Several weeks ago, a friend of mine commented on my ability to make the Internet 100% Sad, according to the mood meter at the bottom of that week’s International Women’s Issues post. She, a specialist on the former Soviet Union, then suggested I write about Kyrgyz bride kidnapping, but warned me that again, 100% sadness would most likely ensue.
I’m starting off this week with that lighthearted anecdote because, well, this is a tough one. It is also one of those women’s issues that sits right on the fence between “respect for cultural differences” and “outrage at a massive human rights violation.” I try as hard as I can to be aware of my privileged Western perspective, and to not pass judgment on cultural practices, but after conducting my research for this week’s piece, I really want to put non-consentual bride kidnapping up there with FGM on my list of “Never Mind Respect For Other Cultures, This Practice Is WRONG.” However, there are already a number of articles out there on this topic completely bereft of cultural relativism, and I don’t want to add to that. So in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try to explain the history of and motivations for bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, as well as, of course, look at women’s rights activists in the country working to end the practice.
Just to orient everyone, Kyrgyzstan, a part of the former Soviet Union, was the southeast corner of the USSR. South of Kazakhstan, west of China, and a bit northeast of Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz people have been at the crossroads of many civilizations since the beginning of time. The population is three-quarters Muslim, with the rest mostly being Russian Orthodox. (Religion is important in this case since we’re talking about marriage.) The country is somewhere in the middle of the pack, development-wise, and looking over their numbers, no significant indicator of gender disparity, in terms of education or fertility-related statistics, jumps out at me. Kyrgyzstan was annexed by Russia in 1876, revolted in 1916 (a sixth of the population was killed during the uprising), became part of the Soviet Union in 1936, and became independent in 1990. Since then, uprisings against corruption have lead to the ousting of two presidents, and there is ethnic tension, sometimes resulting in violence, between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority.
So now we know where we are, what is bride kidnapping?
First, there are several different acts that fall under the label of “bride kidnapping,” and not all of them are problematic. Various types of elopement, involving the consent of the bride, are called bride kidnapping, done either to avoid paying a bride-price, like a reverse dowry, or because the parents do not approve of the marriage. There is also ceremonial kidnapping, which, again, the bride-to-be consents to both the kidnapping and the marriage, as bride kidnapping is seen as part of Kyrgyz culture.
Then there is non-consentual bride kidnapping, which is exactly what it sounds like. A woman is kidnapped, frequently violently, by the groom and some of his friends. She driven away from her town or her work, and forced into marrying a man she may not have even met before. The bride is said to agree to the marriage when she puts on a wedding scarf, but is frequently bullied into wearing it by the female members of the groom’s family, who also try to convince the bride that she ought to happily marry the groom. Why is it that some of the most fundamentally anti-woman cultural practices are, in fact, perpetrated by women?
Non-consentual bride kidnapping is becoming increasingly popular. Survey research from 2006 indicates that nearly half of all Kyrgyz women are married via bride kidnapping, and of those, two-thirds of the kidnapping is non-consentual. In other words, a third of the currently married Kyrgyz women were kidnapped and forced to marry a man against their will. As you would assume, rape and domestic violence are incredibly common offshoots of this practice.
Why increasingly popular? Because there isn’t much historical basis for it. Outlawed under Soviet rule (although occasionally practiced secretly) there has been significant research to prove that bride kidnapping was incredibly rare, and punishable by significant fines, in the pre-Soviet era. Now it is common, and while illegal – both under Kyrgyz law and Sharia law – rarely prosecuted. Despite this, many Kyrgyz see bride kidnapping as “a good tradition.” A Human Rights Watch report on the topic discusses several reasons for non-consentual bride kidnapping. There is huge pressure in Kyrgyrz society for men to marry, as well as significant social stigmas against people identified as “undesirable”: men with prison records, physical or mental disabilities, or mental illnesses, for example. There is also the simple “because they can” reason – bride kidnapping is a manifestation of male power, and is frequently done to a girl who has rejected the groom in the past.
I do say “girl” quite deliberately. Twenty-five is apparently the oldest acceptable age for a woman to remain single, so the women getting kidnapped and forced into marriage are usually under 25, and sometimes considerably under 18 – girls as young as 12 have been forced into marriage via kidnapping. HRW also reports that the men doing the kidnapping are frequently drunk, and there is a strong correlation between intoxication and the use of violence in these situations.
After the “marriage” the kidnapped women are frequently kept in seclusion, and not allowed to see their families, for fear their families would help them escape. Kidnapped brides are usually taken from towns and villages several hours away, so that the bride has no support network of family or neighbors once she’s been taken by the groom. Many women are raped on their “wedding” night, or soon after. Rape adds an additional stigma against escaping, which already is stigmatized in society – a woman who escapes from a forced marriage and from rape is tarnished, her reputation ruined, shame is brought upon her family. Women stay in these situations because they think no one else would marry them if they left. That said, emotional and physical pain and suffering, depression and suicide are all consequences of bride kidnapping and forced marriage. Domestic violence is frequently the legacy of bride kidnapping as well, and many forced wives are treated like servants by their mothers-in-law. Fundamentally, women’s most basic rights are disregarded, in the name of tradition and a man’s desire to wed.
So that’s the situation. What are Kyrgyz women doing to change it?
There is the Forum of Women NGOs, an organization devoted to improving women’s overall rights in Kyrgyzstan, and they list combating violence against women as their main priority. Currently, they recognize the need for capacity building on this topic, so they are focused on collecting data and training women to effectively monitor – that is, record and report – on bride kidnapping and domestic violence, as well as training women to lobby for women’s rights to their elected officials.
The women’s rights NGO Public Foundation Open Line conducts research into bride kidnapping, and has lead a campaign against the Kyrgyz government to enforce the laws against bride kidnapping.
As of November 2010, there were 12 women’s crisis centers throughout the country, offering legal advice, counseling and support, and food and medicine to women fleeing from domestic abuse and forced marriage. In 2008, the Kyrgyz government made it legal to contract such institutions out to NGOs, in exchange for funding, but the economics of the country are such that the crisis centers are often short on supplies and funds in general.
The Center for Women’s Initiatives Ayalzat runs just such a center, in addition to other activities – they’re a 15-year-old women’s rights NGO, working for gender equality via increasing women’s leadership and role in decision making, both on the governmental level and locally. They run campaigns against violence against women, and hold debates on women’s rights issues.
That is part of what makes this issue so complicated: vast segments of the population don’t see it as a problem. (No one is going to argue against, say, increased access to clean water. But ending bride kidnapping? There are a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan who are not supportive.)
Women’s NGOs are working hard, but getting a population to move away from a practice that is seen as part of one’s culture and tradition is not an easy thing to do. While I am usually the last person to argue for a government crackdown, the Kyrgyz government needs to start enforcing the law against this practice. In so many places, the downfall of communism has resulted in increased freedom, better human rights, and simply, a better life for millions of people. For many women in Kyrgyzstan, that is not the case.
Center for Women’s Initiatives Ayalzat
CIA World Factbook: Kyrgyzstan
Forum of Women NGOs in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan: Call to end bride kidnapping
Kyrgyzstan: The Kidnapped Bride – video at link, please watch!
Kyrgyzstan: Tough Times for Women’s Groups
Kyz ala kachuu and adat: non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan
Reconciled to Violence:State Failure to Stop Domestic Abuse and Abduction of Women in Kyrgyzstan