President proposes revision of Constitutional Court decision after ruling allows mother to give her name to her children.
It took nearly three years of legal battles for Kyrgyz feminist activist Altyn Kapalova to be allowed to give her own surname to her children. The 39-year-old mother-of-three’s successful campaign, seen as a win for women in the country, has also triggered a political power struggle between the president’s administration and the Constitutional Court.
On June 30, Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Court ruled that Kapalova’s children could use the matronymic, instead of the patronymic, the middle name that derives from the first name of the child’s father.
The Court decision cited the equal rights that Kyrgyzstan’s Constitution grants parents, stating that the Kyrgyz Law On Acts Of Civil Status, which only refers to patronymics, is hence unconstitutional.
The ruling allowed people who have reached adulthood to adopt their mother’s name as a matronymic, although it also states that children will still be assigned patronymics at birth to protect them from bullying given the country’s conservative traditions.
Kapalova’s fight sparked a heated debate in society as critics maintained that the matronymic contradicted valuable Kyrgyz traditions and values.
In a post on her Facebook profile Kapalova wrote, “I did not break the law, I broke the patriarchal foundations.”
“The idea of a matronymic actually speaks of the right of choice for citizens,” Zulfiya Kochorbayeva, executive director of the NGO Agency for Social Technologies, told IWPR. “Mothers’ rights are enshrined in the constitution but at an informal level public institutions remain deeply patriarchal and men are given a priority role. There is no legal contradiction here. Yet the public outcry shows that society is not ready for actual gender equality, so as soon as women get real opportunities, we can see such resistance.”
The Kyrgyz leadership itself did not welcome the decision. On July 17, President Sadyr Japarov’s administration initiated amendments to allow it to overturn Constitutional Court rulings if deemed to go against the “moral and ethical values and public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic”.
The draft law, currently under discussion, has sparked a parallel controversy as legal experts noted that the ill-defined wording left room for manipulation while the proposal in itself breached the basic principle of judicial independence.
A LONG BATTLE
Kapalova’s fight began in December 2020 when she applied to reissue new birth certificates for her children using her matronymic. Possibly because Altyn is a gender-neutral name, the certificates were re-issued and the move initially went unnoticed. However, the department of Population and Civil Status Registration went on to sue her in February 2021 and various courts ruled against her, including the Supreme Court in April 2021.
Kapalova decided to appeal. On July 2, she announced the ruling which allowed her one son and two daughters to have either Altynovna or Altynovich in their official IDs instead of their father’s name.
Kapalova, who co-founded and runs the Museum of Feminist and Queer Art in Bishkek, considered the ruling a partial victory and vowed to continue to campaign for children to be allowed to receive their mothers’ names at birth.
The court decision also reflects a growing reality in Kyrgyzstan in which many children are brought up by single mothers.
“A huge number of children in Kyrgyzstan grow up without fathers,” Kapalova wrote on her Facebook profile. “We know thousands of migrant stories when fathers leave, start new families and forget about their children. Women carry a huge burden. And every woman has the right to give her name on an equal basis with men.”
According to the National Statistical Committee, about 11,000 marriages break up every year. In 2022, 12,187 cases of divorces were filed and children most often live with their mothers after families separate. In most cases, mothers are left with the burden of care, including financially.
Every year, Kyrgyz courts issue about 40,000 decisions on the payment of alimony, but often fathers either do not pay at all, or significantly underreport their income so as to pay less.
Although many supported Kapalova in her fight – in particular women who felt that the case showed how one person could triumph over the system – she also faced a large backlash, which included threats and online abuse.
Kyrgyzstan’s traditional society has been keeping women’s rights at bay for years. Under Japarov’s presidency conservative forces have become louder, with loud public criticism over women’s public activities or clothing.
On June 12, parliament voted to restrict women under the age of 22 from travelling abroad without written permission from her parents – 59 lawmakers voted in favour of the measure, only two opposed it.
Kapalova’s legal victory led to further criticism. Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the State Committee for National Security, announced that “there is no such thing as a matronymic. Whoever approved it, they must cancel it too”.
For Zamir Rakaiev, Kyrgyzstan’s mufti, “such actions can destroy the root of the nation…From Adam to the present day, all generations of people in all countries gave the name of the father to both sons and daughters”.
The amendments proposed by the presidential administration states that Constitutional Court decisions could be revised should they contradict moral and ethical values.
“This is nonsense as there are no definite legal standards of the said concepts,” Kyrgyz lawyer Timur Arykov told IWPR. “Moreover, we cast doubt on compliance with ‘morals and ethics’ in the Court’s decision-making. We cast aspersions on the independence and fairness of one of the constitutional branches of power in the Kyrgyz Republic, the judiciary, represented by the Constitutional Court.”
Tattuububu Ergeshbaeva, another lawyer, agreed.
“The proposal may be considered exceeding the president’s powers and violating constitutional rights,” she said. “The judicial system is an independent branch of power and has powers to determine the policy of its activity independently.”
Rights groups have also called for the proposal to be withdrawn. The Bishkek-based NGO Media Policy Institute issued a statement arguing that constitutional control was key to a system of checks and balances and protected all citizens’ rights from misuse and possible errors by the state’s legislative and executive branches.
“The arbitrary intervention proposed,” the statement read, “… leads to creation of a personalist autocracy, where human rights will depend on the whim of particular people, not on the provisions of the Constitution and laws.”