Kyrgyzstan's highest court sides with a female activist and allows the use of the matronymic

Kyrgyzstani activist, writer, and artist, Altyn Kapalova commenting on the upcoming court hearing, after the State Registration Service sued her for giving her children matronymics in 2021. Screenshot from the Kaktus Media YouTube channel.

On June 30, the Constitutional Court in Kyrgyzstan passed a groundbreaking ruling allowing citizens to choose a matronymic over patronymic in their names. People in Kyrgyzstan can now add an appendage to their first names that derive from their mothers’ names. The decision came after more than two years of legal standoff between the State Registration Service (SRS) and Altyn Kapalova, an activist, writer, and artist, who changed her children’s last name to her own and gave them the matronymic in 2021. SRS sued Kapalova, accusing her of breaking the law, and won in three consecutive courts until the Constitutional Court overruled their decisions and issued a final verdict. Commenting on it, Kapalova stated: “I believe that the country has taken a huge step towards justice and gender equality.”

Here is a post with Kapalova's commentary of the verdict on her Facebook page.

Using a patronymic in Kyrgyzstan is the legacy of the Soviet Union, when the Russian tradition of naming became mandatory. This naming tradition consists of a last name derived from male ancestors’ name complemented with -ov/ev for males or ova/eva for females + first name + patronymic derived from fathers’ names complemented with -vich for males and -vna for females. For example, Altynov Janar Bakayevich. Kyrgyz naming tradition consists only of father's name + uulu (son of ) or kyzy (daughter of) + first name. After gaining independence in 1991, Kyrgyz people started switching to “uulu” and “kyzy” as well as “tegin” (of origin) for their names, for example, Bakay uulu Janar. However, there are many who still use -ov/ova in their last names and patronymic, such as the country’s president Japarov Sadyr Nurgozhoevich. The lawOn acts of civil status” allowed the use of patronymic, which derives only from male relatives, which the Constitutional Court classified as “violation of the principles of equality.”

Here is a YouTube video with Kapalova's commentary on the first court hearing in 2021.

The victory is a bittersweet one for Kapalova, who fought to keep her children’s matronymic, but was ordered to remove them. The court decided that only those who reach the age of 18 can choose to add matronyms, and mothers cannot give it to their children upon birth. Her three children are between six and 16. The judges explained their decision with the argument that “in a traditional society, a child can be bullied because of a matronymic.” Kapalova is determined to continue fighting for women’s right to give matronymics to their children upon birth and plans to take the case to international courts.

Kapalova has faced many opponents in the last two and a half years of legal battles. Kyrgyzstani society is predominantly traditional and patriarchal. For example, the principle of “jeti ata” (seven fathers) practiced in the country implies obligatory knowledge of the names of ancestors in the male line up to the seventh generation. Many saw Kapalova’s decision as an attack on traditions and cultural norms. According to her, the representatives of the parliament, President’s Office, and the Ministry of Justice joined the SRS and spoke against the introduction of matronymics at the court hearing. The head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (Muftiate) has stated that allowing the use of matronymic “can destroy the root of the nation.” He has also warned that this decision may lead to discrimination and psychological trauma among kids.

What is almost nonexistent in this discussion are the high divorce rates. At least 25 percent of married couples divorce in Kyrgyzstan. Children are often left with mothers, who cannot get alimonies from fathers or have a hard time making ends meet because payments are so small. Kapalova is one of those women who are bringing up their kids without any support from their fathers or the state. Until a week ago, single mothers could not give their children a matronymic, reflecting a fundamental inequality. The verdict introduces fairness to the field where fathers claimed their children's names, some without ever providing for them.

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