Kyrgyzstan is a central Asian state bordering China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, settled in the 17th century by Kyrgyz tribes from southern Siberia. With a 5.4 million population, Kyrgyzstan’s major languages are Kyrgyz and Russian, its major religions Islam and Christianity. Its main exports are fruit, vegetables, gold and tobacco. Kyrgyzstan has oil, gas and a developing gold mining sector, and has hosted both Russian and US military airbases up until the US closed its air base in 2014. Yet, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union. Ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities sporadically results in violence, notably in 1990 when hundreds were killed. Recently, Kyrgyzstan has had to deal with government abuse and corruption, their former president sentenced to long prison terms (Kyrgyzstan Profile). Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of numerous complications and problems in its society, and one of the biggest has been ignored for centuries, even now.
Ala Kachuu, or “grab and go”, is the traditional Kyrgyz custom of bride kidnapping. Bride kidnapping is seen as a positive Kyrgyz cultural identity marker, a method for Kyrgyz men to mark their ethnic coming of age. Like an American sweet 16, or a Mexican Quinceanera for women, it is a primary act that defines their cultural identity and manhood for men. When a man wishes to marry a woman, with consent from both parties, there is a staged kidnapping after a dating period. Bride kidnapping was often practiced as a form of elopement to counter the opposition of their families. Bride kidnapping was also less costly, removing the price tag of an extravagant wedding or dowry. Because the Kyrgyz were a nomadic people they would always snatch their wives riding horseback. Armed and mounted, a man would ride out with a band of his friends to a place where the girl was bound to pass. When the girl came into sight she was swung onto the man’s saddle and taken to his relative’s house, her whereabouts kept secret until mutual negations led to an agreement for the marriage to become official (Kleinbach 2). This tradition was outlawed in the 1930s when Kyrgyzstan was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union.
An elderly Kyrgyz couple that got married by kidnapping in September of 1954. Eshen, 83, and his wife Tursun, 82.
The criminal codes of the Soviet Union were specific for crimes based on the old local traditions of Kyrgyzstan. The crimes were categorized into four groups: crimes committed against woman’s equality in marital relationships, crimes committed against woman’s equality at work, her cultural and social life, crimes committed against a woman’s life, health and honor/dignity, and other crimes committed based on the old local traditions. The first category, crimes committed against woman’s equality in marital relationships, included paying and accepting a dowry for a bride, making a woman marry or stay in a marriage, not letting a woman get married, marrying someone under age, polygamy and bigamy, or kidnapping a woman for marriage. Because of these strict laws, during the 20th century the practice of bride kidnapping actually increased, and went from consensual to non-consensual marriages (Kleinbach 1).
In 1991 Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the USSR. In a desperate need to regain their cultural and ethnic identity that was lost to them under Soviet rule, there is a surge in bride kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan. Though the reinstatement of this tradition was with good intentions, many kidnappings today appear to be unwelcome and unforeseen by the ‘bride’ in question. A woman is often literally dragged off the street, bundled into the car and taken straight to the man's house (Hayashi). Not only is a woman forced to marry, but also to consummate the marriage unwillingly. Unfortunately, men are not picky about who they choose off of the streets. It is usually “love at first sight.” When a beautiful women is walking down the street and grabbed the men don’t usually stop to ask their age, as long as she looks old enough a minor could be snatched on her way home at any given moment. Women are often taken from their universities because men see them as both beautiful and smart, ending the woman’s education and wasting all the money and effort she had put into it. "We don't like the modern way of bride-kidnapping.When we were young, it was consensual kidnapping. We knew each other well and exchanged love letters before kidnapping. Nowadays, young people violently kidnap women and this is not our tradition,” states an elderly Kyrgyz couple that got married by kidnapping in 1954 (Hayashi). Many people in the general population believe that non-consensual kidnapping is their tradition because that is what was done during Soviet rule, but before Soviet rule it was always consensual (Kleinbach 2). These kidnappings are no longer a traditional reenactment of Kyrgyzstan ancestors. They are now a crime.
The forced kidnapping of a girl in Kyrgyzstan.
Bride kidnapping has been illegal under the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic Normative Acts since 1994, 3 years after Kyrgyzstan independence and the kidnapping surge. Yet, today 57% of marriages in Kyrgyzstan are forced. On 25 January 2013, President Almazbek Atambaevincreased the maximum prison sentence for bride kidnapping to seven years, and ten years when the bride is a minor. Yet, every 40 minutes a girl is kidnapped to become a bride. The legal system may be creating laws against bride kidnapping, but they are in no way enforcing these laws. In a2008 report, the Forum of Women’s NGOs stated that only 15/35 cases brought to court in 2006 resulted in convictions (Ovozi). A girl and her family will not report a kidnapping or press charges because of social pressures or values regarding this tradition, even if the woman was raped. Authorities largely look the other way, But, not only is bride kidnapping illegal in Kyrgyzstan, but according to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses,” making bride kidnapping illegal everywhere (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This is an issue that the UN should be taking up if the Kyrgyz government does not.
Once a woman is taken inside the home of her kidnapper, the man’s female relatives attempt to persuade her to accept the marriage, forcing a white scarf on her head that symbolizes she has surrendered to his demands to be married. 84% of kidnapped women end up agreeing to the marriage, but only after hours of struggle. Many women often stay with their kidnapper to avoid disgrace. Those who refuse the family of their kidnapper often face the same pressure from their own families. Once a girl has entered a kidnapper’s home she is considered to no longer be “pure,” making it shameful for her to return home (Hayashi). Women are having no choice anymore, and with no support from their families what can they do? They can remain in their forced marriage and be subject to rape, abuse, and mistreatment, or run away and be left in a state of disgrace and shame. Many women choose a third option.
Over 800,000 people die every year due to suicide. Suicide accounts for 1.4% of all deaths and is the 15th leading cause for death worldwide (Suicide Data). Depression is the number one cause for suicide. Some of the negative life experiences that cause depression are being victimized, physical abuse, sexual abuse, feeling "trapped" in a situation perceived as negative, and feeling helpless. Each of these is an essential part in bride kidnapping that a woman has to go through. Some other negative life experiences that cause depression are intense emotional pain, loss of hope, verbal abuse, feeling that things will never “get better,” inability to deal with a perceived “humiliating situation,” feeling not accepted by family, friends or society, and low self-esteem (Caruso). Each of these factors is induced by a woman when she has tried to go home to her parents after being kidnapped. Every single one of these is a cause of depression, and every single one of these happens to a woman in a short period of time. This is an impossible emotional hurdle. Each of these would cause a deep depression, which could then lead to the suicide of a girl who was happy just a few days, or even hours before. Venera, a local college student in Kyrgyzstan, was kidnapped on her way home from school in broad daylight. Her sister recalls how everyone tried to convince her to stay with her husband and that everything would be alright. A week after living with her husband she ran away and hung herself. Just a year later, another girl also took her own life, and a year after that another. “None of the girls could deal with the shame of forced marriage.”
The grave of Kasymbay Urus’s, her mother (kneeling, right), sister (middle), and boyfriend (left) mourn her. Urus killed herself after she was kidnapped.
Bride kidnapping is a part of Kyrgyz culture. You cannot take a tradition away from a people without repressing them. But, non-consensual bride kidnapping is not the Kyrgyz way, and Kyrgyz men can no longer be allowed to take away the rights of Kyrgyz women. Kyrgyzstan itself has set laws to forbid this extreme form of this tradition and it hasn’t worked. That’s because it hasn’t been enforced. By not enforcing their laws, Kyrgyzstan has put its people in danger, allowing domestic violence and women abductions for force marriage. Kyrgyzstan has launched a campaign to stop bride kidnapping. On her final full day in office, President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan became the first senior Kyrgyz official to forcefully denounce bride kidnapping, acknowledging that is a crime that has gone too far. Awareness is finally rising among Kyrgyzstan. The president’s final statement suggests that change is coming. Recently, 200 people staged a rally in Bishkek protesting on behalf of two kidnapped girls who committed suicide instead of being forced into marriage, the first rally ever against bride kidnapping. Then, the Association of Crisis Centers in Kyrgyzstan announced that it was staging "awareness campaigns in 13 villages to inform villagers that bride kidnapping is a crime." Kyrgyzstan’s Red Crest Society has begun what it calls "a program to improve the social and economic position of 50,000 vulnerable women" who are often "the victims of bride kidnappings." Through economic development in Kyrgyzstan, social changes can begin and non-consensual bride kidnapping can cease to exist.
From a romantic tradition of elopement to a forced marital nuptial, Kyrgyzstan’s traditions have gone from right to wrong. Luckily, people are starting to raise awareness on this issue, and other people are beginning to realize what they have been doing is wrong. With economic development and more social, human rights awareness, the Kyrgyz can begin to stop hurting itself and the women around them.
Kleinbach, Russ, and Lilly Salimjanova. "Kyz Ala Kachuu And Adat: Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping And Tradition In Kyrgyzstan." Central Asian Survey 26.2 (2007): 217-233.Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Kleinbach, Russ L., and Sarah Amsler. "Kyrgyz Bride Kidnapping." International Journal of Central Asian Studies 4 (1999): n. pag. Social Research Center. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. .
"Universal Declaration of Human Rights." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 280.5 (1998): 469-70. United Nations. United Nations. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. .
Werner, Cynthia. "Bride Abduction In Post-Soviet Central Asia: Marking A Shift Towards Patriarchy Through Local Discourses Of Shame And Tradition." Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute 15.2 (2009): 314-331. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.