Tuesday, March 08, 2005

International Women's Day

Today was an official holiday, so we had the day off of work. Yesterday, people at work congratulated each other. I brought cakes to our employees and I received flowers from my coworkers and some of our partners. All together, I received nine red carnations and three beautiful red roses – more flowers than I’ve ever before received in one day. I could get used to this holiday. Flower vendors could as well. Walking past the flower vendors, I heard a local girl ask, “This flower was 50 som yesterday and today it’s 100?”

I woke up this morning to the sound of the rooster crowing, my dinner calling me to get up and get ready to eat it. Nigora was in the shower room, doing laundry. Dressed in old clothes, she was sweaty and looked tired.

“Shouldn’t Shavkat be doing the laundry today?” I asked.

“I got up early,” she said, “and quietly went to do it while everyone was still asleep. Shavkat might not do it the way I’d want him to. He’s really good about doing things when I ask, but he’s not able to offer to take over something.”

A little while later, Shavkat called me out to kill the rooster. They’d shown me how it was done last time they killed a chicken and I said I’d try it the next time. They dig a small hole in the dirt of their courtyard, tie the chickens legs together, step on the chicken legs and wings, hold the beak, and then slice the neck over the hole so that the blood runs out.

“Nigora also wants to kill a chicken, but I told her she couldn’t,” Shavkat said.

“Why not?”

“Because Muslim women aren’t allowed to. Nor are Muslim children under 13. So Faruh can’t kill either. He has to wait until he gets a bit bigger.”

So he was making an exclusion for me as a non-Muslim woman. This was my chance to show him that women were just as competent as men, to make a statement of equality. And what did I do? Failed.

I had thought they were going to do everything and I was just going to cut the neck. But they first instructed me to step on the feet and wings, which I did.

“Here, now grab the face like this,” Shavkat said.

It was going to be hard enough to stay steady on a squiggling chicken. I was supposed to grab the face as well, where if I got nervous and lost my grip it could bite me and spew blood everywhere? No thanks.

“No way,” I said.

“OK, I’ll do that and you just stand there and cut the neck,” he said. He pulled the neck back and I saw the thick feathered skin, pulsing with life. I couldn’t break into that.

“No, I don’t want to do that either. Maybe next time. I’ll just stand here.”

All three sons were watching and laughing. When the chicken began to flutter, I lost my hold on its wings. At that point, I gave up any semblance of responsibility at all and stepped away, leaving the job to him.

He stepped on the chicken, gripped the head, and sliced the throat. I know that he dislikes doing it himself. And Lutfulo also admits being afraid, refusing to participate.

“See, I grip the head like these and it doesn’t see anything at all.”

Not seeing one’s throat being sliced doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel it.

“It’s not so bad,” Shavkat said. “You just have to get yourself psychologically ready.”

I have no ideological problems with humans consuming animals and I felt it was an important life skill to be able to kill a chicken should the need ever arise. But I guess I’d had too good of an oatmeal breakfast this morning. I just wasn’t hungry enough to get myself over the psychological barrier of not wanting to kill.

I didn’t stick around to see the life seep out of the chicken.

Shortly afterwards, we all gathered in Shavkat’s Niva to visit Souleymane mountain and the museum there. But when we got there, we found the mountain surrounded by military in fatigues and red berets. The roads were closed and we weren’t allowed access. Shavkat asked a soldier what was going on, but they ignored him. So I approached another one and pulled my stupid foreigner act, which almost always gets an answer. This one only spoke Kyrgyz, but when Shavkat came up, he explained that there was some general in town.

“I hope it’s a female general,” I said.

“No, women don’t get to that level here,” Shavkat said. I thought it was unfortunate if some guy visiting Osh prevented women and their families from enjoying their local landmark on their holiday.

So instead we went to Navoie park, named after an Uzbek poet from the 14th or 15th century. The weather was definitively springlike, with winter seeming to have disappeared suddenly and for good last week. The air was fresh and sunny, cool and comfortable.

The path stretches out along a pathway near the river. We descended from the main street down the hill. When we paused to look at what a bookseller had on display, Shavkat said, “Nigora has lots of free time. She’s able to read books.” As though he doesn’t have any free time.

He works only sporadically in the winter and just took the next month off for vacation.

“What will you do in the next month?” I asked.

“Play sports and get ready for the summer,” he said. “I’ll run at the stadium every day, maybe with Faruh, I’ll train, and maybe I’ll go to the mountains.”

“He’s going to focus on his health to get himself ready for summer,” Nigora said. “He’s going to stop smoking and drinking.”

We walked past the fountain that won’t be turned on until the summer and descended the stairs to the small Aeroflot plane parked there. We descended some more stairs and Shavkat hurried ahead.

“They have a shooting range here,” he said. And it found it quickly, pressing his way to the front of the boys congregated there and buying 50 shots. Nigora wasn’t interested in trying it, but I gave it two shots, aiming at some targets. But with bullet holes all over the place and several people shooting at once, I couldn’t tell where my shots ended up.

We followed the crowd through the park, trying basket throwing games, darts, and table tennis. There was a swing ride, shashlik stands, and ice cream vendors. Unlike Russia, where people eat ice cream year round, ice cream is a seasonal commodity here. This is the first time I’ve really seen people eating ice cream. And its sudden appearance was another sign that it really is spring.

Shavkat told us what a great shooter he was and how he’s an incredible table tennis player. He did win on the basket throw, receiving 5 som for his one som investment. But he lost on the darts. And he also lost when he bet the woman running the table tennis tables that he could beat her. She won 21 to 16 and collected an additional 10 rubles as a result.

As we headed back to get shashlik at a café, Shavkat stopped again at the dart stand. “I’m going to win a prize,” he said, referring to the colorful and cheap stuffed animals, probably made in China. When he handed over five som for five darts, Nigora seemed to become anxious at the waste of money. “We’re going to lose all our change here,” she said. “Let’s come back after you’ve practiced.”

“Yes, I need to practice,” he said, after he lost again. “That woman plays table tennis every day and I haven’t practiced in eight or nine years. She has plenty of weak sides. I’m going to practice between now and the May holidays and I’ll come back and win all the prizes.”

“Let’s spend May first in nature,” Habib suggested.

“No, we should come here and win all the prizes. Then we can spend May 9th in nature,” Shavkat replied.

After all the games, we had grilled meat and samsi at a local café. Then we headed home for the men to prepare dinner. It might not seem like a big deal for the men of the family to prepare a meal one time in 365 days. But from what I heard from local women, plenty of men get out of that task even on Women’s Day. The fact that Shavkat and his sons volunteered was nice in comparison with the typical local man.

Nigora hovered around, helping and instructing them, until they finally forced her to rest for a little bit. They made a nice meal – the rooster with potatoes and cabbage, along with a fruit salad, which I had taught them to make earlier in the year.

During the meal we watched the news, which was more like an essay than a newscast, extolling the success of the Kyrgyzstan elections, their fairness and transparency.

“They are just praising themselves,” Nigora said.

That broadcast was followed by information about women in office. A report compared the number of women in Parliament in Kyrgyzstan (I think it said 11 percent) with women in Europe (much higher), then interviewed people on the streets of Bishkek, most of whom supported having more women in office.

“Women, women, women. All they talk about is women. They don’t understand that women here are stupid,” Shavkat said.

It was such a nasty comment and so heartfelt that I was too shocked to even respond. Only after a long pause was I able to say to Nigora, “We hire our employees based on a logic and analytical test. And at least half of those who pass the test are females. So he’s wrong. Women here are not stupid.”

“He’s just jealous of us,” she said, “and that’s why he says those things.”

The movie Titantic was showing on TV that evening. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome in the family’s single room, so I returned to my room.

I had failed to demonstrate my ability to kill my dinner and I knew that whatever day it was, Shavkat still believed that women are dumber than men and belong beneath them. I don’t feel as though I’ve done anything special by being a woman. It was just an accident of birth that made me this way. But nevertheless, it’s still nice to receive flowers and to be appreciated once per year, whatever the underlying reason might be.

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