The Kyrgyz family is generally composed of three generations, with married sons living with their parents. Because of the tradition of the youngest son taking care of his parents, it is common for a family to consist of grandparents, parents, and children. Individuals live with their parents until they marry. Most families have three or more children, with larger families common in rural villages. Members of the extended family also may visit and live with the immediate family for months at a time. [Source: everyculture.com]

Family traditions continue to demonstrate the patriarchal and feudal character of a nomadic people. Family relations are characterized by great respect for older family members and the dominance of male heads of households. Traditional celebrations of special events retain the markings of religious and magical rites. For example, the cutting of a child's umbilical cord is celebrated with elaborate consumption of food and humorous games. The naming of a child and the cutting of the child's hair are conducted in such a way as to appease supernatural forces. The full observance of the most important family event, the wedding celebration, requires considerable expense that relatively few Kyrgyz can afford: payment for a bride, dowry, animal sacrifice, and an exchange of clothing between the relatives of the bride and the groom. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Rules about inheritance are often defined by Islam, with the exception of the exclusion of women from receiving inherited property. The youngest son lives with his parents until their deaths, at which time he inherits the house and the livestock. He may decide to share this livestock with his brothers, and is expected to do so if they are in need. Daughters do not inherit from their parents because they become members of their husbands' families.

Family and marriage among the Kyrgyz are closely related to the patriarchal way of life. The Kyrgyz , together with a small patriarchal family, had a so-called big family when the whole family line from with the family to the youngest members lived in the same area. [Source: advantour.com]

Gender Roles in Kyrgyzstan

Historically, women had a fair amount of equality with men in the Kyrgyz culture. Soviet policies maintained this equality, providing women with jobs outside the home and a role in politics. Today women still work outside of the home, primarily in education and agriculture. However, women hold few managerial or political positions. In addition to these jobs, women are responsible for all work inside the home. [Source: everyculture.com]

Nomadic men traditionally herded the animals, cut grass and hunted. Women, who traditionally dressed in flowery skirts and white head scarves, grazed the animals, milked and sheared them and did house hold chores. Men are dominant in business and politics. Manhood is often judged by horsemanship.

Today, rural men still herd horses and cattle, cut grass and wood and do other heavy household chores, while the women graze, milk and shear the sheep, deliver lambs, process animal by-products and do household chores. Men generally decide all matters of inheritance and property distribution. When the son got married, he was entitled to a portion of the family property which was usually inherited by the youngest son. Women did not have the right to inherit. The property of a childless male was inherited by his close relatives. When there is a funeral, all relatives and friends attend, wearing black clothing and black kerchiefs. |

Traditional Nomadic Life in Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz are classified as nomadic pastoralists, meaning that they traditionally have herded sheep, horses, or yaks, following the animals up and down the mountains as the seasons change. The basic dwelling is the yurt, a cylindrical felt tent easily disassembled and mounted on a camel or horse. The image of a yurt's circular smoke opening is the central design of Kyrgyzstan's flag. Various parts of the yurt have ritual significance. Because the herding economy continues in many parts of the country, the yurt remains a strong symbol of national identity. Families living in Western-style dwellings erect yurts to celebrate weddings and funerals. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Traditional domestic life centers on the flocks. The diet of the nomads is limited to mutton and noodles; fruit and vegetables are rare even in today's Kyrgyz cuisine. The most traditional dishes are besh barmak , a mutton stew, and roast lamb. For ceremonial meals, the lamb is killed without spilling its blood, and the head is served to the guest of honor, who slices portions of the eyes and ears and presents them to other guests to improve their sight and hearing. Horsemeat is eaten fresh and in sausages. Traditional beverages are koumiss , fermented mare's milk, and two varieties of beer.

Much of daily life revolved around the care of livestock. During the daytime the men (shepherds and horsemen) would tend the flocks and herds - but at night time the task of looking after the livestock fell to the women and young girls. The family group have traditionally moved from jailoo (pasture) to jailoo seeking fresh, lush, grassland for pasture. When it was time to move the whole community would dress in fine clothing and dismantle the yurts, packing the load onto the backs of their pack animals (camels and horses), covered with carpets, and the whole group would then proceed en-mass to their new camp. Before they left a particular site, however, certain rituals would be performed (such as pouring airan, khoumis or melted butter into the holes left by the tent pegs) as an offering to the local spirits of the place in preparation for their return the following year.

The birth of a calf, foal or lamb would be a moment of great importance for the family group - and welcomed with almost as much ceremony as the birth of a child. Not all of the Kyrgyz were nomads. Some, especially in the Issyk Kul region and the Ferghana valley, were also involved in settled agriculture.

Kyrgyz Nomadic Family Structure

According to Advantour: “The traditional Kyrgyz nomadic family was a patriarchal structure and at least three generations would live together in a small community, or ail (the equivalent to a village). The family was organized on a strict hierarchical system. The Head of the household was considered to be the owner of all the family property - for the nomadic Kyrgyz, that was primarily the livestock - and authority was absolute. The eldest wife of the aksakal - the baybiche would direct the work. She was the supreme authority in all matters relating to household management and domestic tasks - objections against her instructions were not allowed and she was subordinate only to her husband. [Source: advantour]

Perhaps the most obvious example of the hierarchy at work was at mealtimes. The members of the family sat in a strictly established order. The head of the household would sit in the most honored place, opposite the entrance to the yurt - unless there were guests, in which case he would surrender it to them. His sons, sat to his right, in accordance with their ages. The Baybiche would sit on his left, and his daughters sat next to her, and then came daughters in law in order of precedence of their husbands. The youngest wife of aksakal sat next to the pot and guided the food distribution and the wife of the youngest son had to serve the contents of the cooking pot onto a wooden dish (chara). This dish was given to the youngest wife of aksakal, so that she could cut the meat into smaller pieces and then put it into small dishes (tabak): one was for aksakal, baybiche, the eldest son and daughters of the head of the family and another dish was given to the rest of the sons and their wives.

The nomadic Kyrgyz lived in small, isolated communities, producing almost everything they needed for their everyday life in their own households, and Members of a the family joined together to complete domestic tasks and the number of people involved in any activity would sometimes include as many as 50 people. Tribes and clans played an important role. They provided a system of support and protection for the Kyrgyz. For example, the richer relatives were expected to provide their poorer relatives with livestock so that they could pay kalym for a wedding; to adopt children from his clan who had orphaned; to lend poorer relatives livestock in times of famine.


Traditionally Kyrgyz have lived in settlements called ails, based on kinship, which formed basic administrative units.A typical ail is made up of five to eight yurts, with the yurts arranged according to each household’s relation to the ail’s leader.

In the old days, an ail was a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together and formed discrete social units. ail functions included helping one another in times of trouble, participating in kinship rituals such as weddings, funerals and hair cutting rites and economic exchanges. Household in the ail cooperate for labor intensive activities such as tending livestock and sheering sheep.

The ail’s leader is usually a senior member called an aksakal (“white beard”). Often he is no more than that the eldest male in a household or extended family. When he dies his eldest son becomes the ail leader.

Increased urbanization, the collectivization of herds and the enlargement of settlements has undermined the traditional ail system. Traditional administrative units have been replaced with administrative districts based on territory.

Women in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz women have a higher status level and receive more respect than women in many Muslim countries. They have traditionally been less conservatives in their behavior and dress than women in Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyz women generally do not wear the veil or avoid contact with males that are not relatives. They are allowed to pray with men. Kyrgyz women They are regarded as independent, strong and able advisors.

There are legends of women warriors and heros. Three of the most prominent women in Kyrgyz history and legends are Konikey, the powerful wife of the legendary figure Manas; Kurmanjon Datka, the Kyrgyz leader who signed the original treaty between the Kyrgyz and the Russians in the late 19th century; and Jongil Misar, a female warrior who conquered the khans in the 16th century.

While Kyrgyz women have a relatively high degree of freedom they still tend to have less status than men. But age is the most important determinant for status, however, and an older woman is given respect by younger men. Within the household women often hold the seat of power, making everyday decisions about running the household. It is common for them to hold positions of power in schools as well. In politics and business, however, men have greater power. [Source: everyculture.com]

Under the Soviets, women lost some of their status and independence. They were forced into more traditional roles such as doing dairy work and making textiles. Some were given training and university education and became doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Under the constitution approved after Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991 women are guaranteed equal rights. Women occupied six of 16 cabinet positions in the administration of President Askar Akayev. The head of the highest court in the land was a woman.

In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government banned head scarves banned from schools. Reuters reported: “Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim country, has banned head scarves from schools to protect children from religious influence, an official said. “We are a secular state,” the official, Damira Kudaibergenova of the Education Ministry, said. She added that some pupils were missing their Friday classes because of prayers. [Source: Reuters, March 3, 2009]

Role of Women in Kyrgyzstan

Women have traditionally played an important role in the herding of animals and the nomadic way of life. In the old they were skilled horsewomen and participated in hunts. Their primary duties were erecting and taking down yurts, collecting food— mostly milk—from the animals, herding the animals, shearing sheep and producing felt rugs. Among other ethnic groups some of these duties were performed by men.

In traditional Kyrgyz society, women had assigned roles, although only the religious elite sequestered women as was done in other Muslim societies. Because of the demands of the nomadic economy, women worked as virtual equals with men, having responsibility for chores such as milking as well as child-rearing and the preparation and storage of food. In the ordinary family, women enjoyed approximately equal status with their husbands. Kyrgyz oral literature includes the story of Janyl-myrza, a young woman who led her tribe to liberation from the enemy when no man in the tribe could do so. In the nineteenth century, the wife of Khan Almyn-bek led a group of Kyrgyz tribes at the time of the Russian conquest of Quqon. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In modern times, especially in the first years of independence, women have played more prominent roles in Kyrgyzstan than elsewhere in Central Asia. Since 1991 women have occupied the positions of state procurator (the top law enforcement official in the national government), minister of education, ambassador to the United States and Canada, and minister of foreign affairs. Women have also excelled in banking and business, and the editor of Central Asia's most independent newspaper, Respublika , is a woman. Roza Otunbayeva, who was minister of foreign affairs in 1996, has been mentioned frequently as a successor to Akayev.

On some nomadic Kyrgyz women he met in northern Afghanistan, Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “The women perform endless chores—milking the yaks twice a day along with sewing and cooking and cleaning and babysitting. They rarely speak when men are around. I tried, as politely as possible, for half an hour to get one woman to explain why she was wearing three watches. Finally, she answered. “It’s nice,” she said. I did not exchange a word with the khan’s wife, though I lived in their camp for a week. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“The majority of women I met had never been more than a few miles from where they were born—their biggest journey was traveling to their husbands’ camps after marriage. “We are not that sort of stupid people who let women go anywhere they want,” explained the khan. All Kyrgyz marriages are arranged, usually when a woman is in her teens. Both the khan and his wife were 15 when they wed. One of the few women who chatted with me was a free-spirited widow named Bas Bibi. She guessed she was 70 years old. She’d had five sons and two daughters. They all died. “Men never milk animals,” she said. “Or wash clothes. Or cook meals. If women were not here, nobody could live a single day!” =

Rape and Domestic Violence in Kyrgyzstan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, but as in previous years, the government failed to enforce the law effectively. Activists continued to note a growing number of reports of rape. NGOs claimed rape cases continued to be dramatically underreported, and prosecutors rarely brought rape cases to court. No statistics on the number of cases or convictions during the year were available. NGOs estimated that 90 percent of rapes were committed by the victim’s partner or former partner. Police generally regarded spousal rape as an administrative offense, which carries a fine of 1,000 soms ($17.50). [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kyrgyzstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

“While the law specifically prohibits domestic violence and spousal abuse, violence against women remained a problem. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported registering 1,819 cases of domestic violence during the first six months of the year. According to the ministry, it issued 1,578 temporary protection orders on the basis of these complaints. The Ministry of Internal Affairs opened 118 criminal cases and brought administrative charges against 1,004 individuals based of these complaints. *\

“According to the UN Women’s Development Fund, between 40 and 50 women and girls were hospitalized in the Bishkek city hospital every month because of domestic violence. Many crimes against women went unreported due to psychological pressure, cultural traditions, and apathy among law enforcement officials. There were also reports of spouses retaliating against women who reported abuse. Penalties for domestic violence ranged from fines to 15 years’ imprisonment, the latter if abuse resulted in death. Penalties for sexual assault range from three to eight years’ imprisonment. *\

“Several local NGOs provided services for victims of domestic violence, including legal, medical, and psychological assistance, a crisis hotline, shelters, and prevention programs. Organizations assisting battered women also lobbied to streamline the legal process for obtaining protection orders. The government provided offices for the Sezim Shelter for victims of domestic abuse and paid its bills. According to the shelter, its hotline received 546 telephone calls during the first six months of the year. Women made 96 percent of the calls, 32 percent of which involved domestic violence. The shelter provided consultations, advocacy, and shelter services to 1,100 individuals. *\

Sexual Harassment and Discrimination of Women in Kyrgyzstan

According to the local NGO Shans, sexual harassment was widespread, especially in private-sector workplaces and among university students, but was rarely reported or prosecuted. The law prohibits physical sexual assault but not verbal sexual harassment. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kyrgyzstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law provides for equal rights for men and women. Women have the same rights as men, including under family law, property law, and in the judicial system, but because of poor enforcement of the law, discrimination against women persisted. The National Council on the Issues of Family, Women, and Gender Development, which reported to the president, is responsible for women’s issues. *\

“Average wages for women were substantially less than for men. Women made up the majority of pensioners, a group particularly vulnerable to deteriorating economic conditions. In rural areas traditional attitudes toward women limited them to the roles of wife and mother and curtailed educational opportunities. Data from NGOs working on women’s issues indicated women were less healthy, more abused, less able to work outside the home, and less able than men to determine independently the disposition of their earnings. According to the UN Development Fund for Women and domestic NGOs, women did not face discrimination in access to credit or owning businesses. *\

“The annual government-sponsored media campaign to combat violence against women took place in December. According to NGOs the campaign helped to coordinate the efforts of groups combating violence against women and give them a greater voice.” *\

See Bride Kidnapping

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.