When do Age and Gender matter? The ‘Marshrutka Question’ in Kyrgyzstan

When does age matter?  When does gender matter?  When do age and gender matter?  When – and where – do we take for granted that age matters, that gender matters?  Conversely, when and how do we see our assumptions about age and gender shaken, at what moments do they no longer ‘make sense’?

Consider this scenario.  A crowded marshrutka.  An older woman gets on at the next stop.  Many of you reading this article would stand up and offer her your seat: of course you would.  Or you are that older woman, and you take the seat that’s been offered to you: that’s just what you do.  In fact, over the next few stops, several older women get on, and then a heavily pregnant woman, and a couple of younger women with babies, until every seat is occupied.  And then a young man gets on, and he has a heavy bag, and he’s on crutches with his leg in a plaster cast.

Who stands up?

It’s never a good idea to start an essay with a list of questions, so we’ll start again:  age and gender do matter, all the time. In fact, some social scientists are of the view that trying to understand one without the other is impossible. But we rarely notice, until we are in a space or a situation where suddenly, our ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions about age and gender no longer make sense, where ‘the rules’ just don’t work, as in the scenario above.  Other examples might be ‘who pours the tea?’ at a table where 5 older women are sat with an adolescent boy, or ‘who sits next to the driver?’ in a shared taxi.

To date, a very small number of social analysts and theorists have explored the ways that gender and age interact with each other when it comes to determining social relations. And yet, separately, gender and age and how they shape interactions and power dynamics in social settings have received considerable attention, from feminist and gender scholars on the one hand, and social gerontologists on the other.

Since the 1990s feminist scholarship has been heavily influenced by theories of ‘intersectionality’ (see for example Crenshaw, 1993), which consider how different social aspects such as race and class interact with gender to determine power relations in a particular situation. For instance, an intersectional feminist scholar might look at how a young, Kyrgyz man and a middle-aged Russian woman receive different treatment if the car they are driving is stopped by the police.  And yet, until very recently, very few feminist scholars have used intersectionality to consider how gender and age work together.  Instead, feminist scholars have focused on the social categories of race and class and how these intersect with gender, ignoring age.

Social gerontologists don’t see ageing as a process that is fixed or biologically determined, but rather a process shaped by social relations and cultural values, but few specialists have realised the value of theorising age and gender together.  While there have been many studies of the different experiences of women and men in later life, gender tends to be ‘added on’ to studies of ageing, treated as a variable rather than as a factor that is very important for the way that societies and communities are organised.

In looking at the ways that age and gender interact, in keeping with both social gerontology and feminist approaches, we see both age and gender as dynamic categories. ‘The social category Age’ is not just determined by how many years a person has lived, but by the way they and others see their social status, how frail or independent they appear.  Likewise, ‘gender’ as a social category, as distinct from ‘sex’, has far more to do with how women and men are expected to behave, dress, and relate to each other (factors which vary enormously in different national and cultural contexts) than with physiology.

The ‘marshrutka question’ marks the start of a project where we attempt to think through the simultaneity of age and gender relations in the context of Kyrgyzstani society. Since Kyrgyzstan became an independent country, there have been many studies on the social situation in the country that have used gender as a ‘lens’ of analysis, particularly in regard to the way that the transition to a market economy and the social and political upheavals in the society have impacted differently on women and men. Joanna Pares Hoare is a researcher in gender and development who has worked with gender-focused NGOs in Bishkek. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix is an ethnographer who has lived in the Toktogul region and written about kelins and young NGO-workers. We want to move the discussion forward from one that thinks just about gender (as one of the authors did, for instance, when she explored the ‘exceptionality’ of Roza Otunbayeva’s short presidency), to one that thinks about the way gender interacts with age (and with other social categories) in particular situations. We find the tools of feminist intersectional analysis and the insights of critical social gerontology useful in answering these questions. What happens, for instance, when ‘the rules’ that determine how people of different ages and genders behave and treat each other, suddenly don’t make any sense? For example, what happens when the NGO trainer for a group is young enough to be the workshop participants’ daughter, or even granddaughter? Are the dynamics of those moments productive, and / or creative?  Or are they threatening?

These are questions that are not just important for academics to think about, but challenges that can also help activists and citizens understand what is happening to them and others, in Kyrgyzstan and beyond. A new understanding of people’s choices and constraints can help us find new ways of interacting – and advocating change. Finding approaches that create solidarity and a sense of common struggle for activists, rather than feeling in competition for donor funds, can also be helpful.

To make research as exciting, and as useful as possible for everybody concerned, we invite your ideas and opinions on when gender and age matter?  Perhaps you have personal experiences to share, or want to suggest a different way of thinking about age and gender? We welcome input from you, whether you are simly a marshrutka user, activist or academic, in whatever form and language suits you. We also invite you to co-write articles for these different audiences, together with us.

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