‘Tomiris’ showcases history of a strong woman in Central Asia, spurring discussions of gender relations

By Aidana Yergaliyeva

“My name is Tomiris… My loved ones were killed… I am left alone… Yes, I am Massagetae… I am the queen,” begins the trailer to the movie “Tomiris.”Tomiris movie poster

In a series of quickly changing scenes and intensifying music, the short video clip depicts the young, yet lionhearted girl who grew into “the queen born to magnify the steppes.” Her life was depicted in the film which started showing in September.

The works of Herodotus, who lived between 484-425 BC, are the first to mention Massagetae Queen Tomiris and her heroic revenge over the Persian king Cyrus II, who killed her family and willed her to conquer the great steppes. She united all the Scythian tribes to stand against him and defend their territory.

Herodotus and many other Greek historians wrote that she “defeated and killed” the king by crucifying and beheading his corpse. According to “The new encyclopaedic dictionary of fine arts” cited by e-history.kz, the story became an allegory of justice as it inspired a wave of artists, including some in Europe, to paint and write poems and stories about her. City magistrates would order the paintings to hang in courtrooms.

This piece of history is an important part of the discussion of gender roles in Central Asia. It demonstrates that respect for women and willingness to be led by women have been part of the region’s culture for centuries.

“Tomiris” reminds us that women with strength and power are not something that resulted from more recent discussions of feminism brought by Western culture, but that the practice was present with the greatest ancestors of the Central Asian states.

Lead actress Almira Tursyn.“I have always sincerely believed and was convinced that a woman is unique in that she can be multifaceted: strong, weak, tough, tender, loving, punishing – completely different!” lead actress Almira Tursyn told The Astana Times. “It all depends on her life circumstances and intentions! What was once again convinced and admired by living the life of the heroine!”

The movie marks her debut, as Almira rejected many previous proposals. The offer was exceptional for two reasons. She was attracted to the historic character’s strong personality and the reputation of director Akan Satayev, whose name has become the Kazakh trademark for high-quality content.

Almira has been working as a life coach for women’s personal development. Using a psychologist’s eye, she completed comprehensive background research to understand the queen’s character while incorporating her own vision and imagination.

In addition to learning how to deliver speeches that would cause goose bumps and inspire entire Scythian tribes to stand with her, the actress also learned how to fight and own the battlefield.

“There were difficulties, but overcoming them was also one of the stages on the way of creating the image of Tomiris!” she said.

Tursyn’s double and professional stunt performer Alfiya Kunguzhinova stressed the difficult level of the tricks the character needed to perform.

“In the film, the Scythian queen has many action scenes and difficult production fights, where Tomiris simultaneously fights not with one opponent, but with several. There were also a large number of stunts of varying difficulty on a horse,” she said.

Kunguzhinova, Kazakhstan’s first female stunt performer and member of the Nomad Stunts, noted the role of women in society has not changed and has always been about the individual’s personal ambitions.

“I have always believed and still believe that if you really want to achieve something, you will achieve it. It does not matter whether you are a man or a woman… As they say, everything is possible, but impossible simply requires more time,” she added.

For Kunguzhinova, however, the impossible required even more time. As a woman, she had to prove her worth as her career began to be taken seriously.

“When I have just started doing trick riding, it was strange to me that only women spoke about this. At first, men did not take my efforts seriously. But over time, I was able to gain the respect of my male colleagues and, after that, they have always supported me and are still supporting me,” she said.Tomyris move frame 2

Women leaders today are no surprise, yet globally, women are still underrepresented in decision-making positions and have unequal opportunities for growth. Thus, in addition to regular career challenges, they must fight against the socially accepted frames established in the past.

As a life coach, Almira stressed that some Kazakh traditions continue to assume women are meant for certain roles.

“Stereotypes!” she said. “Which are dictated by society about what a woman should be like, how to live, what to do, when to get married, when to give birth and a number of frightening stories and examples if she suddenly decides to do something contrary to these stereotypes! All this suppresses a woman and, in almost every person, true dreams and intentions, a state of happiness and harmony! So, it turns out that those who satisfy these stereotypes are ‘unhappy’ and those who overcome these stereotypes are ‘uncomfortable for society!’”

However, it is clear from local history that the role of women has long been respected in the region. The first digital museum of Kazakh women presented at least two more historical examples, Nur-Sultan and Taidula-khatun.

Nur-Sultan (c. 1451-c. 1519), the daughter of the Nogai Prince Temir from the powerful nomadic tribe Mangyt, was a Kazan and Crimean Khansha (female Khan). She is not the only woman in Turkic history to bear a name with the “Sultan” ending, although more often, they were daughters, sisters or wives of khans.

Nur-Sultan was not the sovereign of the state, but her diplomatic contribution to relations between the Tatars and the Moscow state was enormous. She concluded the peace treaties among the Kazan Khanate, the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Crimean Khanate who were fighting for dominance in the region after the collapse of the Golden Horde. The Crimean Khanate maintained the treaties until 1513, while the Kazan Khanate kept them until her death.

Taidula-khatun was one of the influential queens of the Golden Horde. She was a member of the Kungrat (Konyrat) powerful clan who married to an Uzbek khan in 1313. According to the works left by Moroccan traveler Ibn-Batutta, she received special treatment from the khan among the harem and influenced the politics of the horde. Taidula-khatun personally received ambassadors and other foreign visitors of interest to the horde and became the patron of the Russian Orthodox Church. From 1340-1350, she intervened in the strife between Moscow and Ryazan princes over disputed territories and ended the conflict.

“Tomiris” opened in theaters throughout Kazakhstan on September 27.

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