This is a story from an acquaintance of mine. I have no reason to doubt her.

She is from Western Kazakhstan, but it so happened that she fell in love with a guy from the South and married him. They now have a daughter. They live with her husband’s family in Astana.

Here’s what her life looks like now: every morning she wakes up at 5 a.m. and prepares breakfast for her father-in-law, mother-in-law, husband, and his brother. Moreover, they have a hearty breakfast: Samsa, kuirdak, tea, flatbreads, and the like. Everything must be fresh and piping hot, so the daughter-in-law wakes up a couple of hours earlier than everyone else.

Then everyone, except for the father-in-law and mother-in-law, goes to work. My acquaintance manages to work two jobs: as a cleaner in an office and as a dishwasher in a restaurant. She gets so tired during the day that she collapses. She comes home in the evening and continues working: she cooks dinner, feeds the whole family, washes the dishes, cleans the house, and washes the clothes (by the way, there’s no washing machine in the house, there’s only a basin). None of the other family members will touch a broom or the basin with laundry. It’s beneath their dignity. They usually relax in the evenings, drink tea, and watch football, or TV series. And the daughter-in-law serves them all. She washes everything from the family’s underwear. Moreover, when relatives come to visit (and since the family is from the South, there’s always someone from the relatives in the house), the daughter-in-law must serve them too: feed them, wash their clothes, iron them. All this is done at night, sometimes until 1-2 a.m. And at 5 a.m., it’s time to get up again.

Despite this enormous burden on the daughter-in-law and her contribution to the family’s well-being, she is not an equal member of the family. For example, she cannot participate in conversations at the common table. She must remain silent and only pour tea. She must sit at the threshold, near the samovar, with her head covered by a scarf. She must not look family members in the eyes; her gaze should be lowered to the ground. She is not allowed to address family members by their names. When the family goes on big outings or to relax in nature, the daughter-in-law, like Cinderella, stays at home. She’s not entitled to rest. She must take care of the household.

And in all other matters, the daughter-in-law is a powerless member of the family.

I ask her why she needs this, why she lives like a slave. Did she dream of this when she imagined her happy family life? How did she end up in voluntary slavery? She shrugs. She says it all happened gradually. Little by little, her parents, her future husband, and everyone around her prepared her for this life. And now she’s used to it. And now this is her family. But you can live differently, you can be a free and equal woman, I tell her. She doesn’t know what to say. At the same time, she loves her husband and believes that he loves her too. Maybe she’s embarrassed to say what I understand: if she divorces now, she’ll never get married again, her social status will be lower than it is now, and she’ll catch sympathetic or contemptuous looks from those around her. It’s better to be a slave in the family than free and alone, she’s convinced.

– Tell me, – I ask her, – when your husband’s parents die and your children grow up, will you also live by these customs? Will your daughter-in-law also be a slave in your house? She says she doesn’t know. Right now, she can’t even imagine herself as the mistress of the house. And I wonder, will she be the same? Will such patriarchal medieval relationships in some families continue to exist in our modern advanced Kazakhstan?

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