While the world was celebrating International Women’s Day with flowers and special meals, Kyrgyz people, on this occasion, went out to the streets to protest for gender equality in their society. Men and women marched together in cities across the Former Soviet, Central Asian nation, carrying posters with bold slogans such as “Let’s stop rape-crime” and “Say no to bride kidnapping”. Big Western media platforms, such as Frontline
, has provided extensive coverage on the topic of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan in the past — however, they have neglected to share that this issue is common across all Central Asia. At least two young women in the rural villages of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are kidnapped and forcefully married daily.
Russell Kleinbach, a professor emeritus of sociology at Philadelphia University and the founder of the Kyz Korgon Institute, said, “As a universalist, and as scholar, I see bride-kidnapping as a woman’s issue and a world issue. It’s an abuse of civil and human rights that violates International Law and many local laws, because it deprives young women of the freedom that they are entitled to.”
Bride kidnapping, or ala kachuu, roughly translated as grab and run, is believed to stem from the nomadic lifestyle Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik people lead, when the men would snatch their future wives while on horseback. Today, many men, mostly in the rural Central Asian steppes, continue to see kidnapping as a viable path to marriage. According to Kleinbach’s research, approximately one third of Kyrgyz woman are married through kidnapping. Cynthia Werner, head of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, collected data on bride kidnapping in Kazakhstan and found that it is a common practice in rural villages of the southern part of the country, for almost every Kazakh girl is married to her kidnapper. These marriages can occur both consensually, as a staged elopement, and non-consensually. In the non-consensual form, a would-be groom gathers a group of young men with whom he would drive around looking for a woman he would want to marry. The unsuspecting woman is often dragged off the street, bundled into the car and taken straight to the man's house — where frequently the family will have already started making preparations for the wedding. At home the captor’s female relatives use physical force and a variety of forms of psychological coercion to compel the woman to agree to the marriage and place the symbolic white scarf on her head. Both the family of the captor and the family of the bride pressure her to stay in the marriage by reminding her that her own and her family’s reputation is on the line.
Raikhan Rakhim, a journalist at 365info.kz, collected stories of kidnapped brides in Southern Kazakhstan. “I met a lot of women whose life was terminated by one day in their life, when they were snapped from the street, put into the car, and the next thing they know: they are married. Many of the kidnapped brides are college-educated women with career aspirations. Their life plans are changed irrevocably when they are kidnapped by a family that may not support their decision to continue their education and career. Great amount of kidnapped brides refused to share their stories, because their husbands forbid them from chatting with the media about it, others were simply embarrassed to talk to me about their situation,” said Rakhim. Werner’s research showed that domestic abuse was more prevalent in the Southern region of Kazakhstan, which is where bride-kidnapping is most popular, suggesting a positive correlation between the two. “Almost 90% of the domestic violence cases included marriages that involved bride kidnapping,” stated Werner.
Despite strengthening laws to prohibit this practice in Central Asian states, it is still a frequent occurrence. Kidnap marriages, as well as arranged marriages, became illegal shortly after the Soviet state incorporated Central Asia in the early 1920s. However, in contrast to arranged marriages, which experienced a large decline in the Soviet period, kidnap marriages persisted and increased throughout communist times. By the 1970s, the majority of kidnap marriages could be described as elopements that were staged as kidnappings. This trend can be explained by considering the inherent conflict between Soviet laws that banned forced marriages and Kazakh values that discourage girls from publicly pursuing their own marriage partner.
“When the Communist party during the USSR confiscated all private wealth and put it into collective wealth, they gave rise to something they did not think [would] have such big social impact after. They took away families’ money to pay large dowries or to have big weddings, thus forcing those families to remember old traditions of bride snatching,” theorized Wener.
Kleinbach has a slightly different opinion on it. “After going through every chapter of Epic of Manas
, the traditional epic poem of the Kyrgyz People, and not finding any mention of bride-kidnaping, I came to the sense that bride-kidnapping takes roots not from a theoretical background, but [rather from a] practical one,” he said. “I think that bride-kidnapping started out consensually, where a couple agreed to run away with each other to avoid their destinies of arranged marriages with people their parents’ chose for them.”
In a country of oral traditions, such as Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, this quickly got wrapped into layers of real and unreal stories and resulted in what is today the deprivation of liberty justified as a cultural tradition. However, Werner points out, “Just because people say it’s a tradition, it doesn’t absolve its abuse of human rights. In many countries, kings had traditions that dictated crazy things; slavery and segregation were traditions. In other words, not all traditions are good, and they don’t have to be necessarily kept.”
The post-Soviet period has seen a rise in non-consensual kidnapping. The practice has become more acceptable in a social environment where ethnic nationalism is stressed over gender equality. Central Asian societies felt that after abandoning most of their traditions that clashed with communist beliefs during Soviet times, they now have the a duty to revive and reinforce their forgotten practices. However, it is debatable whether bride kidnapping is an ancestral tradition.
Kidnapped women, who are raised in such cultural surroundings, also consider marriage by abduction to be an ancient tradition, and that there are few places to turn if trapped as a victim. Law enforcement authorities grew up with similar cultural beliefs.
“I once asked a woman prosecutor back in Kyrgyzstan if she prosecutes kidnappers, to which she bolded her eyes at me and said with a very certain no and [brought up that] same tradition argument,” said Kleinbach.
Since Kazak government made bride snatching an illegal act under the Article 125 of the Criminal Code, only one prosecution has taken place. A man from the Southern part of Kazakhstan kidnapped a woman he’d never seen before from the street and raped her at his house. In the morning, his family pressured her to stay and put on the white scarf and she agreed to be married. However, the girl decided to run away and later committed suicide. The abductor was sentenced to six years in jail.
There are many similar cases that aren’t talked about or reported. Rakhim, who knows the culture inside out, is upset by this tradition.
“I don’t think that law enforcement would help much, because our people would still find their ways around it, as for instance criminal cases usually get solved between involved individuals before even any statements are sent to the police office,” said Rakhim.
Werner shares Rakhim’s opinion.
“I believe it’s a complex process that has to involve multiple players at stake that directly can influence the change of socio-economic and standard of living issues in the rural villages, where the practice of kidnapping prevails,” said Werner.
Kleinbach and Kyz Korgon Institute are a lot more optimistic and are trying different methods of eradicating this tradition. While they are fighting the Kyrgyz government on the tightening of the legal law that punishes captors, they also make available written pledges to try to get men to swear not to kidnap, or, if they do it for tradition’s sake, they have to give their fiancé 10 days notice. On top of that, the Kyz Korgon Institute went around villages and distributed literature that educates women about their rights, along with offering a screening of Petr Lome’s documentary
on bride kidnapping.
Kleinbach proudly states, “Before we ran our education program, we surveyed women who were married in the previous year, then we returned the year after to those same villages and interviewed women, who married the year after we were there. We found out that the year before we ran our program, 50% of marriages were non-consensual, and the year after it was about 27%.”
Kleinbach’s education program suggests that a positive change is possible, but it requires a lot more than just law enforcement. As Rakhim, a Kazakh national herself, said, “Every woman deserves to have a right to choose her life partner, and we, citizens of a secular and progressive state, have to make sure that it happens.”
Azhar Yerzhanova is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.