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The Resurgence of Bride Kidnapping

Sept. 19, 2008
N. Lukanovich

Bride kidnapping in Kazakhstan is more than an outlandish joke to snigger at in movies like Borat, it actually happens. Not exclusive to Kazakhstan, bride kidnapping is a nomadic tradition enjoying a tremendous resurgence in several other former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus, including Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the southern region of Georgia, and republics within Russia: Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

But numbers of non-consensual bride kidnappings are highest in Kyrgyzstan, where it is estimated that 30-40% of ethnic Kyrgyz women are abducted and forced into marriage, and as many as 80% in some regions of southern Kyrgyzstan. In this region of sweeping grasslands and spectacular mountain ranges, bride kidnapping is not considered to be a sex crime, but a type of arranged marriage, in which all the arranging is done by the groom and his family.

The groom, between 18 and 25 years old, chooses a girl under 25, with or without the help of the men in his family. A plan for the abduction is conconcted, and the lucky girl is kidnapped and brought to the groom's home, kicking and screaming. The women in the groom's family proceed to try and convince the prospective bride of the value of the marriage: "Look how many sheep we have! And besides, Jyrgal is a good looker and doesn't drink too much…you could do worse!" The 'brides' family, once they hear of the abduction, can intervene to stop the marriage, but in most cases add their voices to the chorus entreating her to accept the union: to be kidnapped is considered a compliment and a sign that the woman is worthy of marriage.

Refusing the marriage invites social stigma; she may bring shame upon herself and her family. According to reports, some women are laughing through the tears by the time the ceremonial scarf is plunked upon her head, and claim to have happy marriages. Worst case scenarios include cases in which the woman is raped before accepting the groom. The most desperate women commit suicide; a clear sign that not all young women can be cajoled into happiness with a stranger. Many of these women are educated and have career plans, dreams of a life beyond indentured slavery to a man they don't want. Some of these women have already been dating, and may be in love with another. A few of these women do refuse, and return to their families: there are those who are lucky enough to have the support of their family against this tradition.

The male Kyrgyz identity is reasserting itself through this nomadic custom, believed to have developed in the Tien Shan mountain range, but banned during the Soviet occupation. While repression was part of Soviet rule, there were some advantages for women, in that gender equality was part of the Marxist platform. Dissolution of the Soviet Union has brought with it the dissolution of national day care plans, guaranteed employment and education, and a return to more traditional gender roles under the guise of rebuilding national identity.

But, historically, the traditional ritual of bride kidnapping was somewhat different. Nomadic life was not easy on the steppes of Central Asia, and both men and women needed partners who could enhance their chances of survival, partners who were skillful and physically strong. The tradition of bride kidnapping required the would-be groom to 'capture' his bride, by first seeking permission from her father to challenge her to a horse race. The bride-to-be was provided with a leather whip and a few seconds head start, and if the man could catch her and kiss her while she lashed him with a whip on horseback, he had the right to ask for her hand in marriage. In the new millennium it is often a matter of a man and a few inebriated buddies driving around like thugs till they find their target, say in the market, and drag her into the car.

Government officials insist that bride kidnapping is a tradition that is nearly always consensual. There can be no protection for young women, or legal recourse after the fact when bride kidnapping is not considered a serious crime. While it is illegal according the criminal code, the punishment is a fine or up to five years in prison. Even these meager punishments are rarely enforced.

Consensual bride kidnapping is truly not a crime, it is a pre-arranged enactment of bride kidnapping by a couple who have decided to marry, usually after dating for a long period of time. This most frequently occurs in the capital city of Bishkek, where non-consensual bride kidnapping is not generally accepted.

Non-consensual bride kidnapping is yet another shining example of women's rights being completely and utterly discounted when competing with the importance of so-called tradition. Culture once again trumps human rights, and the world is almost entirely silent on the issue.

A documentary produced by Frontline correspondent Petr Lom entitled Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan was presented at the UNAFF 2005 (United Nations Association Film Festival), and later shown on PBS and Investigation Discovery (ID) in the U.S. Other than this one film, the subject has been entirely ignored by the media, underscoring the importance of agencies that monitor human rights, who attempt to bring attention to the violations of both the women and international agreements.

Perhaps because bride kidnapping lurks about in our consciousness through mythology and legend, it does not shock. Helen of Troy is perhaps the most famous bride kidnapping, the abduction by Paris triggering the Trojan War. It is sometimes portrayed as a romantic ideal: "he loved me enough to kidnap me". Women have been kidnapped for marriage for centuries, and it still occurs in many regions of the world. In some regions the act is pure violence, as in Rwanda, where bride kidnapping is an abduction and rape with no pretense of garnering consent.

In comparison to rape, or rape and murder, or kidnapping women for the purposes of enslaving them in the sex trade, bride kidnapping in Central Asia may seem rather benign. But there is nothing benign about stripping away a person's right to choose their life, or the partner with whom they will share that life. Kidnapping is kidnapping, marriage does not make it better, it makes it permanent. It is a violation of human rights pure and simple.

For more information on the film, and to view the 18 minute video version (full length film is 51 minutes), visit: Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, click onto: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/kyrgyzstan/

For much more information on the subject of domestic abuse and bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, visit the Human Rights Watch website: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/kyrgyzstan0906/


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