OBON (Kyrgyzstan)

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Location: Kyrgyzstan
Definition: Older female intermediaries negotiating with state institutions on behalf of marginalised citizens
Keywords: Kyrgyzstan Central Asia mediation age gender women grassroots politics
Author: Elmira Satybaldieva
Affiliation: Conflict Analysis and Research Centre, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

By Elmira Satybaldieva, Conflict Analysis and Research Centre, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

The term ‘OBON’ stands for Otryad Bab Osobogo Naznacheniya, and translates as Women’s Unit for Special Purposes. It refers to older female leaders in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, aged 55– 65, who have emerged as informal intermediaries between marginalised citizens and state institutions in the period of increasing social inequalities and distrust in formal political institutions.

OBON has become part of the everyday lexicon and is widely used by the media and lay people. The term has a negative connotation and instantly evokes images of older women as paid protesters, who act in aggressive and confrontational ways, such as shouting at officials, storming and occupying government buildings (Alymkulova, Aitmatova, and Mamaraimov 2012, Szymanek 2012, cf. titushky). The media and political elites cultivate this negative image to condemn and to delegitimise older women’s participation in political processes. The origin of the term is attributed to a former politician and filmmaker Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, who suggested that politicians would mobilise older women similar to special police units (OMON - otdel militsii osobogo naznacheniya) to intimidate their rivals.

Despite the negative media portrayal, OBON women are important informal leaders, whose mediating role is crucial for understanding community micropolitics, women’s political agency and broader state–society relations in the post-Soviet context.

In developing countries, possibilities of accessing formal political channels or effecting change are limited. Instead, people use informal representational mediators to achieve their goals. This form of mediation is distinct from arbitration and dispute resolution, where the mediator is a neutral actor. It refers to third-party representation of a marginalised social group to a political authority and primarily consist of bargaining and negotiation, as well as group mobilisation and protests (Piper and Von Lieres 2015). Notably, this form of representational practice is not based on legal frameworks but rests on ‘an enduring assertion of the right to speak for certain social groups due to shared identity, interests, proximity, efficacy and the like’ (Piper and Von Lieres 2015: 697).

In Kyrgyzstan’s political field, communal leadership is regularly contested by a variety of actors, such as criminal groups, religious leaders or professional brokers, all claiming to represent the voices of the poor. The OBON women set themselves apart, because they developed their informal political legitimacy through grassroots activism, cultural and gendered resources (motherhood status and age) and concerns for social justice.

OBON women during protest. Source: Radio Azattyk, Bishkek. © AFP.

A particular form of neopatriarchy in Central Asia grants women authority and status recognition in old age, if they have produced male progeny and have ensured a reproduction of patriarchal structures – a phenomenon Kandiyoti (1988) refers to as a ‘bargain with patriarchy’. Using motherhood as symbolic capital is not unique to Central Asia. Others have documented how Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentine and the mothers of soldiers in Russia, for example, use age and status to legitimate their struggles and to achieve their objectives (Sutton 2007, Zdravomyslova 2007).

An important aspect of OBON women’s political legitimacy is their informal leadership on the ground. They reflect the identity and experiences of their followers, and serve as effective problem-solvers to help channel resources to their communities. Their political legitimacy is not achieved immediately but develops through several years of collective action and sustained efforts.

In an empirical study on informal politics in Kyrgyzstan, Satybaldieva conducted twelve semi-structured interviews with OBON women in the city of Osh in south Kyrgyzstan (2018). The study sheds light on how OBON women mediate on behalf of poor groups on a number of issues reflecting their communities' beliefs about tackling social inequalities.

Housing became an important subject after the evictions of former textile employees from their communal dormitories. Their rights to accommodation were denied as a result of fraudulent privatisation of the dormitories. In response to these evictions, the OBON women mobilised 83 families to occupy a disused public building. In the subsequent years, they organised numerous protests, sit-ins and land-grabs to try and force state officials to recognise the evicted families’ demand for accommodation. Their efforts grew further to include a campaign for the rights of rural migrants to social housing. After a decade-long process of negotiations with the state authorities, the OBON women succeeded in obtaining enough land to accommodate about 45 thousand people.

Financial malpractices by banks and microfinance agencies constituted another focus. Most lenders targeted women as loan recipients and charged them exorbitant interest rates. Many borrowers became heavily indebted and defaulted on their loans, causing the lenders to seize their homes. The OBON women acted to prevent the extrajudicial seizure of property. They held protests outside and inside the banks and microfinance agencies, picketed in front of the White House, and petitioned the Ombudsman. They asserted the borrowers' rights by negotiating for concessions with the lenders and demanding that the National Bank enforces stronger regulation of the financial sector.

The OBON women’s mediation also emerged as a spontaneous response to inter-communal clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that erupted in south Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in June 2010. They became involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid to families affected by the violence. They also took action to search for missing persons, and to campaign for compensation for the affected families.

OBON’s mediatory strategies are entwined with contentious activism to pressure state elites to hear them out. Confrontation was used as either a tactic or was undertaken out of frustration. While the state and financial elites were not emotionally moved by their accounts of injustice and suffering, the women’s perseverance and effective tactics pushed them into negotiations. Their informal mediatory strategies were particularly successful during elections or political uprisings when several elite factions vied for public support, and were seeking OBON women to mobilise local communities.

The study shows that OBON’s informal mediatory practices achieved several meaningful changes in southern Kyrgyzstan. First, they advanced the needs of rural migrants and urban poor people. They were instrumental in negotiating and forcing the central and local authorities to distribute land for housing. This was a significant outcome given that habitable land is scarce in the region. Second, the mediation process empowered certain marginalised groups to participate in politics. For example, several older women initiated a protest movement against banks and their policy of high interest rates. Their movement developed into a national cause, gaining the attention of the government, which passed an anti-usury law in consequence. Third, the OBON women helped to politicise practical needs and pragmatic issues such as housing and credit. Their collaboration with political leaders resulted in protests and popular mobilisation. The OBON women were active in the events leading up to the 2005 Tulip Revolution, the first popular uprising that ousted President Askar Akaev from power. Fourth, the OBON women’s contentious strategies challenged gendered norms, ideas of shame and masculine power. Although political elites and the media demonised their subversive tactics, they refused to stay passive and docile. Fifth, the women’s informal mediation was crucial for raising awareness about injustices and violations. In particular, they shifted feelings of shame and humiliation about debt and homelessness into ideas of entitlements and rights.


Alymkulova, A., J. Aitmatova, and A. Mamaraimov. 2012. ‘OBON kak zerkalo’: razvitie politicheskogo aktivizma ili ispol’zovanie zhenskogo resursa dlya tselei grup interesov v Kyrgyzstane. Tsentr Pomoshi Zhenshinam. http://wsc.kg/kg/obon-kak-zerkalo-razvitiepolitiche/

Kandiyoti, D. 1988. ‘Bargaining With Patriarchy,’ Gender & Society 2 (3): 274–290

Piper, L., and B. Von Lieres. 2015. ‘Mediating Between State and Citizens: the Significance of the Informal Politics of Third-Party Representation in the Global South,’ Citizenship Studies, 19 (6–7): 696–713

Satybaldieva, E. 2018.’ A mob for hire? Unpacking older women’s political activism in Kyrgyzstan,’ Central Asian Survey, 37 (2): 247-264

Sutton, B. 2007. ‘Poner el Cuerpo: Womens Embodiment and Political Resistance in Argentina,’ Latin American Politics & Society, 49 (3): 129–162

Szymanek, M. 2012. ‘OBON: Rent-A-Mob Groups in the Volatile Kyrgyzstani Reality.’ http://neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/487-obon-rent-a-mob-groups-in-the-volatilekyrgyzstani-reality

Zdravomyslova, E. 2007. ‘Soldiers’ mothers fighting the military patriarchy,’ in I. Lenz, C. Ullrich, and B. Fersch (ed.), Gender Orders Unbound? Globalisation, Restructuring and Reciprocity. Oplanden&Farmington Hills: Barbara Budrich Publishers: 207–228