International women’s day: the role of women in kazakhstan’s politics today

To mark International Women’s Day, Central Asia analyst Shambhavi Thite examines the role of women in the politics of Kazakhstan, and assesses the possibility that the former Soviet Republic could elevate a woman to the role of Head of State.

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In 2009, the Kazakh parliament passed a series of laws to protect  women’s rights. These included two highly important charters focusing on domestic violence and the guarantee of equal rights and opportunities for men and  women. Both laws are designed to regulate social relations in order to foster an environment that ensures the safety of  women in all spheres. Kazakh feminist scholar Svetlana Shakirova admits that this development was a complete surprise to activists within Kazakhstan women’s  movement, and that the laws were evidently passed to satisfy western countries’ demands on the eve of Kazakhstan’s presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Ten years later in 2019, during the second session of the National Council of  Public Confidence, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed reforms for improving participation of women and young people in Kazakhstan’s political system. President Tokayev outlined the introduction of a mandatory 30% quota for women and youth in the parties contesting elections. He also decreased the number of registrations required for creating political parties from 40,000 to 20,000 people. In the same  year, Daniya Yespayeva was the first woman nominated as a presidential candidate, representing the Ak Zhol Party. In a secret ballot organized by the Party she received 49.5% of the votes and gathered 139,541 signatures from the 17 regions of Kazakhstan to fulfil the requirements of the Central Election Commission.  

Her campaign revolves around three elements: democratic reforms, social justice, and market economy. She also addressed the issue of corruption and the incompetence of the justice system to protect Kazakh people from extortion and businesses from encroachment by officials, a somewhat bold act, given the harsh consequences she could face for such utterances. However, she was also criticized widely by feminists for stating that she believes a leader should be male. After all, the only question is, if female leaders in Kazakhstan consider themselves inferior, no matter how many laws are enacted in the country, is it really possible for women to prosper? 

Islam is another driving force that dictates every aspect of life in Kazakhstan. Throughout the pre-Soviet period, social structures emphasized patriarchal values, where women were expected to be in domestic roles. Even during Soviet times,  the social status of women did not change very much. Although Islam had a minimal role during the last century, the presence of other ethnic and tribal traditions did not lead to the political advancement of women in the country. 

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, conditions began to change in the big cities.  However, the patriarchal way of life still continues in the rural parts of Kazakhstan. Sociologist Mayra Kabakova has written: “a socio-psychological analysis of ethnic Kazakh value systems has revealed that family, children,  health and prosperity remain the central values of today’s ethnic Kazakhs.” In rural areas, feminist activists receive limited support from authorities and sometimes from women who predominantly prefer traditional roles. The revival of Islam after the Soviet dissolution has resulted in increasing religiosity in the country. The mixture of influences from Islam and the Kazakh nomadic and pastoral past will most likely cause a Kazakh woman to feel less inclined to participate in public parts  of society, such as politics, in favour of assuming a larger role in the private life  of the family. 

During the period that it was a part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was not governed by dynastic politics. However, since independence, Dariga Nazarbayeva’s influence on Kazakhstan’s politics has been very much in evidence. For many ordinary women, she represents an ideal feminist. The eldest of three daughters of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Dariga pursued a dynamic role in national politics. She helped her father in carrying out transitional policies, implementing vision of post-communist independent Kazakhstan and sought substantial influence in the inner circle of the president.  

Dariga Nazarbayeva is widely seen as a potential successor to President Tokayev. Perhaps taking note of this himself, in May 2020, Tokayev removed Nazarbayeva from her position of president of the senate without any explanation. One popular interpretation is that Tokayev wanted to distance himself from the interference of the former president and wished to exercise full power during the pandemic and so sidelined Nazarbayeva, as she represented the ancien régime. Consequently, Nazarbayev’s role in the parliamentary elections of 2021 drew worldwide attention. Many consider her to be the future of Kazakhstan. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the next president of Kazakhstan will be a female. However, the exposure she has received is due to her family legacy. As such, even if she becomes President tomorrow, the main question would revolve around the empowerment of ordinary Kazakh women. Kazakhstan is some distance yet from seeing a woman leader who has risen from the grass roots level.  

Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:

Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2020 reading list

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Shambhavi Thite is a geopolitical researcher who completed her Master’s Degree in Central Asian Studies at Mumbai University, where she specialised in regional security dynamics and foreign policy in the Post-Soviet space. Shambhavi speaks six languages and has provided geopolitical analysis for a range of civic organisations, political groups, and media outlets, including publishing research with the Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies and writing regularly for the Kootneeti, an international relations and current affairs magazine in India.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: ‘Dariga Nazarbayeva (2018-02-26)’,