Wanderlust: Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

Editor's note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.

GlobalPost featured this article in "Great Weekend Reads," a free compilation of the week's most colorful stories. To receive Great Weekend Reads by e-mail, let us know at editors@globalpost.com.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Munara didn't want to be kidnapped.

Some Kyrgyz girls look forward to the time they get "chosen" by a man, but Munara, 18, already had a boyfriend and hoped to marry him.

"If only my boyfriend managed to kidnap me first," she said.

Six months ago two men stuffed her into an old Lada automobile and drove her to their house.

"I really don't want to be kidnapped. I don't want to get married," she said she screamed at them. "Please let me go," she begged.

They didn't. Few men here take a woman's pleading seriously because girls playing hard-to-get is par-for-the-course during the ritual of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous Central Asian country that has suffered brutal inter-ethnic clashes since April. Violence against women has also been on the rise, according to Talaigul Isakunova, an expert on gender issues who works with the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The practice was famously parodied in the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which the main character kidnaps Pamela Anderson because he wants to marry her. This scene is a fictional, yet disturbingly accurate demonstration of the methodology behind bride stealing, except that it is even more prevalent in Kyrgyzstan than Kazakhstan.

Approximately one third of Kyrgyz women marry by means of non-consensual kidnapping, according to Russell Kleinbach, a sociology professor at Philadelphia University who has conducted extensive research into the custom of "kyz-ala kachuu," (or "grab and run") in Kyrgyzstan.

The rise in kidnapping in recent years is mainly economic.

"It's less expensive," said Kleinbach. People returned to kidnapping because Kyrgyzstan has faced severe economic problems in the last two decades, and many villagers have been able to avoid paying a generous "kalym," (bride price) dowry and providing plentiful wedding gifts by stealing a woman.

The other reason is social, Kleinbach says.

"It's an alternative for young men who were otherwise dependent on their parents to find them a bride," he said. "The tradition in Kyrgyzstan was for marriages to be arranged."

People in Kyrgyzstan often view bride kidnapping as an ethnic tradition, but studies show that this custom has evolved from a mutual decision into a rather violent incarnation. As a nomadic people, young Kyrgyz couples sometimes used to "elope" to avoid disapproval of their parents. But most Kyrgyz have since settled in villages and, according to Kleinbach, "if you are in a village, kidnapping doesn't really work well."

Kadyr Malikov, director of the Religion, Law and Policy research center in Bishkek said that while 80 percent of people in Kyrgyzstan are Muslim, the custom of kidnapping doesn't stem from Islam. "Kidnapping or marrying without agreement is a big sin in Islam," he said. "Islam tries to regulate the practice by only marrying couples who both agree with the wedding."

But girls like Munara are typically pressured to consent. Once she was brought into the house of the kidnapper, the matriarch of the family put a white scarf on her head, thereby proclaiming the couple married. The groom then went to the bride's parents' house, announced he kidnapped their daughter and offered kalym of approximately $700 in exchange for her.

Although Munara didn't want to marry him, her family accepted the price and forced her to stay, because bringing a kidnapped girl back into the family home would bring an unbearable stigma. It's generally assumed she'd no longer be a virgin and in a country where the "white sheet test" is still often used, nobody else would marry her.

Bubusara Ryskulova, director of the Sezim crisis center for women in Bishkek said many girls agree to live with the man who kidnapped them because they are shamed into it. "They are told from an early childhood to respect their elders and the elders are telling them to put the white scarf on their head,” she said. “It's very big psychological pressure.”

"If the girl doesn't agree, she might be raped, have a baby and now she really can't leave,” said Ryskulova. “And the men will sometimes say 'you never loved me anyway' which just gives them another excuse for more violence.”

But not all women are unhappy in these non-consensual marriages.

Many who were kidnapped claim they went on to live a perfectly happy life. “Other women, typically older women, are the ones trying to convince the girls to do it and encouraging the practice to flourish," Ryskulova said. "They will say, 'see, I also got married this way and I'm happy.'"

Anara Niyazova, head of the law department at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University has a suggestion for halting the practice: stop romanticizing bride kidnapping, and don't infer that the girls were asking for it.

“Our culture has a stereotype that girls should behave in ways that's imposed by society. That she provoked the kidnapping herself,” she said.

As a result women here rarely start criminal proceedings, even though bride kidnapping has been outlawed since 1994. Moreover, rural youth don't see other marriage strategies. "Village men hardly ever interact with women," Niyazova said. "They sit in a sheep market and when they see somebody they like, they will just take them. [Kidnapping] is caused by an absence of dating skills.”

Educated Kyrgyz women, such as Nuraiym Orozobekova, agree that dating methods need to be taught and women need to push back. She became an anti-kidnapping advocate after her mother told her a family friend's son was planning to kidnap her.

"I didn't want to get married this way. I decided to stop this criminal activity," she said. The challenge, Orozobekova said, is that many people in Kyrgyzstan — male and female — still don't see a huge value in women. "It used to be that if you stole a domestic animal they would cut off your finger," she said. "But stealing a woman wasn't prohibited."

Orozobekova has successfully avoided being abducted. She is still single, but now that she is 27, she is most probably too old to be a prime target for kidnapping.

"If a boy likes me, he will have to use another method. If he prefers kidnapping, it just means he isn't confident enough to get a girl another way," she said.

"I'm not a sheep. I'd like to choose, too."

Other Wanderlust columns:

Special report: Gay-4-Pay in Prague

The world's eight strangest sex remedies

World Cup welcome: a billion condoms and 40,000 sex workers

Japan: It's faketastic

More Offbeat GlobalPost stories