ASTANA -- Kazakhstan is Central Asia's most prosperous country and can claim an array of accomplished women as its citizens. But for many women in the country, oppression is still a daily reality, observers say.
Kazakhstan, like all ex-Soviet countries, celebrated International Women's Day on March 8. One day before the holiday, President Nursultan Nazarbayev hosted a group of distinguished women at his official residence in Astana, as reported by Nazarbayev's website.
Women "tirelessly work in various parts of our economy", he said, according to his website. "Fifty-five percent of the civil service is female."
Kazakhstan intends to keep investing in families, he said, describing a long-term plan (running through 2030) to strengthen them.
A darker picture
That said, some women who have married into extremism find their lives much less fulfilling, warn observers like Gulnaz Razydkova, chairwoman of the Pavlodar-based Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-Faith Relations.
She has witnessed domestic tyranny in Aktobe, a city with a relatively high concentration of extremists, she said, adding, "Some ... men [in Aktobe] who go out for the day lock their wives inside."
"If a fire breaks out, those women will die," said Razdykova.
Caravanserai spoke to several women who experienced such marital mistreatment and found the courage to escape.
They include Bogatoz, 29, who asked to withhold her last name for fear of her ex-husband, his relatives and other extremists.
"He seemed like a very correct man," she told Caravanserai. "All that changed after the wedding. The scoldings, restrictions and beatings started when I became pregnant."
"He didn't work," she added. "He hung out with his friends and watched internet videos about 'jihad'. His father and brothers supported him in everything he did."
Botagoz now lives with her two children somewhere in South Kazakhstan Province after breaking free of her "nightmare" five-year-long marriage. Her ex-husband is serving a prison sentence for promoting extremism.
"I filed for divorce as soon as he was arrested," said Botagoz, adding she hopes never to see him again and wants no alimony.
"I can handle everything myself," she said. "It's better to be single than be married to a sadist like that."
Another woman, Aijan Zakirova, 23, of Merken District, Zhambyl Province, experienced bride kidnapping by a man she hardly knew -- a phenomenon that still occurs in Central Asia.
In 2013, her fellow villager abducted her.
"[He] is 12 years older than I am," she told Caravanserai. "I saw him in the village before ... but never talked to him. I naturally didn't know he had radical views."
Her "suitor" and his friends "shoved me into a car and started to badger me into marrying him", she recalled. "I shouted and resisted, but they brought me to his house."
After several days of being locked up in his house and enduring repeated persuasion by his relatives, she gave in.
"I was afraid of returning home and having everyone say I was 'damaged goods'," she said. "I didn't want to cause my parents any pain."
After she said yes, her husband made her his servant, she said, adding that he "humiliated, insulted and scolded" her relentlessly.
Her husband "said women ... exist to serve men", said Zakirova. "I never kept quiet. I argued with him ... We'd come to blows."
The marriage lasted only six months before she worked up the courage to flee. Her parents took her back, though she had feared they might not.
"I'm very grateful to them," said Zakirova of her parents. "Soon after I married a good, respectable man. We have a daughter."
Vulnerable types of women
Some women are likelier than others to fall under an extremist's spell, said Razdykova.
They include "psychologically immature women", she said. "Women who feel unloved, who lack love in their own family or are unpopular with boys [or men] also easily fall under their influence."
Women with perceived deficiencies like "being unable to find a husband or to have children" are vulnerable too, she said.
"One concept that radicals often manipulate is 'mahr,' the payment to the bride for her agreement to marry," added Razdykova. "Our radicals promote the idea that the best 'sister' has the smallest mahr. Extremists have corrupted the institution so thoroughly that women are forced to give themselves up for a Snickers bar or a single persimmon."
Such mistreatment of women flies in the face of Islam, Taraz theologian Sanjar Suleimenov told Caravanserai.
Many Koranic verses "laud women for their wisdom and fairness", he said. "All faithful Muslims should know that Islam treats women with respect and care."