Kyrgyzstan is a relatively undeveloped Central Asian country striving to assert itself politically, economically and culturally after being under Soviet rule for almost a century. A country of almost unparalleled natural beauty, steeped in the historic traditions of the nomad, it is becoming an appealing destination for adventure and eco-tourism. However, one practice which is often omitted or glossed over in promotional material is the disconcertingly popular practice of Ala Kachuu, or bride kidnapping.
Although there are cases of consensual kidnapping, non-consensual abductions dominate and are becoming increasingly frequent in a country where approximately half of marriages are a result of kidnapping. Even if brides are compliant and know their abductor (many do not), the practice is marred by its innate brutality, violence and the degrading humiliation of the women involved.
Regrettably the violence of kidnapping is not unique to the act of abduction and forcible coercion into marriage.
According to Equality Now, an organisation which advocates women’s rights, one quarter of the abducted women are raped before marriage and 73% of kidnapped brides are threatened with verbal and physical violence. These pressures come not only from the prospective groom’s family but from wider societal expectations. If the girl is retained at the ‘in-laws’ house overnight during the period of coercion, marriage is inevitable, as her reputation will be tainted – virginity still holds great currency in Kyrgyzstan. This means that society and the bride’s own family might reject her if she tries to escape the tainted union.
Regrettably the violence of kidnapping is not unique to the act of abduction and forcible coercion into marriage, but is indicative of broader inequitable conditions and gender discrimination. The ensnared women are frequently denied access to education and marriages are often unregistered, meaning that they are not protected by the same legal rights accorded to officially married couples, further diminishing the women’s political as well as social status and authority. Additionally, marriages originating from kidnapping are more likely to suffer from domestic abuse – hardly surprising given their brutal origins.
Nevertheless, kidnapping is commonly justified and rationalised by many, who suggest it is an historic and elemental part of Kyrgyz culture. However, this claim is rejected by a number of informed observers, such as the Kyz-Korgon Institute who have rigorously researched the practice. They highlight that bride kidnapping is not mentioned in the national epic, the Manas, and was a rare occurrence historically, only being undertaken by tribes to undermine rivals and often resulting in serious reprisals.
In reality, during the 20th century the frequency of kidnappings increased in reaction to significant social changes during Soviet rule, which initially improved gender relations. As young people moved out of traditional villages, they met new prospective partners, but were prevented from marrying freely by the other common tradition of arranged marriages. Therefore, consensual kidnappings emerged as an acceptable way to manipulate traditional systems by the enlightened youth. However, this had serious ramifications; as consensual kidnappings re-emerged, the practice became
accepted, which enabled the proliferation of violent and non-consensual kidnappings. This was further exacerbated with the assertion of dominant male Kyrgyz identities following the collapse of the Soviet Union in Kyrgyzstan in 1991.
In addition to being a vicious violation of the female’s fundamental and undeniable human rights to security, freedom and equality, it is in direct contravention of Islamic Sharia law (the dominant religion in Kyrgyzstan) as well as Kyrgyz traditional and criminal laws. Unfortunately, legislation is rarely enforced. This, in part, is due to endemic corruption, and economic and democratic instability. But these limitations are further compounded by engrained institutional and gross cultural disregard for women. What else can explain the unnervingly widespread acceptance of such a barbaric practice and a criminal justice system which condones the imprisonment of a sheep thief for a maximum of eleven years, but a kidnapper for three?
Although attempts to address this situation are increasing – for example protests followed the suicides of two kidnapped brides in 2011, and the Kyz-Korgon Institute are trying to change opinions via education – these promising initiatives are often ridiculed and dismissed. Considering kidnapping’s culturally and ethically defunct status, renewed efforts must be introduced to eradicate this deplorable practice, to ultimately ensure that “all good marriages begin with tears” of joy, not pain, humiliation and despair.
Photo courtesy of Evegeni Zoto