“My activism isn’t motivated by kindness. It’s motivated by anger”

Zhanar Sekerbayeva, 36, is an LBQ activist from Kazakhstan. She’s been arrested, charged with minor hooliganism and attacked because of her sexuality and activism. Yet she’s never lost hope – or her sense of humour. Through her organization, the Kazakhstan women’s rights group “Feminita”, Zhanar is determined to protect the rights of LBQ people in Kazakhstan.

My government makes me angry. The police force makes me angry. Homophobia makes me angry. Luckily, anger is what motivates me.

I didn’t wake up one day and just decide to become an activist. I was inspired by an older woman who was protesting about the devaluation of the Tenge, the Kazakh currency. She was standing alone outside a bank. She told people how its fall in value could affect people’s pensions and everyday lives, so my friend and I, Gulzada Serzhan, went to join her in the square.

A lot of people joined us, but soon the police came and arrested everyone, including elderly people. They were rude and aggressive, grabbing and dragging us to the floor. I started recording what was happening and the video went viral on social media. The authorities thought I was one of the protest leaders and my photograph appeared across online media the next day. Readers and social media commentators who saw the news couldn’t tell if I was a man or a woman, so it was a key moment for making LBQ people visible.

Peacefully protesting
That experience didn’t stop me from speaking out or peacefully protesting. Last year I was arrested again for speaking out against the stigma around menstruation.

In Kazakhstan we’re still unable to call menstruation what it is, because of the taboos surrounding it. Instead, people use euphemisms such as Red Aunty, Red October or Red Army. My mum is a paediatrician and when I had my first period she threw me a piece of cloth without explaining what it was for or how to use it. Perhaps she was too shy to tell me what I should do – I never blamed her for this. At school, if a girl’s period leaks onto her clothes, everyone laughs, and her teacher will send her home. Some people bury their bloody panties outside, while others use contaminated rags, which can cause reproductive damage.

The banner Zhanar held up to protest the stigmas around menstruation.
The banner Zhanar held up to protest the stigmas around menstruation.

Something needs to be done. That’s why I joined the women’s rights group “FemPoint” in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to participate in a photo shoot aimed at tackling the taboos around menstruation. We took hand-drawn posters with slogans and pictures, as well as pads with red paint. Seven days after the demonstration, I went to a café to meet another feminist activist. When I came out seven police officers were waiting for me. They ordered me to go to the station and said if I didn’t, they’d use physical force.

They treated me like such a criminal. My hands were shaking throughout the whole ordeal, I couldn’t even call my lawyer – Gulzada had to help me. We were lucky Aiman Umarova, my lawyer, was available. I thought it would be impossible to get in touch with someone after 6.30pm. The judge who interrogated me asked questions like, “Are you married? Do you have any children? Are you pregnant? If you are in higher education, why did you participate in the photo shoot? Do you have a husband?”

I told her I was openly lesbian and to question me about a partner, not a husband, and the judge corrected herself. It was an interesting experience, albeit a stressful and scary one. Yet when I see people facing injustice, I have to act.

For holding those pictures, I was charged and convicted of petty hooliganism by the authorities and made to pay a fine, but support from organisations such as Amnesty International made me feel much less alone.

Representing LBQ women
As an LBQ activist and journalist, my work hasn’t been without its difficulties, as you can see! My mother didn’t believe it was possible to change things. Her view was that citizens are “just taxpayers – we don’t get to decide anything.” At university, we weren’t given the option to discuss LGBTI rights – you had to request permission from your professor.

As a lesbian, I knew I wanted to represent LBQ women. I wanted to protect my group, my people, so Gulzada and I set up the Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative “Feminita”. We mainly focus on advocacy and strategic litigation. In our society LBQ women are shy and stigmatized. It’s important we address their needs, through education and shared experiences.

It’s been a learning curve and since starting “Feminita”, some friends have expressed reluctance to meet me. It’s hurtful. I’ve also faced challenges from strangers, as men think it’s OK to send me pornographic pictures and to make comments on my looks. 

But anger keeps me going. When I talk about a topic that angers me I can’t stop. Anger is my sister.

Achieving impact
Anger has served me well and we’re achieving impact every day. Just recently we challenged a bylaw that included a derogatory paragraph about LGBTI culture. We wrote letters and worked with embassies and our allies around the world. Eventually the law was passed without the bylaw.

Zhanar Sekerbayeva. Credit: Amnesty International
Zhanar Sekerbayeva. Credit: Amnesty International

We’ve also been conducting the needs assessments of LBQ people. It was no easy task. We often had to meet in parks or dark alleys. Some women helped us, but others didn’t want to be approached. Through our research, we’re proving there are lesbians, bisexual and queer people in our society and it’s time to live with that. We’ve discovered that what women need most are friendly allies, including lawyers and medical specialists. They want to be able to go to resource centres and they need access to human rights organizations.

My colleagues and I have been trying to register “Feminita” as a legal entity since 2017, but our application has been rejected numerous times. They always find one reason or another to tell us we’re not ready or that we are in violation of something.  How can educated, courageous LGBTI activists be violating laws of the country? On the contrary, we promote the protection of human rights. Whether or not the government wants it, the rights of lesbians, bisexual, trans and queer women are part of that.

We don’t want Feminita to just be a grassroots organisation – we want to create a think tank that conducts its own research. It’s solidarity that’s helped us come this far and fights can only be won when we work together, so we will continue!

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a detective. I wanted to find criminals and help people. My dad owned a home library and I used to read all the Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Now I’m glad I didn’t go down that path – I could’ve been a policewoman, arresting people at peaceful meetings. Being a woman human rights defender is much more important – even if that makes me a “hooligan” in the eyes of the Kazakh authorities.

This story was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.