Trope Traps: Kyrgyzstan, Bride Kidnapping, and Otherness

It’s been over a week since I witnessed a bride kidnapping. It feels like it’s been much longer, the days stretching endlessly onward despite their winter-shortened sunlight. Some days are punctuated briefly with jarring reminders of that morning – a girl wearing the same jacket walking near my apartment, a joke in my office about giving the new receptionist a white scarf (a ceremonial step signifying a woman accepts her kidnapper as her new husband), talking about it with other volunteers or with people in the States.

This was a part of my experience here, something that will be part of my life in Kyrgyzstan. It happened, and it changed me. But I do not want to be another foreigner living in Kyrgyzstan only talking about bride kidnapping. I don’t want to fall into this trope or perpetuate this idea that foreigners enter Kyrgyzstan, drink vodka, wax poetic about mountains and sheep and the hospitality of the Kyrgyzstani people, and leave with polished stories about bride kidnapping like it is the only story that can escape this country’s borders. (Like “How to write about Africa” or “How to write about Afghanistan.”) It’s a compelling story, wrought with emotion and danger and otherness, but bride kidnapping shouldn’t be the only story told of Kyrgyzstan. It’s not the only thing I want to talk about. I realize this sounds hypocritical – I just wrote this, it just happened, I immediately shared it with the world. Yes, I am guilty of it but perhaps in the hope that it will be a way of processing it, attempting to articulate my feelings and to understand it for what it was, and to move on, not to play into this lazy description of a complex and beautiful country through one problem. Because, sometimes, that is what happens – in both journalism and in development.

Yes, bride kidnapping is very real, and a serious problem in Kyrgyzstan, but it is focused on because it is so different, so immersed in otherness that people find it easy to mire the developing world in. It is a cultural practice that is easy to condemn and harder to understand, but it shouldn’t define Kyrgyz culture for the outside world. It also shouldn’t be a pet project for development or human rights organizations, despite its implications for both development and an abuse of human rights. The problem is much bigger, much deeper, much more complex than that. Gender roles, violence, systemic failures in the education system, monopolies of power, economic stagnation, unemployment, lack of information about sex and reproductive health, and misappropriation of culture and history all play into bride kidnapping. All of those factors need to be addressed in order to effectively change the practice bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, and often they are overlooked because a story steeped in otherness is sexier or more palatable to donors than the day-to-day hard work of investing in economic infrastructure, holding public officials accountable for their misuse of funds, power, and resources, or institutionalizing sex education and health classes in the nations schools.

This is to say, yes – I’m alright. Yes – this happened, I was there, it was upsetting. Yes – this is real, this is not something you can joke about without capitalizing on other peoples’ pain. Yes – bride kidnapping is something I want to work to end, but I am unlikely to single-handedly stop the practice here. I do not want this to be the story of my service.

Yes – there is important work to be done, it’s time to get back to it.

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