“My sister didn’t give her consent. Girls are just stolen like livestock."(1)
“My kidnapping case changed my attitude towards many things. It seemed as if I’d suffered from a psychological trauma. For several years I couldn't start any relationship with anybody. Because I didn't want to get hurt again.”
Image via Newsweek
“My mum had told me many times that, if I were stolen, I should stay with the family, because leaving would be a big shame for my family and no one else would marry me. That is our tradition, and that’s that.”
“Many times I thought that, if I weren’t a Muslim, I could just leave it all, including my three children and be with my first true love. But we cannot do it: we cannot leave space to our feelings in our society.”
“He asked me if I had a boyfriend – to which I said yes. He just laughed and replied: fine. After we were married, he told me that what he’d meant was: it’s the same, you’ll be mine.”
“In our society, the man is always right.”
(Quotes from kidnapping victims)
Imagine a country where, on average, every forty minutes a girl is kidnapped for the ostensive purpose of marriage: that is thirty-two girls per day, for an approximate total of 11,800 kidnapped girls per year. The country’s former President, Roza Otunbayeva, put the number at 15,000. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, where this has been the grim reality of countless women for decades.
Although precise statistics are difficult to come by, it has been calculated that half of all married Kyrgyz women have been “stolen,” as jargon has it, by their future husband – with about one third of all marriages being non-consensual (that is, against the bride’s will). In the countryside, the figure is as high as 80 percent, with forced marriages accounting for a hefty 57 percent of the total. One estimate puts the number of forced marriages at 9,800 yearly.
But the violence does not end here. The Sezim (“Feeling”) Crisis Center is a volunteer-run structure offering psychological support for female victims of domestic violence. Sezim operates a 24/7 help-line, a shelter, and a transit house for longer-term stay. Bubusara Raskulova, Sezim’s Director, estimates that up to 15 percent of domestic-violence-related calls can be traced back to bride kidnapping. “Once our psychologists start digging into the causes of the violence, they often find it is related to the fact that the very marriage began with an act of violence.” She adds: “We have a couple of such cases per day.” It is perhaps no surprise that, while 92 percent of all kidnapped women finally end up marrying their abductor, 60 percent of those marriages will lead to divorce.
To its supporters, ala kachuu—roughly translated as “grab and run” and commonly known in English as bride-napping—is the quintessential Kyrgyz tradition. The Kyrgyz, a nomadic people, have always snatched their wives riding on the back of a horse, the conventional wisdom goes. Women’s rights activists and scholars disagree.
"The main source for Kyrgyz customs is the national epic, Manas. But if you read the entire Manas, nowhere in it does the hero kidnap his wife or even reference the practice. Actually, according to our research, we think the practice of bride kidnapping started in the 19th century and didn't become popular until the 1940s and 50s, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union." So says Russell Kleinbach, Professor of Sociology at Philadelphia University and Deputy Director of the Kyz Korgon (“Girl’s Shelter”) Institute, an NGO dedicated to eradicating this practice and providing assistance to its victims.
Until the second half of the last century, bride kidnapping was apparently a form of elopement to obviate the opposition of the young couple’s families to the wedding. Some such instances still occur, from which derives the romanticization of a practice that, apart from violating women’s basic human rights, exacts a heavy toll on their psychological and physical health. Of the 11,800 kidnapped brides mentioned above, more than 2,000 are also raped. For comparative purposes, this has allegedly been the average yearly incidence of rape in Syria since 2011, when the country descended into civil war. In three separate cases between 2010 and 2012, three young women from the north-eastern Issyk Kul province committed suicide after being kidnapped and raped.
Some argue that poverty has been a potent factor behind the exponential post-independence increase of this phenomenon: as Kyrgyz weddings cost a fortune, due to the kalym (dowry) and the party (where the whole village expects to be invited), the groom’s family enjoys a better negotiating position once the girl has been kidnapped. After it, the kalym becomes “usually around a third lower.” Almaz Ismanov, a journalist with years of reporting on the subject, is not convinced: “it is not always the case that by kidnapping one’s bride the family pays less for the dowry. If the family of the bride is unhappy with the suitor-abductor, they can actually ask for more money as a form of retribution.” He admits, however, that “official Government statistics for the year 2012 indicate that $2 billion was spent on weddings. And 90 percent of those expenses are born by the groom’s family. In general, weddings are the most expensive item on a Kyrgyz family’s budget.” Still, in a survey of 268 kidnapping victims throughout the country between April and June 2010, Open Line—an NGO whose mission is to achieve equality of rights and possibilities for women—has found that only 4 percent of respondents believe that economic gain is behind the practice. Most contend instead that it is due to “love at first sight” (26 percent), fear of rejection (23 percent) or a bet between friends (22 percent). These results reveal the power game that lies behind the tradition myth.
“Virginity is the essence of you, as a woman." (2)
Women often stay with their future husband-cum-abductor due to the crushing social pressure brought to bear on them. This often translates into family pressure, as the family themselves come under intense scrutiny from the community. Virginity being the emblem of all things female in Kyrgyzstan, almost inevitably a victim (and her family) prefers marrying (her off to) her kidnapper than facing the stigma associated with refusing. In the words of one interviewee, "our culture, our upbringing played a big role [in my decision to stay]. Society would judge me if I left—it would be a disgrace for my family. Bad tongues would say maybe that I wasn’t a virgin any longer. They would say that if a good family had stolen me and I had refused, that meant that the problem was in me. I couldn’t leave also because if his two grandmothers cursed me, I could never get married again."
Kyrgyzstan, July 21: Competitors break into a gallop during bride snatching race at the Central Asian Horse Games on July 21, 2009, in Kyrgyzstan. Image via Tracing Tea/Shutterstock.
A curse: in Kyrgyzstan, there is the widespread superstition that, if the abductor’s grandmothers invoke a curse on the bride-to-be where she refuses to marry him, she will be spell-bound for life. More importantly, however, this narrative reveals how bride-napping is not the act of an individual. First, the groom-to-be plans the kidnapping carefully with his extended family. Then, he carries it out with some friends-accomplices and the participation of his close relatives, paradoxically mostly women—and, at times, some of the prospective bride’s own friends or family members.
Yet, the number of court cases initiated against perpetrators is preposterously low compared to the scale of the problem. Convictions are rarer still. In a 2008 report, the Forum of Women’s NGOs stated that, out of thirty-five total cases brought to court in the first half of 2006, fifteen resulted in convictions. Official statistics offer the same dismal story: nineteen convictions in 2010; twenty-eight in 2011; and twenty-five in 2012.
The stigmatization associated with rebelling against what most people still consider a tradition often cows the girl and her family into not pressing charges—“to avoid unnecessary scandal,” as myriad people never tire of pointing out. In the few occurrences when they do, rarely is a verdict reached as a bargain is struck beforehand involving either compensation money or threats, or a combination of both. However, as the Office of the Ombudsman for the Kyrgyz Republic wrote in 2011, "law enforcement and judicial authorities maintain their attitude towards the violent coercion of girls to join in marital union, which they often perceive as harmless patriarchal traditions. As a result, these stereotypes influence the course of the investigation: from 259 complaints received in the past three years, criminal investigations were conducted only in thirty-two cases...There are 11,800 cases of bride kidnapping in the country per year. And only in one case every 700 are criminal proceedings started. There were seventeen such instances, and only in eight were the kidnappers convicted."
The Women Support Center, a women’s rights organization, concurs, pointing out that only one every 1,500 abduction cases ends with a sentence. Even in the three suicides mentioned above, only one perpetrator was sentenced to six years in prison for incitement to suicide, rape, and forced marriage. Quite apart from the leniency of the verdict in view of the charges, Human Rights Watch correctly points out that this is a rare exception to the pervasive climate of impunity.
Incidents such as these are usually resolved “a la kirghiz.” Such was the case in November 2013, when a police district inspector in the north-western province of Talas snatched a twenty year-old girl. Once she was released, her parents refused to press charges: case closed. Saykal Malik Kizi, PR coordinator at Open Line, emphatically commented: “If law enforcement officers themselves are stealing brides, what does this tell about the others? It is regrettable that the incident in Talas ended “a la kirghiz.” We should have had a legal assessment. Here, a police officer himself committed a crime.”
Where is the law?
Bride kidnapping was unlawful during the Soviet period and the Criminal Code of post-independence Kyrgyzstan made it illegal in 1994. Most people do not seem to know that, though, which is why local NGOs and activist groups have been busy organizing awareness-raising campaigns all year round. Gazi Babayarova, the Director of Kyz Korgon Institute, has roamed the country to inform people about the negative consequences of bride kidnapping for women. She emphasizes how there were people in the audience who would yell at her that “it is laughable to imprison a boy for kidnapping his wife, because it is a toy (celebration), not a crime.”
Actually, Articles 154 and 155 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code define the financial and criminal liabilities for people who “abduct a woman with the purpose of marriage.” Article 154 interests minors, namely girls under seventeen years of age. On 25 January 2013, President Almazbek Atambayev signed a bill into Law n. 9, which amended Article 154 and Article 155 of the Criminal Code increasing the maximum prison sentence for bride kidnapping to seven years, and ten years where the bride is a minor.
The amendments came in the wake of a mobilization of grassroots and civil society organizations which picked up momentum in 2012, as a result of the increasing toll on young lives claimed by this practice. Iris Kasynbayev, the third such case in less than two years, took her life in June 2012. These efforts coalesced into Campaign 155, which its organizers define as a “national campaign to eradicate the practice of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.” Soon, they joined forces with the Kyrgyz chapter of the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign, launched in 2008 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Progress has not come easy. After failing to reach the quorum in a previous session, the bill was approved in Parliament with sixty-three votes for and twelve against. However, forty-five deputies were absent during the vote on that October 10, 2012. These abstentions may have signalled a boycott, revealing how polarized opinion is on this subject. Umutai Dauletova, a communications specialist at UN Women who is deeply involved in the campaign, reflects on the strong opposition it encountered:
It was extremely difficult to pass the new law. Many male Members of the Kenesh [the Kyrgyz Parliament] were against it. When we argued that someone who stole livestock would actually get three years in jail, whereas if he stole a girl he would get none, one of them bluntly answered, “a sheep you can eat, what can you do with a girl?”
On 10 December, at a full-day seminar organized for Human Rights Day in Bishkek, Aygul Konoeva—Deputy Director of the Women Support Center—is cautiously optimistic. "In 2013, our monitoring projects in the provinces of Talas, Issyk Kul, Naryn and Batken indicate that the idea of bride kidnapping being a crime is slowly starting to sink in people’s minds," she says.
Many taxi drivers, young men’s relatives and young men themselves—in a word, the usual suspects—expressed fear of being arrested if they participated in such an act: "Now there’s a law. You may end up in jail for stealing a girl" was the frequent answer to our researchers’ questions.
Nevertheless, Konoeva is aware of the fight ahead. She joins the call of activists and specialists alike for a countrywide data collecting effort in order to obtain reliable, up-to-date statistics. This way, it will be obvious whether the new law is truly changing people’s attitude toward bride kidnapping, and “whether the practice has been on the decline since January 2013, as some argue.” Likewise, she wants Article 155 to have public character: that way, any witness to an abduction will be able to present a complaint to the police and a criminal case will be automatically opened. Currently, the law requires that the victim herself reports the kidnapping and signs a statement. This requirement results in very few cases being reported and investigated.
Konoeva adds that "when we started lobbying to change the law, we wanted Article 155 to be removed: we have Article 123 of the Code dealing with kidnapping, why have a different one for bride kidnapping? But then we understood that Kyrgyz society was not yet ready, so we pitched our message to our audience. Once we have new statistics, if the new law is working—wonderful. But if it isn’t, we’ll go for the kill: we’ll ask for Article 155 to be cancelled, so that all kidnapping cases will have to come under Article 123."
The struggle continues.
* * *
While every case has to be considered in its own terms, reality for the majority of kidnapped women seems to resemble—in a way or another—the stories of M. and D.
I met M. at a women’s shelter in Bishkek in 2013, whereas D. and I have been friends since well before I found out that she had been kidnapped. At the end of 2013, they kindly agreed to meet with me on several occasions for over a month. These are their stories.
The Story of M.
“I don’t think that the Kyrgyz law protects girls: once he gets released in three years, he won’t mend his ways. He’ll behave himself like an animal once again with other girls, the same way he did with me. I don’t believe this is right and I have stopped believing there’s fairness in the world.”
“The judge, the interrogator, the public prosecutor—they are members of our society. They have stereotypes, and they are not impartial. No-one asked him why he had kidnapped the girl, why he had raped her. Worse still: during one of the hearings, the judge—a woman at that—asked his mother whether she’d still want to have M. as a daughter-in-law. When she answered in the affirmative, the judged turned to M. and asked: you see how nice these people are? Why don’t you want to stay?”
(Munara Beknazarova, Director, Open Line)
I had just become 18 when my life was turned upside down. I was about to start my last year of high-school. Instead, I was kidnapped three times and raped twice by a man much older than me. On 27 August, I was at home helping my mother with the daily chores. In the late afternoon, S.—a friend of mine—called in to go for a walk, and off we went. At nightfall, I decided to accompany her first before going back home, but she insisted we take a different road than usual. At the same time, she kept texting on her phone. At first, I didn’t make much of it. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a man appeared – while my friend shot off. He tried to grab me and, when I resisted, he knocked me to the ground and pulled me to an abandoned house in a field nearby, where he raped me. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t react.
Once he was done, he called a taxi, forced me into it and we drove off to his family’s house. On the way, we picked up his sister. When she found out what had happened, she told her brother that “now nobody needs her [as she is no longer a virgin]. She has nowhere to go and has to stay.” I felt like dying. At home, his mother, father and three kids from his two previous marriages were waiting for us. I was put in a room behind the keshego,4 where I spent the next few hours alone. After a few frantic hours looking for me, my sisters managed to find out from my friend’s family that I had been kidnapped. My parents had been calling me for hours on my mobile, but he had requisitioned it and switched it off. At 2:00 am, I finally managed to call them from the house landline. My mum was in tears and I told her where to come and get me. They did, despite his relatives’ insults and threats.
Once home, I went straight to bed. I didn’t mention the violence to my parents. I was too ashamed and didn’t want them to worry more than they already had. I woke up late in the afternoon. Around 6:00 pm, my mum kindly asked me to go to our neighbor and settle a debt with her. No sooner had I left the house than a car pulled over: him again, this time with his friends. They snatched me from the street and drove off to his place. There, his family suggested that he take me somewhere else, as my parents now knew where he lived.
He followed their advice. We drove to a forest close to the village, stopping at a liquor shop where they bought some bottles of vodka. Once there, they got drunk. I took my chances and ran. He caught up with me, beat me up and threatened me, saying, “Don’t try that again, or else.” He pulled me to a secluded spot in the forest. There, he raped me once again. We then re-joined his friends and he carried on drinking. At some point during the night, my younger sister started to call me, saying that my mother was worried sick and had fallen ill. I begged him to take me back home. Instead, he drove me to his neighbor’s, where his sister and sister-in-law wanted me to write and sign a paper stating that I had decided to stay and would marry him.
But my family had already alerted the police. They came together to the house to take me home. His relatives resisted, and in the ensuing scuffle my father broke his leg. He was taken to the hospital. It was 3:00 am when they cast his leg in plaster.
On September 1, my family and I presented an official complaint to the police, but no action was taken. He kidnapped me again on September 9. Two days later, the police found me in his sister’s house in a nearby village. For several hours, he and his sister had kept me without food, water and access to the toilet as a way of pressuring me into signing a retraction and a letter, which stated that I had come of my own volition and wanted to marry him. When the police arrived, it was 2:00 am. They put us in the same cell at the station. I spent the night with my kidnapper until, at 9:00 am, my parents were informed and came to pick me up.
The trial lasted for more than a year, during which my family and I were subjected to all sorts of pressure, threats, insults and abuse on the part of his relatives. The day the verdict was read out, they verbally assaulted me in the court’s courtyard. My lawyer recorded it on her mobile, and suggested we take them to court too, but my family refused. They are exhausted. My parents have fallen ill due to the enormous stress they had to endure.
I wish everything would return as it was before, with no violence, no rape, no kidnapping. Personally, I thought he’d get eighteen or twenty years for what he did to me. In the end, he was sentenced to only five years, so sometimes I wonder if it was worth it. But then I am glad we went through with the trial and put him in jail. During this whole year, the community looked down on me, as if I had done something wrong, as if it was I or my family to be blamed. The verdict instead vindicated me: he is the offender, whereas I am the victim.
I now live at a women’s shelter in Bishkek, as my family doesn’t want me to be in the village for the time being. They want to protect me from the rumor mill, as society still doesn’t see me as a victim. My parents don’t want any more scandals, so for now I’ll stay here. I am taking computer and cooking courses and, in the future, I’d like to open a kindergarten in my own village, where there’s none. I miss my family and I’d really love to go back to my village. That’s where I grew up; that’s where I want to live. But I am afraid. Soon he’ll be released, and he has threatened me often. The last time on the day of the sentence, he said, “Once I get out, I’ll show you.”
The story of D.
“My mum was never happy with my dad—I know that for a fact. She was also kidnapped. The old women in my dad’s house told her they’d say to everyone she’s not a virgin any longer and no-one would accept her back in the village. So she had no other choice: she had to stay.”
“I think that, as we stopped living in yurts a long time ago, we can change old traditions. Young people should meet, go out, court and get to know each other before getting married. With no violence.”
I remember it as if it were yesterday. My auntie and my future husband’s aunt had met at a party. The subject had come up that we were both twenty-eight and single. The following day they went to my house in the village to ask for my mother’s permission (my dad had already died at the time). As she readily agreed, they phoned me. I categorically refused, as I had other plans in my life. Still, my mum put so much pressure on me (“don’t behave like a little girl, you know that according to tradition it wouldn’t be appropriate to decline”) that I relented. That evening, the two aunties, my future husband and one of his school mates came to my place in Bishkek, where I was living with my two sisters. It was December 19.
We chatted over dinner, but I didn’t realize he was the one. As he looked much older than twenty-eight, I sincerely thought he was his auntie’s husband and mistook his more talkative friend for the suitor. Anyhow, before I served tea, my four guests had gone to stretch their legs in the corridor connecting different flats in our Soviet communal apartment block. My future husband was excitedly telling the others that it’d been love at first sight, so he wanted to take me right away. When they were about to leave, his aunt hinted at the fact that he had liked me and asked whether I wanted to take them to the gate, or even leave with them right away. I politely declined, making up excuses.
The following two days were just surreal. The two aunties and my mum bombarded me with phone-calls trying to persuade me to marry him. They also put pressure on my sisters to convince me. Apparently, he was threatening to commit suicide if his love went unrequited. On the third day, I was presented with a fait accompli: I was to meet him that evening. I had to agree for etiquette’s sake. I could not contradict my mother so blatantly.
December 22 was a freezing cold, dark evening. We sat in a café. I had a beer and he a few vodkas. I explained I didn’t like him, I had no plans to start a family, I wanted to leave for Russia to work and save money. He answered that he understood and, after a while, offered to drive me home. I accepted, but first I warned him that I wasn’t a head of cattle to be stolen. Still, he passed my street and headed for the city’s outskirts, on the way to his village. I managed to call my sister who set the police on our trail. They stopped the car and took us to their station. I was in tears and all the policemen could say was
Dear lady, all our forefathers got married like this. As the saying goes, you first suffer and endure, and then fall in love. That’s the way your parents started their family too. A few months ago we stopped a minivan: in the back a young man sat on top of a lying young woman, who was wrapped up in her bed sheet. When we asked what was going on, he answered that he’d just taken his wife. So we wished them well and waved them through. You also had a beer, so you gave him reason to believe that you agree with this. There’s no reason to make such a circus. We wish you all the best for the future.
When they saw I was steadfast in my refusal, they turned to my husband and suggested that he find someone else. “You don’t need such a finicky cranky girl.” So he took me home. I gunned out of the car, slammed the door and told him never to show his face again. He spent that night making a scene out of my door, knocking and threatening to jump off the fifth floor if I didn’t marry him. The neighbors called the police and he was gone at 2:00 am.
Two days passed and again, my phone didn’t stop ringing. I had to give in to my auntie’s and my mother’s pressure, so we met—myself, my sisters, the two aunties, he and two of his friends—in a café, where I was seated next to him. The whole evening, people took turns at trying to convince me to marry him. “He is a good guy, has a job and a car, plus his family’s not very numerous.” At about midnight, we drove off in his friend’s minivan. Only then did I realize that everyone had colluded to kidnap me. All door handles in the back of the minivan had been removed, so all I could do was shout and cry, while I was driven to his family’s house in the village.
Once there, I was taken by force to a room, where all my belongings—including my mobile—were confiscated. My future mother-in-law came in to place the traditional white scarf on my head, while reciting some standard formula: “I am so happy you came to my house, I wish you all happiness in the world.” I took off the headscarf and shouted back that I didn’t want to get married, that I wanted to go home, that I wanted my mother.
I sat behind the keshego. A couple of hours passed and my brother, my uncle and another one of my aunties came to the house to see me. Everyone was pushing me to stay, save my brother. My mother was also under incredible pressure, as none of my sisters was married at the time. I started thinking, “I am twenty-eight, no-one will ever want to marry me, what shall I do, I am twenty-eight, they are a good family.” I stayed. My auntie put the white scarf on my head and the curtain was drawn.
In the morning, my mum met with my mother-in-law. The kalym was set and arrangements were made for the toy on the following day, December 25. One hundred people were invited, a cow was slaughtered, food and drinks were served—while I sat in the same room, behind the curtain, as tradition commands. The groom’s relatives and the guests would come to look at me, and I would bow my head in a sign of respect. Two days later, the mullah celebrated the Muslim wedding, or nikah. Then came the moment I dreaded the most: the first wedding night.
The time had come for me to carry out my duty as a wife. He got drunk. He took me. It was very violent. All the romantic ideas I had been cherishing since my teens evaporated. There I was, psychologically distraught, physically ravaged. This is something I have heard from many female friends, but is never discussed in society. It’s taboo. I eluded intimacy for the following five months, making up all sorts of excuses. Then I relented and nine months later our daughter was born.
I put up with him for five years. Last month, I finally left him. He drinks a lot and gambles away all his salary, but the main reason is that I don’t love him. I never did. My decision has been a long time coming. Every day, for five years, I have regretted saying yes. Still, the pressure from my mother and mother-in-law is enormous. They are the only ones who know, along with his father. I would tell everyone and get on with my life, but in our culture you cannot disrespect your elders, so I am keeping up appearances. During holidays, we go together as a family to visit our relatives, though I am sure people realise that something’s changed.
In court, the judge—a woman—didn’t even ask me why I had come to this decision. Instead, she inquired whether he wanted to divorce or not. When he answered in the negative, she snapped: “You should keep your woman at bay, so that she won’t raise her head too high and go against her husband’s will.” I was furious. Anyway, I pursued it until the end and now we are divorced. Only one of my sisters supports my choice. She married for love. Interestingly, two of my colleagues at work are also very supportive. “Well done,” they told me. “We would do it too, if only we had the strength to.” They were both kidnapped.
For more information on bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan:
1. Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, Petr Lom (2004) [long excerpt available here; interview with the director available here]
2. Kidnapped Brides, Anthony Butts for al-Jazeera Witness (2009) [available here]
3. Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, VICE (2011) [available here]
4. Brides by Force, RT (2012) [available here]
1. "Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan," Iva Skoch for Global Post (2010) [available here]
2. "Grab and Run: Kyrgyzstan’s Bride Kidnappings," Noriko Hayashi for Newsweek (2013) [available here]
1 Sister of Chynara Kasymalieva, who committed suicide in 2010 after being kidnapped.
2 Author’s Kyrgyz friend, when asked to describe the perception of virginity in Kyrgyz society.
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst.