Gender over the Life Cycle

The Kyrgyz recognize the following events as important lifestyle passages and publicly mark each event: birth, the first steps of a child, circumcision of a boy, engagement, marriage, retirement, and death. Birthday celebrations are a recent phenomenon, since prior to sovietization birth dates were never recorded or registered. For most Kyrgyz over the age of 75 years (in the year 2000), the date and year of their birth are usually an approximation.

The Kyrgyz names for life cycle stages are as follows: balalyk, childhood; ospurum, teenager; jashtyk/ jash ubak, youth; tolgonchak, mature age; karylyk, old age. In addition, the names for life cycle events are different for males and females. Male stages: bala, boy; jigit, young man; jetilgen chak, man; chal, elderly man. Female stages: kyz, girl; selki, young woman; ajal, woman; kempir, elderly woman.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

Boys and girls in Kyrgyz society are reared differently from infancy through childhood by parents and others, including extended family members, other kin, neighbors, and peers. The birth of a boy is considered more of a celebration for a family than the birth of a girl, but the difference in response is marginal. In part, boys are preferred over girls because they are socially ordained to care for their parents, whereas girls move away from their natal home once they are married. The eldest male is expected to live in the parents' home upon marriage. The youngest male child in the family is responsible for caring for the parents when they are old. Thus the responsibilities and obligations of male children to their natal family are greater than those of female children, who are expected to care for their husband's parents.

Different expectations exist for Kyrgyz girls and boys in the domestic sphere. Boys are expected to have a more leisurely childhood, to play with other boys, to ride horses, to hunt, and to learn to be a man, whereas girls at a young age are given household responsibilities, including cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for younger children or elderly adults, as part of their training to be a woman.

The primary caretakers among the Kyrgyz are often the parents or grandparents. Both prior to and during the Soviet period, the extended-family living pattern usually meant that three generations lived together in one dwelling. Sometimes this would include aunts and uncles of the married couple. Grandparents are highly revered and cared for, since many grandchildren actually have a stronger bond with them than with their own parents. Grandparents or an aunt or uncle often take part in the instruction and discipline of children. Boys and girls are disciplined differently; at times girls are more severely disciplined for misbehaviors, since the expectation for their acting appropriately and modestly is much higher than for young boys. Girls and boys learn informally about sexuality and courting rituals.

During the Soviet period, coeducation for girls and boys was normalized. Nevertheless, there were different expectations for performance in schools. In reviewing standardized texts for elementary education, illustrations often equate women with the domestic sphere and men with heavy labor. This is somewhat ironic, since Soviet women were among the most active worldwide in the labor force. Often it was said that women must carry a "double burden," that of both domestic and public work.

Because many of the Kyrgyz customary practices are highly influenced by Muslim customs, it is expected that male children should be circumcised by the age of 5 or 7 years of age (preferably in an odd year rather than an even year). It is generally considered that the earlier the boy is circumcised, the better, since it takes less time for recovery. Even though circumcision was considered illegal by the Soviets, many Kyrgyz boys were nevertheless circumcised following Muslim practices. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, circumcision was performed symbolically, and the penis of the child was only touched with a knife.

Puberty and Adolescence

The period of adolescence is recognized by the Kyrgyz, but has only been emphasized in the last century under the Soviet educational system. Except for moving from elementary education into higher grades, schools are the most formalized vehicles for marking this period of time. As mentioned above, adolescent girls are seen as attractive for marriage. Under Soviet law, the legal age for marriage changed from 9 to 16 years of age for girls and from 16 to 18 years for boys.

One of the more recent concerns of adolescent women (kyz) today is the revival of the old practice of kyz ala kachuu or bride-stealing, which is when a young man abducts a young woman from her home or off the street for the purpose of marrying her. This practice can be found among various ethnic groups throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the rural regions, bride-stealing has long been a common feature of some marriage agreements. Even though it is considered illegal, perpetrators are rarely brought to court, since such actions bring shame to the young bride's family. Furthermore, social norms dictate that stolen brides are expected to capitulate so as not to bring shame upon their relatives. Once a young woman is stolen, she is married that day, so she loses her virginity, leaving her little choice but to stay in her new predicament. The Kyrgyz have a saying that refers to this situation, "Tash tushkon jerinde oor" ("Let the stone lie where it has fallen").

Attainment of Adulthood

The most significant rite of passage indicating a transition from boyhood to manhood and from girlhood to womanhood is marriage, and secondly, giving birth to a child. The latter is particularly important for recognizing a woman as a full-fledged adult, no matter how old she is when she gives birth to her first child.

Middle Age and Old Age

The life cycles of middle-aged and elderly adults have changed dramatically in the last decade, as a result of the declining economic conditions in the country. Many who had looked forward to retirement at 50 years (for women) and 55 years (for men) find themselves working in the informal market instead of enjoying their leisure time. The elderly, many of whom are women, find that the social safety net once in place during the Soviet period is no longer there, and they have few options but to depend on their children for day-to-day assistance.

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