Oral History Project Takes on Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

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Evgeni Zotov
A Kyrgyz wedding in Karamyk, Kyrgyzstan.

Ala kachuu directly translates to “to take and run away” in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and is known to the world as the practice of bride kidnapping. It can occur both consensually, as a staged elopement, and non-consensually. In the non-consensual form, a woman is forcibly taken to a man’s home where his family members will attempt to convince her to marry someone she may know or have been dating, or a complete stranger.

Despite the strengthening of laws around this practice, it is still a prevalent issue. With this in mind, it is crucial to address the cultural perception surrounding the practice. One way this can be done is through a campaign of videos on television, and through seminars to address how the victims, perpetrators, and other members of society perceive the practice.

Many active and passive participants in this practice believe that bride kidnapping is an ancient tradition, and that there are few places to turn if you are a victim. Neither of these views is founded in fact, and disseminating this truth is crucial to combatting the issue.

For the last six months, a team of Kyrgyz and Western scholars has been compiling 40 oral histories of women who were kidnapped. They plan to publish a book locally, and to present their findings at a conference in United States in the fall of 2015. The hope is to show how different people experience kidnapping, and to hear thoughts about it.

“A lot of the conversation in the country is about this as a tradition, but we have found that it is not a tradition as much as a stereotype about gender involving men wanting to dominate and control women, and bride kidnapping is one way of doing that,” says Dr. Zhanyl Bokontaeva of Issyk-Kul State University.

Another innovative approach to the issue came from a project in the World Economic Forum’s campaign Creative for Good.1 This campaign created and broadcast a series of videos on television and held seminars to combat the problem of bride kidnapping. They targeted parents of potential victims, potential kidnappers, youth who may be indifferent to the issue, and potential kidnapping victims to change the cultural attitudes surrounding bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils used the project Creative for Good to encourage a number of pro-social campaigns that utilize creative solutions. The campaign that came out of this project for bride kidnapping resulted in service announcements broadcast on public television in Kyrgyzstan during the year, as well as a series of seminars.

According to Cynthia Werner of The Wilson Center, the percentage of kidnapping cases with minimal consent has increased from zero to 18 percent from the 1970s to the 1990s. “Nationalism and independence [have] taken its hold in Kazakhstan,” Werner says in her report, citing a number of reasons for this increase.2

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Lukas Bergstrom
A statue of the Kyrgyz hero of legend, Manas. The Epic of Manas serves as the main source for Kyrgyz customs, but the poem does not include any reference to the practice of bride kidnapping.

With a rise in Kazakh nationalism, there has been an increase in support for more traditional gender roles. Along with reverting gender roles, members of society were eager to develop and foster the traditions of their ancestors in building a newly independent society. One of these perceived traditions to boast of and expand with nationalistic pride was bride kidnapping.

Many experts believe bride kidnapping began during the period of time when Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were being governed by the Soviet Union. Arranged marriages, the traditional way young men and women were married, was outlawed in an effort towards more equal rights. Along with the outlaw of arranged marriages, collectivization made the bride’s dowry more difficult to afford. Many young men and women were going to university and had a newfound independence. At this time, many bride kidnappings were a consensual means by which newly independent youth could circumvent disapproving parents or the expense of a marriage.

Pauline Jones Luong wrote of her research into bride kidnapping that the practice worked, in many ways, as a solution to the conflict between Soviet values for a woman to play a role in choosing her marriage partner and Kazakh values that stressed a woman should not be too eager to get married or be involved in the process.3

Although bride kidnapping may seem like an isolated issue, it is crucial that it be addressed.

As Werner expressed, “The rise of non-consensual bride kidnapping is likely to cause a host of other social problems, which might include domestic abuse, depression, drug abuse, and high divorce rates. All of these problems hinder economic and social development in the region.”4

In a report by the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan in 2011, it was estimated that approximately 35 to 45 percent of married ethnic Kyrgyz women are married against their will through bride kidnapping.5 In 2010, Public Fund “Open Line” questioned 268 victims of bride kidnapping and found that 77 percent of respondents did not know it was possible to ask for help anywhere, including from police or crisis centers.6

The Public Fund report also found that 74 percent of respondents said they were subjected to psychological pressure while 23 percent said they faced physical violence, including rape.7

One Kyrgyz woman, Nazgul, said of her groom, following a bride kidnapping, “He promised that we’d get married another way.”8 She said she did want to marry him, but not at this time. Members of her family said they had hoped she would finish school before marriage. When asked why she did not fight her kidnappers more, Nazgul said, “Since I was already taken, they wouldn’t leave me alone anyhow. I think that it’s kind of our tradition. Actually it’s a custom that comes from ancient times.”

In the same report, leading expert Russell Kleinbach of the Kyz Korgon Institute that works to abolish bride kidnapping said, “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.”9

The Epic of Manas is a traditional epic poem of the Kyrgyz people that might be considered the most valued piece of literature expressing the Kyrgyz national heritage.

Restless Beings, an NGO in Kyrgyzstan, has created a safe refuge center and home where victims of bride kidnapping can turn for counseling and services. They also work to raise awareness and continue research on the practice.

Rimma Sultanova, an expert with the Women Support Centre, said only one out of 700 cases is pursued by the justice sector and only one in 1,500 cases results in a judicial sentence in Kyrgyzstan.10

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Farrukh
Participants take part in an event put on by Restless Beings, an NGO in Kyrgyzstan that raises awareness around the issue of bride kidnapping and offers refuge and resources to victims.

The World Economic Forum’s Creative for Good campaign on bride kidnapping targeted parents of victims, potential kidnappers, indifferent youth, and potential victims with a unique video for each to share the offense of bride kidnapping and the options victims and their family members have.

After the campaign and the work of other NGOs and lawmakers, President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev approved an amendment to the Criminal Code on January 26, 2013. This amendment changed the sentence for forcing women into marriage from a maximum of a three year prison term to a maximum ten year prison term. Since, there have been more calls to the police and to the Public Fund “Open Line” for victims. There have also been four criminal cases on bride kidnapping, whereas before the campaign there had been none.11

More action, like this campaign, is needed to change the culture surrounding bride kidnapping and the perception of it in society.