Cultural Overview

The Kazakhs descend from nomadic Turkic and Mongol tribes who formerly occupied the Eurasian steppes. According to most sources, the Kazakhs emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the mid-15th century when a number of clans broke away from the Uzbek khanate. Over the centuries, Kazakh culture has been shaped by a nomadic pastoral economy, a tribal social structure, customary laws, a blend of Islamic and shamanic religious beliefs, and Russian and Soviet colonization.

The Kazakh economy was traditionally based on nomadic pastoralism, the seasonal migration of livestock herds to known pastures and water sources. The typical household had a herd that included sheep, horses, camels, cows, and goats. The nomadic economy influenced a gendered division of labor, where men were expected to care for the livestock and defend the territory while women cooked, cleaned, took care of children, served guests, and prepared textiles (Bacon, 1966).

The Kazakhs have a patrilineal tribal social structure. They are divided into three "hordes" (zhuz), which are further subdivided into a number of "tribes" or

"clans" (taipa or ru), which are further segmented into tribal lineages (ata or ru).

Tribal leaders (khans and bais) had authority over families who lived within their territory and managed relations between tribal groups. Traditionally, conflicts over land, livestock, family, and kinship were resolved through either customary law (adat) or Islamic shar'ia law (Martin, 1996).

Islam was first brought to the territory that is now Kazakhstan by Arab conquerors in the 8th century, where archeological evidence shows that it took root among some of the sedentary peoples of the region. But it was much later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, that Sufi dervishes traveled across the steppes and converted many of the Kazakhs to Islam. Since many of the pre-Islamic practices remained predominant, Catherine the Great encouraged Tatar mullahs to provide Islamic education to the nomads, in the hope that it would "civilize" them. Although the Kazakhs have a Muslim identity, many of the characteristics associated with Muslim culture never took hold in Kazakhstan. For example, Kazakh women never wore veils that covered their faces and they do not practice seclusion. Further, a number of Islamic practices and beliefs have blended with pre-Islamic shamanic practices and beliefs (Michaels, 1997).

Russian influence over Kazakh culture begins with the 18 th century when a military alliance was formed between a Kazakh khan and the Russian czar. The northern part of the Kazakh steppe increasingly came under Russian influence as the Russians established military outposts in the 19th century, and Russian peasants migrated there in the early 20th century. In 1920, Bolshevik revolutionaries gained control of the land and established administrative control over the region that is now known as Kazakhstan. From 1920 to 1991, the Soviet rulers attempted to transform many aspects of Kazakh culture in ways that conformed with communist ideology. Traditional gender relations, tribal structure, and the Islamic faith were all targets of social change (Bacon, 1966; Massell, 1974; Olcott, 1991).

In 1991, the Kazakh republic of the Soviet Union became an independent nation-state. The newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan is a multiethnic state, with sizable minority populations, including Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Uzbeks, Koreans, and Uighurs. Since independence, the revival of Kazakh traditional culture has been accompanied by less public and government support for measures that improve the status of women in society. Simultaneously, increased exposure to Western cultures has brought new fashions and attitudes that express a greater openness toward sexuality (Akiner, 1997; Bauer, Boschmann, & Green, 1997; Michaels, 1998).

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