Kazakhstan battles female radicalisation

By Ksenia Bondal


Asya is shown in Almaty in December. She is struggling to raise her children after the consequences of her husband's folly: a Kazakhstani court sent him to prison for being a militant in Syria. [Photo from Ayman Umarova's personal archive obtained by Ksenia Bondal]

ASTANA -- Analysts and lawyers are helping to rehabilitate Kazakhstani women who fell under the influence of their extremist husbands or other relatives.

Married to men who chose to join the insurgency in Syria and Iraq, they face ostracisation and legal jeopardy if they return home.

"There is a new phenomenon emerging in the last five years -- the tendency for radicalisation of women ... [who] find themselves in strong social isolation," the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in its Regional Field Assessment in Central Asia 2016.

Living in social isolation, "they receive most of the information about the outside world from their husbands, in a distorted form at times", the report said.

"We have paid particular attention in our report to women, who are the most vulnerable in this respect," IOM Deputy Co-ordinator for Central Asia Tatiana Hadjiemmanuel told Caravanserai.

"After being abandoned by their husbands, becoming widows or getting divorced, they become vulnerable in terms of human trafficking ... and naturally, radicalisation," she said.

About 4,000 people from Central Asia are fighting with extremist groups in the Middle East, according to Hadjiemmanuel. "Residents of Central Asia leave for Syria both individually and with their families," she said.

A third of the roughly 500 Kazakhstani citizens who have joined militants abroad are women, she said, citing data provided by the Kazakhstani government.

Rehabilitation centres for women

Kazakhstani civil society organisations are working with women who have returned from the Middle East, whose husbands might have died on the battlefield or might be serving time in a Kazakhstani prison for fighting in Syria and Iraq.

"Often, these women are left alone with their problems, do not know how to behave, where to go and do not know their rights," said Ayman Umarova, a lawyer from Almaty, referring to the wives of imprisoned ex-militants.

Those wives often encounter economic and social hardship and have to overcome it on their own, said Alim Shaumetov, director of the Astana-based Akniyet advocacy and rehabilitation centre.

"Without rehabilitation assistance, radical ideas do not disappear," he told Caravanserai. "There is a high probability after the husband's release that they could go back to Syria."

His centre tries to prevent a relapse into extremism by giving the women immediate assistance and helping them find a job.

"Our centre has garment mini-factories so they can earn at least a little money," he said. "We're ready to work with them."

Myth of the 'caliphate'

A woman who calls herself Asya went to Syria with her husband and their two children in 2013. Now he is serving a 7-year prison sentence in Kazakhstan on terrorism charges.

Asya, 26, of Almaty, is an ethnic Uighur who emigrated to Kazakhstan as a child. She married her husband, also of Almaty, in 2011. They moved to Europe in 2012 and then to Syria, according to Umarova, who is representing the family legally.

Because of the family's sensitive legal situation, Asya and Umarova say little about the time the family spent in Syria, noting that Asya's husband joined a militant group.

In October 2013, he appeared in a video of Kazakhstani militants, sealing his fate. When the family, fearing for their children's safety in Syria, flew back to Almaty in January 2014, police immediately arrested him.

Now, with very few options, Asya teaches Koran reading at a local school, intent on putting the Syrian ordeal behind her.

"I [want to] forget this whole nightmare," she told Caravanserai, adding that she hopes her husband is released from prison soon so they can "raise our children to be law-abiding citizens".

The atrocities of the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria have opened many eyes, said Alibek Kimanov, a law and religion analyst from Almaty.

"The radically inclined cultivate the principle of the wife obeying the husband," he told Caravanserai, expressing optimism that this mindset can be changed with the help of rehabilitation programmes.

"Before, people went to Syria falling for the idea of creating a 'caliphate' ... but this myth has been debunked," he said. "ISIL showed, through its aggression against Muslims themselves, that it is a killing machine embarked on a geo-political project."

In 2016, there were 200 Kazakhstani citizens in Syria, 80 of whom were killed, said Erlan Karin, director of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies.

"Their numbers are diminishing," he said, according to the IOM study. "[In 2015], there were 400 Kazakh citizens there. Many of them return when they realise that they were deceived."

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