Earlier this week, I talked about a joke made about my marriage status – yes, Kyrgyz people, I am single and without children at the age of 25 – before a meeting at work. It went a little something like this:
“So Madeline, are you married?”
“No, not yet.”
“Have you ever heard of the Kyrgyz tradition of bride kidnapping?”
“Yes, I have heard of it.”
“We can show it to you, soon. You can play a main role. Now we just need to find a husband.”
This was not the first time I have been jokingly introduced to the topic of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, nor was it even close to the first time that I had discussed my lack of marriage with a Kyrgyz person.
One night, when practicing with my Russian Class for Culture Day – a Peace Corps tradition the world round where volunteers show the culture of their host country through music, clothing, dance, and food – I got home well later than I should have. It was already dark, and I came home to find my mother watching the Russian news on the small television in the corner of our kitchen.
“Oh thank goodness you are here,” she said. “I thought you got married on the way home!”
I had to ask her to repeat herself because I was confused on her word choice.
“I thought you got married on your way home. In Kyrgyzstan, boys will find girls they like and take them off the street and marry them.” She then mimed the process known as “Kyz Ala-kachoo – кыз ала качуу” or bride kidnapping, and she did it while laughing.
It is interesting to me that, beyond questions about food, this is the most common question about Kyrgyzstan that I receive.
Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is a very real and very common practice. According to local NGOs focused on gender and gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan, as many as 24,000 cases of non-consensual bride kidnapping have occurred in the past two years. As with most gender-based violence, this number is estimated and assumed to represent far fewer than the true number of bride kidnappings every year.
It is estimated about one half of all Kyrgyz marriages stem from this practice, one third of which are non-consensual, often involving violence, cultural shame, and, in the worst cases, rape. Even when a marriage is not consummated, if the kidnapped woman has been kept in the house overnight it will be assumed that it has been. The stigma associated with leaving a forced marriage, even before the marriage begins, is so great that many women stay out of fear, shame, or lack of alternative.
To be clear, not all bride kidnapping is violent. There are three main types – ceremonial, mock bride theft, and genuine, violent bride kidnapping. Ceremonial bride kidnapping is exactly that – a ceremony that commemorates a distinct and somewhat distant part of Kyrgyz culture, but where all parties are expressly involved and consenting. Mock bride theft is also consensual, but is often used to evade expensive dowry payments or parent’s disapproval. It is also sometimes used to speed up an engagement toward marriage or to hide pre-marital pregnancy.
Genuine bride theft is a corruption of that tradition, and has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some believe that, after the generations of gender equality encouraged by the Soviet system, bride kidnapping has become a tool to reassert the dominance of the masculine identity in Kyrgyzstan, a country that has struggled with identity politics since long before the Soviets left in 1991. It is said that committing bride kidnapping proves Kyrgyz manhood, and the judicial system often sides with the men in the very few cases that actually make it into the Kyrgyz courts.
In fact, until this year, perpetrators of livestock theft served longer prison sentences than those who violently stole women. It did not escape the women of Kyrgyzstan that their criminal justice system protected sheep better than half of its population.
When I lived in my village, their families have been formed by bride-knapped mothers, or their sisters and cousins are at risk when they are walking the pot-holed streets to school or work. In one case, a fellow trainee’s mother recently described the beginning of her marriage. She had gone as a guest to a relative’s home, and her now-husband saw her and took her the same day. The next day, they were married after only haven spoken to each other in the process of the bride kidnapping.
“это был нормальна. It was normal,” she said. It is said here, “All good marriages begin in tears.”
This is not a cultural condemnation; it is an observation that there is a disparity in the risk of violence based on gender in the Kyrgyz Republic. The value of women and girls in Central Asia is changing significantly, and not always positively – gender is a difficult concept to work on because it is so ingrained in our cultural and social upbringing. The United States has no lack of gender issues of its own, but they take a distinctly different shape in this country. Gender is complicated everywhere, and each gender is responsible for the continuation, or more hopefully cessation, of activities like bride kidnapping.
While the perpetrators of this crime are men, the ones who force the women to stay are actually the women, many of whom were victims of bride kidnapping themselves. When I am threatened with a white jooluk, a symbolic scarf forced on the kidnapped woman’s head signifying her acceptance of marriage, it is almost always by women. While men pick their wives from the street, their sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins are the ones that keep her in the house. This cycle of violence is initiated by men and perpetuated by women.
Bride kidnapping has been profiled by the New York Times, by Petr Lom, in a video series by Vice Magazine, and by countless other sources. A 2007 Kyrgyz film about bride kidnapping was so popular, a significant number of girls born in the following year were named after its kidnapped protagonist Asema.
While it is a critical issue in Kyrgyz life, it has become a stereotype to talk about bride kidnapping when you talk about Kyrgyzstan, just like only talking about terrorism when talking about Afghanistan, or Thomas Friedman only talking to taxi drivers and young women in the Arab world. I am not trying to Kyrgyzstan in a single issue light, and by no means is the Kyrgyz Republic the only nation in which bride kidnapping exists.
I wanted to talk about it because it’s become a common question from back home, and I wanted to write about it because I wanted to understand it more. This is a brief overview of an incredibly complicated cultural practice, and I hope to learn more about it – and learn more ways to prevent violent bride kidnapping from occurring – while I serve in Kyrgyzstan. It is one of many issues I hope to learn more about in the coming two years.