Hair-Clips and Hierarchy

What ‘Mambetka’ means for Kazakhstan in the Age of Inequality

Walk­ing home through the streets of Almaty as a young girl, I remem­ber see­ing a girl with the most beau­ti­ful hairdo pass by. As was the style in the early 2000s, her head was covered in dozens of but­ter­fly clips. It also fol­lowed an intric­ate cir­cu­lar pat­tern, and every clip on her head was a col­our of the rain­bow. My young and impres­sion­able mind was so fas­cin­ated by what appeared to me as bold and eleg­ant fash­ion state­ment that I instantly star­ted to plan a craft pro­ject of my own.

The minute my mom unlocked the door I ran off into my bed­room and star­ted con­struct­ing my mas­ter­piece. I wanted it to be even bet­ter than the hair­style I saw on the street, so I decided to grab all the elast­ic bands, hairclips, head­bands, scrunches and but­ter­fly clips that I could find – and arrange them intric­ately in my hair. To com­ple­ment the look I put on my puf­fi­est, pinkest and snar­ki­est ball gown and a feath­er boa. With a proud pos­ture and my head held high, I des­cen­ded into the kit­chen to show­case my magic­al cre­ation to my par­ents.

Nowadays, calling a person from a village Mambetka is one of the many ways that urbanites reaffirm superiority over rural Kazakhs.

Sweetie, you look like a mam­betkamy mom chuckled the minute I appeared in the doorframe.

I slowly real­ised that my mom didn’t really dig with my avant-garde fash­ion choices, yet mam­betka part of the feed­back con­fused me, I was­n’t really sure what it meant. Although gentle, her mock­ery brought tears into my eyes as I tried to defend my beloved cre­ation.

After all, what should I feel guilty about? The vis­ion of an angel-like fig­ure on the street with but­ter­fly clips in her hair passed through my mind once again… My pos­ture slowly regained its con­fid­ence.

Calmly, as though I knew a secret about life my mom was yet to dis­cov­er, I deftly tilted my head and said, “Mama, mam­betka bolay­in­shi” — “Mom, let me be a mam­betka”.

Years later I uncovered the reas­on this story from my early child­hood became a go-to anec­dote in the fam­ily gath­er­ings. You see, mam­betka, or a mam­bet for males, was (and still is) a slur that so many of the soph­ist­ic­ated city gals and guys call people from the vil­lage. The term became pop­u­lar dur­ing the Soviet rule and was enforced by the gov­ern­ment as a way to segreg­ate Kaza­khs to edu­cated and uneducated groups.

Nowadays, call­ing a per­son from a vil­lage Mam­betka is one of the many ways that urb­an­ites reaf­firm superi­or­ity over rur­al Kaza­khs claim­ing that so many of the so-called mam­bets don’t have the “city smarts”.

No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mambet by their own free will

But some vil­la­gers come to the city and dis­cov­er an immense vari­ety of products mod­ern cap­it­al­ism provides, it becomes an over­whelm­ing exper­i­ence; speak­ing Kaza­kh on the daily makes it their actu­al moth­er tongue, unlike the urb­an major­ity, for whom Rus­si­an is their lin­gua franca.

Grow­ing up in the Kaza­kh steps, caring for the cattle, rid­ing horses and cher­ish­ing tra­di­tion – they seem out of place in the stone-cold con­crete jungles of the city. Hence, mam­bet in Kaza­kh soci­ety is syn­onym­ous with “bad taste”, “bad lan­guage”, and “bad man­ners”.

No won­der that the play­ful accept­ance of the mam­bet status com­ing from the Almaty’s finest seemed to be so…. funny. No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mam­bet by their own free will because it almost guar­an­tees job dis­crim­in­a­tion and a con­stant state of neg­li­gence in the hier­arch­al sys­tem of Kaza­kh­stan. Yet, we – the alleged intel­li­gent­sia – uni­formly ignore that none of the mam­bets chose their status of eco­nom­ic and social dis­ad­vant­age; rather, they were born into it.

And yes, poverty and inequal­ity are dif­fer­ent, but they are much like the “Buy One – Get One Free” deal – they often go hand in hand. Accord­ing to the United Nations “inequal­it­ies in income dis­tri­bu­tion and access to pro­duct­ive resources, basic social ser­vices, oppor­tun­it­ies, mar­kets, and inform­a­tion have been on the rise world­wide, often caus­ing and exacer­bat­ing poverty.”

So what if my curious five-year-old mind unknowingly discovered a secret? Imagine living in a world, where instead of dividing ourselves and reaffirming superiority over mambets, we would actively choose to work together.

This pat­tern can be observed dir­ectly; from unequal dis­tri­bu­tions of school fund­ing across regions – to high­er poverty rates in rur­al regions when com­pared to urb­an ones. In fact, this poverty gap is so pre­val­ent that accord­ing to an IMF report, the share of people with an income below the sub­sist­ence min­im­um in 2014 var­ied from 1.7% in Astana, the country’s cap­it­al, to over 10% in south Kaza­kh­stan, a pre­dom­in­antly agri­cul­tur­al region.

As I dive deep­er into my research I uncov­er that this hos­tile beha­viour towards rur­al pop­u­la­tions is not unique to Kaza­kh­stan. On its East­ern bor­der lays a coun­try, wherein Hukou, a house­hold regis­tra­tion sys­tem, law­fully restricts access to each city’s edu­ca­tion­al and health­care sys­tem if an indi­vidu­al hap­pens to have been born in a rur­al area.

For China’s eco­nomy these migrants are essen­tial as they account for half of urb­an work­force and cre­ate half of country’s GDP; yet, they are the most mar­gin­al­ised and vul­ner­able group of the pop­u­la­tion. Mean­while, India has adop­ted the most recent addi­tion to its post-colo­ni­al caste sys­tem based on lin­guist­ic dis­crim­in­a­tion; uni­ver­sit­ies, gov­ern­ment jobs and cor­por­ate sec­tor all require flu­ency in Eng­lish, yet only the rul­ing élite and middle class can afford to send their chil­dren to private Eng­lish schools.

Divide and con­quer’ they say  — and it seems as if the elites of the world are employ­ing this tech­nique to cre­ate arti­fi­cial priv­ileges. The go-to mam­betka bolay­in­shi anec­dote seems innoc­u­ous at first, yet its mean­ing in a broad­er con­text of mar­gin­al­iz­a­tion has far-reach­ing implic­a­tions. So what if my curi­ous five-year-old mind unknow­ingly dis­covered a secret? Ima­gine liv­ing in a world, where instead of divid­ing ourselves and reaf­firm­ing superi­or­ity over mam­bets, we would act­ively choose to work togeth­er to ensure that no one has to suf­fer from the eco­nom­ic dis­ad­vant­ages that lie behind “bad man­ners” or gar­ish hair-clips.

Torn between two worlds — how Social Media is impacting Kazakhstan’s development

The harsh din of my alarm bursts rudely into my dreams and drags me slowly back into the real world.

Yes, 15 minutes before my actu­al wake up time, I look to my smart­phone to ground me from my hazy state, and I slowly come-to by catch­ing up with all the glob­al and per­son­al updates that happened overnight. As I scroll down end­less mes­sages, Ins­tagram updates and Face­book noti­fic­a­tions I real­ize that this sen­tence is sup­posed to be relat­able to all of us, who have a priv­ilege of liv­ing in the inform­a­tion tech­no­logy age.

Pan­or­amic view of Almaty from the hills of the Kok Tobe.

This trans­form­a­tion is truly glob­al; it impacts everything from the dis­rup­tion of tra­di­tion­al indus­tries and cre­ation of new ones to the ques­tion­able imprint of glob­al­iz­a­tion and chan­ging pat­terns of per­son­al inter­ac­tions. In Kaza­kh­stan, these changes not only shape the nature of eco­nomy but also have a sig­ni­fic­ant influ­ence on one’s iden­tity and self-image.

Over the past dec­ade, Kaza­kh­stan has wit­nessed a stag­ger­ing increase in Inter­net users from merely 3% in 2005 to more than 55% in 2016. And whilst my grandma is quite an act­ive Face­book user, a major­ity of Inter­net users in Kaza­kh­stan are urb­an mil­len­ni­als loc­ated in two major cit­ies — Almaty and Astana.

In fact, the split between rur­al and urb­an areas is so prom­in­ent that while more than 70% of the urb­an pop­u­la­tion has access to the Inter­net, only 45% of the rur­al pop­u­la­tion gets covered by nation­al pro­viders. This issue only high­lights the ever-press­ing prob­lem of an urb­an-rur­al split in Cent­ral Asi­an region.

Hav­ing been born and raised in Almaty, the biggest Kaza­kh­stani met­ro­pol­is, I always had a priv­ilege of being sur­roun­ded by clean streets, trendy res­taur­ants and shiny malls. It was only later in life that I have dis­covered the beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted image of my homet­own not to be a full reflec­tion of the nation.

For most rur­al Kaza­kh cit­izens; hav­ing access to clean hot water, heat­ing dur­ing winter, edu­ca­tion and health­care is a daily struggle to over­come. Poorly imple­men­ted agri­cul­tur­al policies com­bined with the sud­den col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on have res­ul­ted in poverty and ill health of its rur­al pop­u­la­tion. Sim­il­arly, lim­ited access to world­wide know­ledge in rur­al regions fosters a pre-exist­ing income inequal­ity and hinders social mobil­ity for the young.

On the oth­er hand, while the Kaza­kh health­care sys­tem is col­lapsing with under­paid and over­worked doc­tors and nurses; the inher­ent kind­ness in Kaza­kh cul­ture, com­bined with the age of social media, has cre­ated a unique type of non-profit organ­isa­tion. In essence, these NGOs con­sist of online-oper­ated char­it­ies such as Dara and Kus Zholy, which are provid­ing people with second-hand cloth­ing and food — and have cre­ated crowd-fund­ing pages to help sick chil­dren get access to world-class health­care, along with sup­port­ing chil­dren with spe­cial needs. All this is being made pos­sible because of gen­er­ous dona­tions from com­munity-minded private cit­izens, who often live on the brink of poverty them­selves. This unique gen­er­os­ity is deeply inter­twined with­in Kaza­kh tra­di­tions, but is also influ­enced by Kaza­kh ego and self-image.

Uyat boladi” is a phrase that I, as a Kaza­kh woman, grew up hear­ing on daily basis. This almost always meant the end of a dis­cus­sion. For a for­eign ear this phrase, which is being repeated in each and every single house­hold sev­er­al times per day, sounds harm­less and almost poet­ic. Yet, its trans­la­tion — will be shamed — com­bined with an already self-con­scious nature of social media, serves to cre­ate harm­ful effects.

Big­ger expos­ure to Kylie Jen­ner types on Ins­tagram has fuelled a new wave of insec­ur­it­ies faced by Kaza­kh women. Now expec­ted not only to be an example of a mod­est and saint-like bride to all the neigh­bours, the Kaza­kh woman is now forced to become two-dimen­sion­al: her worth is also determ­ined by the num­ber of likes and com­ments she gets on an Ins­tagram post. Being con­stantly pres­sured to be the per­fect Step­ford wife with a per­fect body and per­fect man­ners; young women enter a vicious self-depre­ci­at­ing cycle fuelled by a stream of neg­at­ive com­ments. All the while, they are forever torn by the tug of two polar oppos­ites: the hyper­sexu­al­ised female body, so nor­m­al­ised in the media; and the “Uyat boladi” con­ser­vat­ive and pat­ri­arch­al mind­set.

See­ing glor­i­fied West­ern life­style on their feed, young people strive for everything West­ern — from Caucas­oid facial fea­tures right through to the way they dress and speak. Major­ity Muslim, Kaza­kh soci­ety is now under­go­ing a trans­form­a­tion. This comes as no sur­prise to me; adverts, clin­ics, and cases of oper­at­ive adjust­ments — such as double eye­lid plastic sur­ger­ies — are becom­ing omni­present, not just in Kaza­kh­stan, but through­out the East Asi­an region as well.

Although harm­ful to the self-esteem of the young, social media has undoubtedly boos­ted Kaza­kh eco­nomy. Accord­ing to CNP Pro­cessing, an inter­na­tion­al busi­ness research firm, the e‑commerce sec­tor of the eco­nomy has gen­er­ated more than $5million in 2010 on advert­ising; while over­all the sec­tor has gen­er­ated $300 mil­lion in sales in 2012, and the fig­ure has been on the rise ever since. Online busi­nesses such as Lam­oda and Choco­life were very quick to spot the untapped poten­tial that a sparsely pop­u­lated and tech-savvy nation prom­ised. Mean­while, a niche of inde­pend­ent online retail­ers mostly oper­ated through Ins­tagram caught onto the wave, and in doing so gen­er­ated jobs and fostered the country’s eco­nomy.

As e‑commerce mar­kets grew and online news con­sump­tion became con­ven­tion­al, anoth­er trans­form­a­tion emerged — Kaza­kh­stan developed a prof­it­able blog­ger sphere. Facebook’s live stream­ing allowed inde­pend­ent voices to be heard, while You­Tube provided a legit­im­ate and user-friendly plat­form. One of the most prom­in­ent examples of these inde­pend­ent voices is Yerzhan Rashev — a cre­at­or and host of the Rashev Show and an occa­sion­al live stream­er, who not only freely expresses his opin­ions about the nation’s devel­op­ment but also is expli­cit about cor­rup­tion with­in the branches of gov­ern­ment. He cham­pi­ons for trans­par­ency, a good mor­al code, and self-improve­ment; all delivered in an artic­u­late man­ner that encour­ages dis­cus­sion and fur­ther debate (usu­ally in the com­ment sec­tion). Young­er comedi­ans — teams Yuframe and Joke­asses, high­light import­ant social issues in a more light-hearted man­ner, but yet again encour­age their audi­ence to be bet­ter than the gen­er­a­tion of post-Soviet tur­moil with its pre­ju­dices and “Uyat boladi” mind­set.

Social Media is already mak­ing its impact on Kaza­kh­stani self-image as young people are becom­ing more tol­er­ant towards each other’s dif­fer­ences; it also fills them with hope for a bet­ter future by bring­ing the sum of human know­ledge in the world to their fin­ger­tips — and hope­fully by exten­sion help­ing them to learn to think crit­ic­ally. Social media and the Inter­net have just star­ted to pen­et­rate the Kaza­kh mar­ket, and there is a lot of pro­gress to be made in terms of digit­al free­dom and cen­sor­ship of the inform­a­tion. I can’t help but won­der what would the future entail for a young and pro­gress­ive Kaza­kh soci­ety? Would the pro­gress made in the last dec­ade and the kind inher­ent in Kaza­kh cul­ture be enough to cre­ate a mod­ern, demo­crat­ic and open-minded soci­ety — or would social media con­tin­ue to harm self-esteem of the young while also widen­ing the eco­nom­ic inequal­ity between urb­an-rur­al pop­u­la­tions? Yet again, Kaza­kh­stan is at the cross­roads. The ques­tion is: what path will the nation choose to take?