Bride Kidnapping in Central Asia

Anara was a teenage Kyrgyz girl with ambitions of a college education and a career of her own, perhaps as a lawyer. She would have been the first in her family to pursue higher education, and one of the first in her rural Kyrgyz town. Just weeks after her 17th birthday, her close friend asked her to come along to the town’s water spout to collect water for the day. Her friend seemed nervous and kept checking over her shoulder as if looking for someone. Anara asked why, but her friend insisted there was nothing wrong, so she brushed her suspicion aside. Then, a mini-van packed full of young men came to sliding stop behind her. They piled out, grabbed her arms and legs and carried her to the van. She was thrown into the backseat, screaming, clawing, and tearfully pleading for her freedom. She had no idea who most of these men were, but she knew exactly what was happening as the townspeople watched and laughed as if it were all a show. She would soon be forced to marry a man whom she may have only met several times.

Anara’s story, though fictional, actually happens to an estimated 11,000-12,000 women in Kyrgyzstan each year. This is 32 women every day, or one woman kidnapped every 40 minutes. The practice is not solely unique to Kyrgyzstan, but is widespread throughout Central Asia. Some of these bride kidnappings are considered a mere act as part of what many call ancient tradition. However, most are like Anara’s, where she is forcibly grabbed by strangers, restrained, and brought to an unfamiliar home where she must accept marriage for the sake of honor and tradition. In Rural Kyrgyzstan, kidnapping accounts for about 57% of all marriages, many of which result in rape and even suicide, most end in divorce, and almost all involve domestic abuse. While some believe the tradition is an irreversible staple of Central Asian culture, many others would passionately argue that such a patriarchal display and outright violation of a woman’s basic freedom has no place in a 21st century society. This raises the question of what action should be taken and by whom. While many outside cultures would likely view the practice as atrocious, it is a complex and deep-seated tradition that could likely only be changed from within.

Kyrgyzstan is a land where tradition takes precedence over everything else, particularly the law. Although bride kidnapping is technically illegal, the law is seldom enforced and only about one out of every 1,500 kidnappings results in any kind of conviction. Many ardently swear that bride-kidnapping is an ancient practice and is first told of in The Epic of Manas, a literary pillar of Kyrgyz heritage and culture. However, according to Russel Keilbach, professor of Sociology at Philadelphia University, there is no mention of kidnapping in The Epic of Manas, and the only remote tradition of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan that historians can cite is rooted in the 19th century when the region was dominated by nomadic khanates. That being so, it would seem that the “tradition” is a relatively recent phenomena, and is a fabrication enforced by repetition.

The Soviet Union outlawed the practice in a push for greater gender equality; but since its fall in the early ‘90s, kidnapping has made a relentless comeback, especially in rural areas. Most police are either unaware that the practice remains unlawful, or would rather not interfere with a tradition in which they themselves would likely participate. In Anara’s case, after the publicly humiliating abduction and a 20 minute drive, the van arrived at the family home of Siraj, a 20 year old man from the next town over with whom Anara recently went on a date. She was brought inside and surrounded by the mother, aunts, and sisters of her groom-to-be. They repeatedly forced a white marriage scarf around her head as she tried over and over to tear it off, knowing that if she were to submit, it would show her consent.

She was smothered for an hour by the women, all of whom insisted she was happy and that her tears and resistance were only an act. Anara was trapped knowing that without her ultimate submission, she and her family would likely be shamed by their neighbors for rejecting their people’s tradition. However, if she did not refuse long enough, she would be seen as desperate for marriage and lacking modesty, an ironic element that exemplifies the deep-seated patriarchy of the practice. Eventually, she gave in, letting the women tie the scarf around her head as she accepted a bombardment of candies and other food gifts to symbolize her willing and joyful engagement.

Anara was devastated, but tried to convince herself that she was happily destined for marriage. She worried that she wouldn’t finish school or become a lawyer, like she always dreamed. Siraj’s older relatives left to visit her family bearing gifts and seeking their graces. They brought their best sheep and a bottle of vodka which they hoped Anara’s family would accept in approval of the marriage. Anara’s mother was clearly unhappy because she believed her daughter was too young and worried for her schooling. However, the family knew that this feigned ancient tradition is the way of their people, and most of the women in both Anara’s and Siraj’s families were married this way. Her parents reluctantly accepted the sheep, drank the vodka, and joined the celebration.

Reasons for bride kidnapping’s prevalence range from financial gain to various displays of male dominance and entitlement in the region. Kidnapping can provide a better position for dowry bargaining, but many Kyrgyz people tend to believe men do so out of fear of rejection, a supposed rush of passion from claimed “love at first sight,” or sometimes just a bet between friends. In a poor region where most have little to give, dowry bargaining is seldom a significant incentive. This grants more merit to the latter motivations, thus highlighting a power game amongst Kyrgyz men and suggesting that men kidnap their wives for no other reason than that they have the power and social leverage to do so. As was such for Anara. The decisions had all been made with contempt for her wishes and ambitions. Siraj promised she would be able to finish her schooling and pursue her career, but she knew this wasn’t true. The “proposal” was done and she had accepted that she was always predisposed to the domestic life of her mother and her mother before her.

Although she acted as if she was happy, she was overwhelmed with doubt and hopelessness. A forced, loveless marriage isn’t life she imagine for herself. The night of the wedding, she briefly refused to consummate the marriage but was quickly over-powered and raped by Siraj. As badly as she wanted to beg her family to press charges against him, she knew the social consequences wouldn’t allow it. There would be no justice for her or any of the women who have and would later suffer the same fate. This was the Kyrgyz way, and the she knows men always take precedent in a land dominated by tradition. Two weeks later, Siraj’s aunt found Anara hanging from a crudely tied rope in the small bedroom that the newly-weds shared. Siraj’s family was disappointed, but they knew it would be easy for him to remarry. Most devastated was Anara’s mother, knowing she did nothing to stop this, and likely couldn’t have even if she tried. Her only consolation is to believe that her child’s final act was one of defiance and martyrdom, not forsaken hope.

While many bride-kidnappings in Central Asia reflect much of Anara’s, some women may also consent to act as light-hearted homage to tradition. It is difficult, however, to define consensual and non-consensual kidnapping – especially when the bride-to-be does well to play her part – and what some would consider consensual, others would see as non-consensual and vice versa. Many available online videos of bride kidnapping, including a 2011 Vice documentary, depict screaming, terrified, and humiliated young women begging to be freed, thus doing little to justify the practice as consensual. However, by the time the time the brides accept, they can be seen smiling and giving suspiciously feigned praise to the engagement which adds more confusion and blurred lines to the ethics of the practice.

While some women claim to be happily married years after their husbands kidnapped them, some others end in suicide, like Anara’s, or even murder, such as Cholpon Matayeva, who was stabbed to death by her abusive husband when she demanded divorce after a decade of marriage. Given the obvious plight of many kidnapped women, it is difficult to determine whether those who claim to be happy are genuine or if they have been entranced by a patriarchal tradition, or are perhaps too afraid to speak out.

Despite much of the region’s stubborn defense of bride kidnapping, many activists and political groups are pushing to reduce the practice. Numerous protests have taken place after several suicides between 2010 and 2012, and government officials have passed several laws to increase the penalties for kidnapping; but again, the laws are seldom enforced. Though the outlook may seem grim, “the idea of bride kidnapping being a crime is slowly sinking into people’s minds,” says Aygul Konoeva, deputy director of the Women’s Support Center in Kyrgyzstan. Groups like the Women’s Support Center are awaiting new statistics that will show whether articles to increase punishment for bride kidnapping work, and say that if they do not, they will pursue new measures. While legal action may likely be a crucial step, more important would be efforts to reeducate people in the region and convince them that the tradition is one of falsehood and brings more harm to anyone involved than good. This is a daunting task, much easier said than done.

From an outside perspective, bride kidnapping in Central Asia does well to raise ethical questions with murky answers. Perhaps viewing these people’s customs in a negative light stems from an ethnocentric, Western angle. Then again, isn’t something universally immoral when a human being is robbed of his or her basis rights? Is it really a majority of women in the region whom would oppose kidnapping one’s wife, or do most believe in this tradition? If the latter is true, are these women really being robbed of their rights? And regardless of who does or doesn’t approve of it, is the tradition really worth honoring when based on a literary and historic fallacy reinforced by mere repetition of a lie? Answering each question inspires countless more in a hydra-esque philosophical battle of morals, ethics, and cultural relativity.

Most would likely agree that the Western World has done enough meddling in the business and cultures of others. So for Westerners, the first and most important question is whether it is really their responsibility to take or advocate action against a cultural practice with which they don’t agree. In this case, it is easy for some to say ‘yes,’ as it appears that one group of people are blatantly exploited by another solely for the exploiter’s gain. However, the answer is not so simple when many women appear to take just as much part in the practice and would give the same ardent defense as the men. Ultimately, maybe it is not any outsider’s place or responsibility to determine what is right or wrong for another culture.

Considering the many angles, the issue is a matter of an individual culture’s morals and code of ethics. Regardless of bride kidnapping’s actual roots, it is a cultural tradition that could only be fully understood by those raised into the culture. There is no definitive right or wrong answer to the questions prompted by bride kidnapping. The Western World can say that it is wrong and an outright violation of women’s rights, which may well be true, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the Kyrgyz people alone to determine its place and moral righteousness within their own society. Between mass-media globalization and local opposition efforts already in place, the practice will likely fade in time without help from the West.