her native tongue) such as “No one can tell me how to dress” and “Let’s create our own freedom.” Unsurprisingly, the feminist pop anthem, which takes global hits like Beyonce’s Who Run the World (Girls) and Ariana Grande’s God Is a Woman as inspiration, has sparked heated discourse in Asylbek’s native Kyrgyzstan as well as death threats over her on-camera outfit — a lacy, purple bra, visible under a classic, boxy blazer.
Kyrgyzstan is notable among the post-Soviet Central Asian states for its tentative democracy and booming coffee shop culture, but not for its gender equality. The nation of approximately six million ranks dismally low on the UN’s Gender Development Index, and it has grown notorious in recent years for a resurgence of the ancient nomadic war-time practice of bride kidnapping — a tragic phenomenon which, in part, inspired Asylbek to write Kyz.
Hailed as a Central Asian feminist hero, Zere is trying to adapt to her new life as a local icon. As she steps inside a trendy coffee shop in the capital city of Bishkek, she is swarmed by supporters hoping to express their admiration and snag a selfie with the viral sensation. Here she opens up about that much discussed video in her own words.
You’ve said in previous interviews that if you wore any other outfit, there wouldn’t have been such a widespread reaction to your song.
I wanted the video to garner this reaction but I didn’t think that it would come about because of my choice of outfit. I thought people would have more questions as to what the “hijab girl” was doing hanging out with a girl wearing a bikini. I didn’t decide what I was going to wear until the day before we left for Issyk-Kul. And I had this purple dye at home. I rememeber it was pretty late and I just took my white bra and dyed it, and the next day we left. That’s it! I didn’t really think that much about it. I actually planned to release the video a week earlier than I did. I thought that there wasn’t anything really provocative in the video and started to have some doubts whether there was even a whole lot for people to talk about. But then I released it anyway.
Your family, particularly your dad, has received a lot of media attention for their support of your art and activism. How do you think that your parents compare to other Kyrgyz families?
I’ve realised that my family is quite unique. In my childhood, I noticed a difference between the way my parents raised me and the way other girls were disciplined. Both of my parents are really free in terms of expressing themselves, and they raised me with that sense of freedom. If there was something I wanted to do, they wouldn’t say no without making sure that I knew why I wanted to do it and that I knew what outcome I wanted. When I was growing up, I had some confusion about how I should act — the way my parents raised me, or the way I saw friends and other people behave. Now, I think that’s been the most important thing that’s made me who I am.
Kyrgyzstan is ranked #122 on the UN Gender Equality index, behind some of your Central Asian neighbours — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and even Turkmenistan. Why do you think the gender disparity is so great specifically in Kyrgyzstan?
Women and men are constrained by their gender roles and don’t accept who they are because they feel they should be something else. Women live by the standards that Kyrgyz society sets out for them. Not all girls know that there is an alternative life to the one they are living. They underestimate themselves and then repeat the pattern by telling other people what they shouldn’t do. We also have this huge taboo about sex. There is no sex education — it just doesn’t exist in our country, and that is a really serious issue. People just pretend that there is no sex at all, so young boys and girls go on certain websites to learn about sex there. Then, they feel ashamed because they do it when no one knows or sees. So later, when they see a woman showing her body openly, they associate it only with sex and they feel ashamed, so they want to make that person feel bad for it too. I think that’s a big reason why our gender disparity is so bad.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? How is this generally received?
Yes, I am a feminist. But my definition of feminism is probably different to that of a lot of other people here in Kyrgyzstan. I hear a lot of unfounded stereotypes about feminists: that they’re lesbians, that none of them shave, or that they just want to dominate men. I think it’s a disaster that these kinds of stereotypes exist. Whenever people ask me whether I’m a feminist, I try to explain that it is really about protecting human rights. Though Kyz means “girl”, the song is not only about women — it’s about everyone, it’s about freedom.
There’s also a lot of stereotypes surrounding language choice in Central Asia, with those who speak primarily Kyrgyz often seen as more conservative or “uncultured” than Russian speakers. Have you noticed any difference in responses based on language?
In the beginning, I did think that I would get more negative comments in Kyrgyz, while the positive comments would mostly be in Russian. But there are a lot of people writing and posting their support in Kyrgyz. And I thought, “Wow.” We thought we weren’t ready to change, but it seems that people are ready. There are a lot of Muslim people who have messaged me, saying they love me and “Allah bless you.” I was suprised by all the encouragement.
Besides being recognised on the street, what else has changed in your day-to-day life since Kyz went viral?
I started feeling a sense of responsibility even before the music video was released, but now it feels like everyone is watching me. I now have to think twice before I do anything. After I started getting death threats, a lot of other things changed, too, because I love my freedom. I love walking around Bishkek alone; it gives me space to think. Now, I can’t go anywhere alone. My older sister is my bodyguard, and she goes everywhere with me to make sure I’m not in danger. It’s kind of weird, and I haven’t gotten used to that yet. I never dreamt of receiving this much attention.
You work freelance as an English teacher. Do you think your social activism is affecting your reputation as a teacher?
Actually, teachers — many of them Kyrgyz-language teachers — support me and what I’m doing. A lot of people who supported me were those with political or social power, which is something I never expected.
A number of young Kyrgyz women on social media have shared that they’ve been waiting for a long time for a cultural moment like Kyz. What do you think they’re waiting for you to do now?
I’m so curious about this too! I really don’t know what to do or how to do it because a lot of people expect something very special from me. I just know I need to do something that aligns with my own values but that’s also relevant for my audience and the country in general. So I have to come up with some middle ground for everyone, and it’s so hard. I think about it all the time.
What changes do you hope to see in Kyrgyzstan as a result of Kyz?
I hope to see people with different experiences come together without judging each other and uniting in order to develop. I really want to see people from different religions, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds start to discuss the problems that we have, or at least to start breaking down barriers in our society.
Do you have plans to continue pursuing music as a platform?
Right now, I’m planning to apply to university programmes in performing arts, like theatre and music. I feel privileged, and I feel a responsibility to contribute to the development of artists both in Kyrgyzstan and around the world. I will definitely pursue music, as well as theatre and other types of arts. I love the way that you can express yourself with art. If people don’t want to see or have some kind of relation to your art, they don’t have to engage with it. Art is just freedom, you know? No boxes, no standards. Just freedom.