Of Crossed-Dressed Batyrs and Transvestite Tricksters: Gender Performance in Central Asian Folk Tales
In the Kazakh folk-narrative "Ush kelinshek syr aitysqany" (How three wives shared their secrets), a young woman recounts how, when her fiancée publicly abandoned her, she disguised herself as a batyr and set out resolved to similarly humiliate him—the tale ends with the fiancée crouched naked at her feet, begging for mercy from the fearsome and mysterious batyr. The motif of disguising oneself as a member of the opposite gender is a plot device common to folk tale traditions from around the word; the tale traditions of India, the Middle East, and Europe can all furnish multiple comparative examples. In Kazakh folk tales specifically, this ruse may appear as part of a quest to rescue a lost family member, or it may serve as a strategy intended to trick an adversary either out of gold or into a marriage alliance; the protagonist may be a woman who guises herself as a male warrior or a man who dresses as a beautiful young woman; the tone of the text can ranges from tragic to ribald joking. This paper asks what conceptions of gender emerge from these performances of disguise, and to what extent can these performances be read as subversive of the sex-gender order? In answering these questions, the paper draws on a series of 19th century and Soviet-era collections of Kazakh folk tales to trace both the varying forms the motif takes and the ways in which it is embedded in plot morphology.
Gender, Identity, Multiculturalism