Until last week, Makpal Abdrazakova was the internet’s favorite eagle huntress, and I played no small part in her fame. I travelled hundreds of miles by train and bus across the flat steppe of Kazakhstan to meet her in her village, do an interview, and take some photos, and when someone shared a particularly devastating image of her and her eagle on the social networking site Reddit, it blew up. She looked stunning, no doubt. Makpal had dressed up for the shoot by wearing a matching ensemble of fur hat and velour jumpsuit, brown and gold and laced with Kazakh ornaments. For most Reddit-users, just this get-up was exotic enough to catch their interest. But it was her weapon of choice, a fierce eagle on her arm, that sparked the world’s imagination. “She looks like a video game character!” seemed to be the consensus from the thousands of people who shared and commented on Makpal’s photo. Which is to say, she looked unreal. She was a fantasy, and the internet ate it up.
Yet the web is fickle with its attention, and some time at the beginning of April, Makpal was dethroned by a fourteen-year old girl from Mongolia. Ashol Pan’s BBC photoshootwent viral in a big way, or it certainly seems that way, as five different friends who don’t give a hoot about falconry all flocked to my wall on Facebook to share the story. The world was captivated by “the world’s only girl hunting with a golden eagle,” captured in stunning photos from the Israeli photographer Asher Sverdinsky. Whereas Makpal’s image was so memorable for its mature intensity, Ashol’s was irresistible for its charm. Even while hunting, she’s shown flashing a perfect white teeth framed by freckled cheeks, a Kazakh Annie. The kid’s adorable. Most importantly, though, Ashol is a feminist’s poster child, a young girl going against the grain and taking up a sport claimed by men. What her cheerleaders back home may not fully realize is just how sensitive an issue gender equality is in this part of the world. Ashol and Makpal have become icons because of their rarity, and they’re likely to remain black swans for the foreseeable future.
The fact is that while these girls are heroes to the Western world, they are dismissed by nearly every prominent falconer I’ve met in Central Asia. Their objections, as I understand them, are not about women hunting. Women falconers from the West have even visited on pilgrimage and have been met with kindness and tacit approval. What they object to, rather, is Kazakh women hunting. It is a knee-jerk reaction based on a traditionalist understanding of society and the sexes. Especially in the rural economy, household labor is rigidly split between men and women. Men herd cattle, take care of finances, and have a greater luxury of recreation and hunting; women herd children, take care of guests, and when free, sew or shop. The vast majority of Kazakhs don’t live in yurts anymore, but they still provide a potent illustration of how codified this gender segregation can be. On the left side of the home was the female domain. There kymyz was prepared, dishes were washed, and so on. The right side of the home, meanwhile, belonged to men. A gun might hang on the wall, or a shepherd’s whip, and on cold winter nights a hunting eagle might be perched in this hemisphere. To the strictest traditionalist, a Kazakh woman taking up an eagle is like a tornado whipping up this delicately ordered feng shui. It’s a serious disturbance in “how things are done.”
A Kazakh friend told me that when Ashol Pan made the news feeds of his local friends, the comments were overwhelmingly supportive. Urban Facebook-goers were no doubt thrilled simply to see a dispatch from their culture on the planet’s front page. Yet there is a serious gradient in Central Asian culture (or perhaps the world over) in conservatism and lifestyle, and the falconry community tends to be more reactionary. It’s quite easy to understand. We have a group of individuals who practice a sport that demands frequent access to hunting grounds, and thus more often than not they live in auls, or rural villages. Moreover, they’ve made a willful choice to practice a lifestyle that represents bygone pastoralism. Living according to the values of the aul and proudly promoting nostalgia, Central Asian falconers are almost preordained to be on the conservative end of the spectrum, and from there the view of eagle huntresses is not a positive one.
The internet will continue to fawn after these striking women. I myself admit that I find their stories irresistible – after all, I somewhat obsessively sought out Ms. Abdrazakova for my original story. But we must remember that a single woman in Kazakhstan and a single girl in Mongolia do not a trend make, and, globalization be damned, there is no wave of Western values that will change the face of falconry here any time soon. Makpal and Ashol appeal to the English-speaking world because they seem to represent a triumph of our modern sensibilities over a traditional world we look down upon. Yet this victory is superficial. To the people that matter the most, however, the falconry community that guard the gates, these girls will continue to find little respect. They will forever be more prized by their fans abroad, supporters they may never know they have.