Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan
A couple months ago, I met a girl from Kyrgyzstan. When you’re in DC, you run into people like that, that make you realize you pretty much know nothing about the world. When I got home to read up on Kyrgyzstan, I came upon the custom of bride kidnapping.
Well, I kind of already knew about it. Except the only knowledge I had of bride kidnapping was from the classic Soviet comedy, Caucasian Prisoner (as in Prisoner in the Caucaus mountains, not some white guy. And it’s not even prisoner, because the word for prisoner in Russian is both masculine and feminine, so the translation of the title is more like Caucasian Prisonerette. Never mind. Just imagine it’s funny in your head.)
Anyway, the premise of the light-hearted comedy, which me and every other person growing up from 1965-present day have watched at least 100 times a year (required in your Russian passport) is that this guy Shurik (nickname for Alexander) is a bumbling recorder of folk tales and rituals and goes to the Caucus mountains, presumably in Georgia, where he witnesses a real kidnapping of a girl but is duped into thinking he is just performing it as a joke. Hilarity ensues. Here’s a scene with the famous song from the movie.
So, whenever bride kidnapping is brought up in Russia, people think of this movie and how funny, innocent, and sweet it was. That’s what I first thought when I read about it.
Unfortunately, bride kidnapping is real and it is very, very horrible. Since the collapse of the rigid moral rules and enforcement in the Soviet Union, cases have gone way up.
A mixture of ceremonial bride theft and genuine kidnapping marks the practice in both countries, Werner notes. “Although most women feel pressured to accept the marriage, some women decide to return home. Many of the same people who told me that they believe it is wrong for a man to abduct a woman without her consent also believe that it is wrong for an abducted woman to reject the marriage,” says Werner in the study.
What happens is that the man looking for a bride rents a taxi (in the past it used to be horses) and goes looking for the girl he wants to make his wife. She is taken and brought into his house to be readied for the wedding that she, 99% of the time, does not want. What is most surprising is that the women of the house pressure her to do it, and eventually, somehow, she ends up marrying the man. Sometimes her parents don’t even know where she is. Sometimes they agree to the kidnapping. It’s ridiculous that this is looked at as a passage to manhood for many men, who sometimes kidnap girls as young as 17. What was I doing at seventeen? Packing for college. These girls will be forced to milk cows, herd sheep, and yoked into manual labor essential to the survival of the man’s family.
I guess it’s not so surprising, because the same kind of thing happens in all cultures: the women usually perpetuate the negative stereotype more than the men. In religious Arab culture, it is often women who cluck at how uncovered another woman is, and in Western culture, other women judge us by our weight and appearance more than the men we often strive to catch the eye of.
There are some statistics on the practice, but they are three years old, and it is hard to collect data among Kyrgyz villages. They are still scary.
- Some estimates of bride kidnapping rates in Kyrgyzstan put the figure at about 30 per cent of all marriages. Other studies suggest that, in some regions, up to 80 per cent of marriages take place through kidnapping.
- Bride kidnapping is widely perceived to be an ‘authentic Kyrgyz tradition’, believed to have developed over time in the remote regions of the Tien Shan mountain range.
- In one Kyrgyz village 63 percent of married women and girls ages 16 to 25 had been kidnapped without their consent.
The statistics are bad to imagine. But the most startling evidence is this video. It is is over 18:00 minutes long, but it’s a must-watch. It’s graphic and horrible because they actually film a kidnapping. And most of all, it’s heartbreaking, that Kyrgyz women (particularly from villages, it seems) have no say in their destiny, and that this practice is so deeply engrained in Kyrgyz culture. This is one case where cultural relativism does not apply. These girls really are prisoners in the Caucuses.