Social Structure

Kyrgyzstan Table of Contents

The age-old geographic separation of pockets of the Kyrgyz population has tended to reinforce conservatism in all of the country's society. The modern Kyrgyz still apply great significance to family and clan origins. The majority of Kyrgyz continued a nomadic lifestyle until the Soviet campaigns of forcible collectivization forced them first into transitional settlements and then into cities and towns or state and collective farms in the 1930s. Within the centralized farm systems, however, many Kyrgyz continued to move seasonally with their herds. There has been strong resistance to industrial employment.


Kyrgyz identity in public and private life is said to be determined primarily by membership in one of three clan groupings known as "wings" (right, or ong ; left, or sol ; and ichkilik , which is neither) and secondarily by membership in a particular clan within a wing. The history of this grouping is unknown, although several legends explain the phenomenon. The left wing now includes seven clans in the north and west. Each of the seven has a dominant characteristic, and all have fought each other for influence. The Buguu warrior clan provided the first administrators of the Kyrgyz Republic under the Soviet Union; when the purges of Stalin eradicated their leaders in the 1930s, their place was taken by a second northern warrior clan, the Sarybagysh, who have provided most Kyrgyz leaders since that time, including Akayev. The right wing contains only one clan, the Adygine. Located in the south, the Adygine are considered the most genuinely Kyrgyz clan because of their legendary heritage. The southern Ichkilik is a group of many clans, some of which are not of Kyrgyz origin, but all of which claim Kyrgyz identity in the present.

Acutely aware of the roles each of the clans traditionally has played, the Kyrgyz are still very conscious of clan membership in competing for social and economic advantage. Support for fellow clan members is especially strong in the northern provinces. Kyrgyz men frequently wear traditional black-on-white felt headgear, which informs others of their clan status and the degree of respect to be accorded them. Larger clans are subdivided by origin and by the nobility of their ancestors; although there is no prohibition of advancement for those of non-noble descent, descent from a high-born extended family still is considered a social advantage.

Like other Central Asian groups, the Kyrgyz venerate history and see themselves as part of a long flow of events. A traditional requirement is the ability to name all the people in the previous seven generations of one's family. Clan identity extends this tradition even further, to the legendary origins of the Kyrgyz people. Kyrgyz clans are said to spring from "first fathers," most of whom appear in both oral legends and in history. Clan history and genealogy are entrusted to tribal elders, whose ongoing knowledge of those subjects makes falsification of lineage difficult. Because clan identity remains an important element of social status, however, Kyrgyz do sometimes claim to have descended from a higher branch of their clan than is actually the case.

Domestic Life

The Kyrgyz are classified as nomadic pastoralists, meaning that they traditionally have herded sheep, horses, or yaks, following the animals up and down the mountains as the seasons change. The basic dwelling is the yurt, a cylindrical felt tent easily disassembled and mounted on a camel or horse. The image of a yurt's circular smoke opening is the central design of Kyrgyzstan's flag. Various parts of the yurt have ritual significance. Because the herding economy continues in many parts of the country, the yurt remains a strong symbol of national identity. Families living in Western-style dwellings erect yurts to celebrate weddings and funerals.

Traditional domestic life centers on the flocks. The diet of the nomads is limited to mutton and noodles; fruit and vegetables are rare even in today's Kyrgyz cuisine. The most traditional dishes are besh barmak , a mutton stew, and roast lamb. For ceremonial meals, the lamb is killed without spilling its blood, and the head is served to the guest of honor, who slices portions of the eyes and ears and presents them to other guests to improve their sight and hearing. Horsemeat is eaten fresh and in sausages. Traditional beverages are kumys , fermented mare's milk, and two varieties of beer.

Family traditions continue to demonstrate the patriarchal and feudal character of a nomadic people. Family relations are characterized by great respect for older family members and the dominance of male heads of households. Traditional celebrations of special events retain the markings of religious and magical rites. For example, the cutting of a child's umbilical cord is celebrated with elaborate consumption of food and humorous games. The naming of a child and the cutting of the child's hair are conducted in such a way as to appease supernatural forces. The full observance of the most important family event, the wedding celebration, requires considerable expense that relatively few Kyrgyz can afford: payment for a bride, dowry, animal sacrifice, and an exchange of clothing between the relatives of the bride and the groom.

The Role of Women

In traditional Kyrgyz society, women had assigned roles, although only the religious elite sequestered women as was done in other Muslim societies. Because of the demands of the nomadic economy, women worked as virtual equals with men, having responsibility for chores such as milking as well as child-rearing and the preparation and storage of food. In the ordinary family, women enjoyed approximately equal status with their husbands. Kyrgyz oral literature includes the story of Janyl-myrza, a young woman who led her tribe to liberation from the enemy when no man in the tribe could do so. In the nineteenth century, the wife of Khan Almyn-bek led a group of Kyrgyz tribes at the time of the Russian conquest of Quqon.

In modern times, especially in the first years of independence, women have played more prominent roles in Kyrgyzstan than elsewhere in Central Asia. Since 1991 women have occupied the positions of state procurator (the top law enforcement official in the national government), minister of education, ambassador to the United States and Canada, and minister of foreign affairs. Women have also excelled in banking and business, and the editor of Central Asia's most independent newspaper, Respublika , is a woman. Roza Otunbayeva, who was minister of foreign affairs in 1996, has been mentioned frequently as a successor to Akayev.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress