Skip to main content
  • Share to or

More than a name  Why the battle for matronymics in Kyrgyzstan matters

Source: Meduza

Story by Katie Marie Davies for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

In December 2020, art curator and activist Altyn Kapalova embarked on a personal crusade under an unforgiving public eye. 

It began with an attempt to give her children a matronymic: a second or middle name derived from her own given name. In Kyrgyzstan, where children traditionally receive only patronymics — a name derived from their father’s first name — the idea sparked fierce social debate, including condemnation from religious and political leaders.

Altyn Kapalova picketing in Bishkek. Her sign reads, “I oppose the kan-stitution,” a play on the Kyrgyz words for “blood” and “constitution.”
Altyn Kapalova’s personal archive

For Kapalova, the creation of a matronymic was a long-held ideal. Her children’s biological fathers were stripped of their parental rights in a lawsuit in 2020. But long before then, mother and children had often discussed changing their names so that they shared a single surname. 

“We didn’t just talk about it— we dreamed about it,” Kapavola told The Beet. “And when we talked about [changing our surname], the idea came up of having a matronymic to match. It was just logical.” 

In reality, the process was far from straightforward. 

When Kapalova first visited the registration office in Bishkek, she managed to change her children’s names without any significant problems. But when officials realized what she had done, they filed a lawsuit against her, which resulted in a Bishkek court reinstating the children’s patronymics. Undeterred, Kapalova filed an appeal

The case file for the lawsuit opened against Altyn Kapalova over her children’s matronymics
Altyn Kapalova’s personal archive

The case made it all the way to Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court, which upheld the original ruling in April 2022. Then, unexpectedly, a final order from the Constitutional Court in June 2023 gave Kapalova a partial victory. It decreed that citizens would be allowed to adopt matronymics, but only at the age of 18 — a move that the court argued would mitigate “various kinds of stigma and bullying” that might occur in traditional Kyrgyzstani society. 

“Despite everything, I consider this a win. Women still can’t give their own name to their children at birth, but adult children can take their mother’s name,” Kapalova wrote in a statement after the verdict. “I believe the country has taken a huge step towards justice and gender equality.” 

The reaction to the case has been mixed and passionate, consisting of largely positive real-world interactions and a torrent of hate online, says Kapalova. “Women have stopped me on the street; they’ve sent me gifts as a sign of their support; and strangers have hugged me and thanked me,” she recalls.

Critics, meanwhile, have accused Kapalova of opening her children to ridicule and undermining the country’s long-held values. Kyrgyzstan’s most senior Islamic cleric, Zamir Rakiev, argued that matronymics would rob children of the chance to know their ancestors, claiming that “such dangerous initiatives destroy the roots of the nation.” The head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, called for the annullment of the court’s decision. “Knowing your ancestry means preserving your genetics and origins,” he told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. “To know the names of your ancestors, we need to preserve your father’s surname.”

Documents from Altyn Kapalova’s court case on display at an exhibition in Prague
Josef Rabara / Altyn Kapalova’s personal archive

But Kapalova argues that the ruling is about something more important: the right for families to choose what’s truly best for them. Even when she lost her initial court cases, Kapalova did not doubt the importance of what she was doing, she says.

On a broader scale, the case and its fervent discussion have captured a nation in flux. Like other countries across Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is grappling with its own identity and re-examining the legacy of Soviet imperialism by re-embracing old traditions and charting new paths. 

In this context, Kapalova’s case challenges norms that have long been taken for granted — pushing the boundaries of how Kyrgyz society remembers its roots and the forms that families can take. 

Language and legacy

Patronymic names have deep roots in Kyrgyzstan and across Central Asia. Ancestral and clan ties play an important role in Kyrgyz society; traditionally, Kyrgyz people are expected to be able to recite the names of their ancestors along their father’s line going back at least seven generations. 

Before the Soviet Union’s forced settlement and collectivization program in the 1930s, most Kyrgyz families lived nomadic lifestyles, so lineage, rather than place, was key in determining a person’s identity. Traditionally, Kyrgyz children would take their father’s name as their surname and the patronymic particle “kyzy” for daughters or “uulu” for sons. 

A Kyrgyz family stands outside of a yurt, 1907
Karl Gustav Emil Mannerheim / / Union of Photojournalists of Kyrgyzstan

But these are not the patronymic names that Kapalova hoped to challenge. Her battle focused on the Russian-style patronymics introduced in Central Asia as the region came under imperial Russian, and then Soviet, control.  

Russian patronymics consist of a father’s given name and a gendered suffix and are usually given to children in addition to their first name and family name. For example, if a man has the name Aleksander, then his sons would take the patronymic “Aleksandrovich,” and his daughters would take “Aleksandrovna.” In Kapalova’s case, she hoped to use her first name, Altyn, to give her sons the matronymic “Altynovich” and her daughter “Altynova.”

Introducing these patronymics in Kyrgyzstan coincided with a larger campaign of Russification during the Soviet period. Kyrgyz citizens were pressured to add Russian-style endings to their surnames or adopt new Russian first names. Doing so often made it significantly easier to secure well-paid jobs or avoid uncomfortable questions about political loyalty at school or university. For other families, changing their names was necessary to protect themselves from persecution, as relatives were ostracized for their ties to individuals whom officials deemed “enemies of the people.” At the same time, the Soviet authorities worked hard to discourage traditional clan or kinship ties, viewing them as a threat to Moscow’s authority.

A Kyrgyz family, 1930s
USSR In Construction Journal / Foto.Kg / Union of Photojournalists of Kyrgyzstan

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, these changes were slowly undone, with many people across Central Asia reclaiming their traditional names over the past three decades. 

Diana T. Kudaibergen, a Kazakh political and cultural sociologist based at the University of Cambridge, was previously known by the last name “Kudaibergenova.” She decided to remove the Russian-style suffix from her name just recently.

“It made me feel uncomfortable. I moved abroad when I was barely 21, and it felt like people read my name and immediately expected to see some blue-eyed, blonde-haired Russian lady. I don’t mind it, but the Russification of my name rarely gave me a chance to be someone non-Russian,” she told The Beet

Kudaibergen says that she had wanted to remove the Russian ending from her name since she was a teenager, but Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had made questions of identity and Russian imperialism even more pressing. It’s a feeling shared by many across Central Asia today.

“Personally, I didn’t want to speak Russian [after the 2022 invasion]; I didn’t want to listen to anything Russian, and I didn’t want to sound Russian. I’m still processing it — because I know that the Russian I speak is something else, but it still makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “And those three letters were there on your passport defining you, defining your legacy, and your present and future in a very unfortunate way.”

Modern-day Bishkek, February 2023
Danil Usmanov

Fighting within the system

Against this backdrop, it may seem surprising that the creation of a matronymic name has met so much resistance. Many believe that it’s the feminist nature behind the idea that has made it so controversial. “In my view, people — including these politicians and public figures — are defending not their patronymics, but their patriarchal values,” says Kapalova.

It’s precisely this gendered backlash that has made Kapalova’s victory so meaningful. Previously, mothers in Kyrgyzstan could simply choose not to give their child a patronymic at all. But the legal existence of a matronymic isn’t just about signaling the absence of a father figure from a person’s life; it’s about celebrating mothers’ contributions and officially recognizing them in the public sphere. 

An officer arrests Altyn Kapalova during an International Women’s Day march in Bishkek. March 8, 2020.
Danil Usmanov

Erica Marat, a professor at the National Defense University in the United States, is one of the many Kyrgyz women who say that Kapalova’s victory has held real resonance for them. 

“For me, the greatest significance of this victory is that it emphasizes the reality that a lot of women face: being forced to raise kids on their own because the fathers are absent. It’s about reclaiming what is considered ‘normal’ by society,” she told The Beet. “In a way, she’s reclaiming the empty part of her kids’ names.”

This emphasis on making women’s contributions more visible in everyday language has been a particularly pressing topic for Russian-speaking activists in recent years. The most obvious change, particularly in Russia and Belarus, has been a new emphasis on using “feminitives”: the gendered title for jobs or roles, such as “poetess” or “directoress.” 

Women in Bishkek, September 2023
Danil Usmanov

But while the legacy of Soviet imperialism means that many people in Kyrgyzstan — predominantly in urban areas — do speak Russian as a second or first language, that doesn’t mean that these models could (or should) work in Central Asia. Most Turkic languages, such as Kyrgyz and Kazakh for example, don’t use gender markers for such words at all.

Rethinking ideas such as how lineage is celebrated could open the door for women and their contributions to be honored more publicly — and in a way that is more meaningful and authentic in Kyrgyzstan and across Central Asia. 

For now, that may include putting a feminist twist on imperial relics, such as Russian naming conventions.

Kapalova hopes that Kyrgyzstani society will one day abandon Russian naming customs altogether. But she also acknowledges that conscious decolonization began only recently and that millions of Kyrgyzstani people still have these names. Her victory is about working with the reality that exists in the country today, Kapalova explains. 

“In any civic struggle, there are certain barriers you can’t jump over — you have to go through them,” she says. “I am fighting against the system, but within the current system.”

Women at a workout park in Bishkek, September 2023
Danil Usmanov

‘Tradition is what we make it’

Ultimately, each small step also encourages other kinds of change. Kudaibergen is already seeing signs of a shift in Kazakhstan. She remembers leafing through her family’s genealogy books as a child, which only recorded her male relatives. “I used to pencil myself into the book next to my father’s name,” she says. “I used to try and write my name down in history because shezhire [the Kazakh family tree] is so important. I used to try and write [in] my mother’s name, too.”

At the time, these DIY additions weren’t met with great enthusiasm in the community at large, but attitudes have since evolved. The same books where Kudaibergen would pencil her name now include the family’s maternal line. “They wrote out biographies of outstanding women who were musicians or scholars — and in one of those books, there’s now my biography and my photo, saying that I am my father’s child,” Kudaibergen explains.

For societies in Central Asia to keep moving forward, says Marat, court cases such as Kapalova’s in Kyrgyzstan are vital. While the ruling has attracted fiery rhetoric, it has also opened new possibilities. “Of course, there’s always a pushback, but that’s okay,” Marat told The Beet. “These initiatives matter, and they set new milestones in what people think and understand in terms of what is possible.”

Women sitting on a bench in Ala Too Square in Bishkek, September 2023
Danil Usmanov

The way Kapalova sees it, pushing the boundaries of what is possible is critical; families freed from strict social norms can forge their own paths and identities. “If you can have a patronymic, then why shouldn’t you have a matronymic?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s about the right to choose.” 

At the same time, those possibilities include new ways of recovering, celebrating, and honoring one’s heritage. “It is so absolutely important to keep our traditions, especially as much was erased after the Bolshevik Revolution. Families are grappling right now, trying to remember who was there,” Marat says.

“Tradition is what we make out of it and how it serves us today,” she adds. “It might be tradition to take your father’s name — but it should be absolutely okay to use your mother’s name and to make that a tradition as well.”

Weekly newsletter

Sign up for The Beet

Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.

Story by Katie Marie Davies for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

  • Share to or