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Ala Kachuu: The Fateful Bride Kidnapping Tradition in Kyrgyzstan

We all know that there are countless wedding traditions around the world, some are simple, some are complex, some are ancient, some are new, some are common, while some are absolutely unimaginable.

Either way, every culture in the world has its own wedding customs based on its beliefs, religion, lifestyle, location, and societal norms. Some traditions, however, cross the line, by allowing misdeed to occur in its name. Thus, provoking a need to question its continuity.

One such tradition is the Kyrgyz ala kachuu or, the illegal bride kidnapping custom still practised in Kyrgyzstan.

This post uncovers the problematic tradition in detail, traces its origins, its development over the years and its impact on Kyrgyz society.

Just last week, a 27-year-old Kyrgyz woman was murdered in the process of bride kidnapping. This has angered the public, especially the Kyrgyz women, who are currently protesting against the tradition. With regards to the recent event, this post respectfully also presents the issues concerning the custom and discusses how the Kyrgyz government and international organizations are tackling it.

 

About Kyrgyzstan

Before we begin, let’s learn a little bit about the country itself.

Kyrgyzstan is a country located in Central Asia that is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east, Uzbekistan to the west and Tajikistan to the south.

The story of the Kyrgyz people begins with the Kyrgyz tribes, settling down in present-day Kyrgyzstan in the latter part of the 17th century. These tribes were originally settled in a region in present-day Serbia but were compelled to migrate due to coercion by the Mongol forces.

The country is mostly known for being a former Soviet state, for connecting Europe and Asia with 3 branches of the ancient Silk Road, for its natural landscapes and for its copious flora and fauna, especially their horses.

In addition to that, it is also one of the few countries where a significant portion of the population still lead somewhat a nomadic lifestyle. Similar to the ways of their ancestors. In the summer, the Kyrgyz people in rural areas pitch their yurts from one place to another within the mountains to feed their cattle, sheep, and horse and to allow them to roam freely. These people are so friendly that they will sometimes invite visitors in accommodating them. They will even allow them to participate in their daily tasks, like milking animals and churning butter. This gives visitors the opportunity to experience the prevalent semi-nomadic life in its most authentic form.

yurt
Kyrgyz yurts, a type of portable dwelling ideal for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Notice the horse, these horses are abundant in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

This sense of hospitality isn’t limited to the rural areas. Kyrgyz people, in general, are very hospitable, so much so that upon the arrival of tourists locals will approach visitors asking if they have a place to stay and arrange comfortable accommodation at affordable homestays that are priced as low as $10, including meals.

Tourists not only visit to experience nomadic life but also because it makes an ideal destination for hiking and trekking as approximately 90% of the terrain is mountainous thanks to the Tien Shan mountain ranges that pass through the majority of the country.

tien shan
Tien Shan mountain ranges and its pristine river waters. Image Credit: Kristen

Kyrgyzstan has had a long history of being conquered by the Mongols, the Chinese and the Uzbeks. In the 19th century, they even became a part of the Russian Empire and was under the Soviet administration until their independence in 1991. Today it stands as a sovereign and democratic country.

The country is also known for its handicrafts and relatively unconventional cultural traditions. And, despite centuries worth of invasions and foreign influences, the local population have amazingly still preserved their own heritage.

The question that arises now is: Is the bride kidnapping tradition really part of their ancestral heritage? Let’s find out.

 

What is Bride-Kidnapping?

Bride kidnapping involves a young unmarried man abducting their wife of choice with the intention of marriage. Bride kidnapping can either be consensual or non-consensual.

In the consensual type, the bride and groom already know each other and stage an abduction to follow a symbolic tradition.

On the other hand, the non-consensual type is the one actually involves real kidnapping where the bride and the groom are either total strangers or, mere acquaintances.

In this case, the woman of the groom’s choice is kidnapped with her prior knowledge or consent. Many times, this form of kidnapping could even involve rape.

 

Similar practices in other parts of the planet 

Bride kidnapping is a widespread wedding custom in many parts of the world; however, the former Soviet states of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have more frequent cases of non-consensual bride kidnappings. The Kyrgyz history is connected with that of its neighbours too as such many traditions are common among the Central Asian countries which explains why Kazakhstan and some regions in Uzbekistan also practice the custom.

Apart from Central Asia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, the islands of Sumba and Bali in Indonesia, parts of Mexico, certain Romani communities, parts of southern Italy, the Hmong community, parts of Malta and small areas in Japan, Turkey and China are some of the groups, regions and countries where bride kidnappings were or still are practised.

 

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan 

In Kyrgyzstan, bride-kidnapping is an inexpensive way to get married.

Note: Bride-kidnapping is not the only way to marry someone. People in Kyrgyzstan can marry for love or, allow their families to arrange it in a more civil manner.

Non-consensual kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is usually arranged by the potential groom with the permission of his parents and the help of his friends and male relatives. This method often turns violent.

The woman is taken to the groom’s house to meet his family, where the female members of the groom’s family then convince the abducted women into marriage by promoting the advantages she’d be getting and by showing her their home.

Alternatively, it is initiated by the groom’s mother. In this case, the mother deceives the targeted woman and takes her to her house then, tells the woman that she’s been kidnapped.

In the second case, it is the mother who chooses the bride meaning that the groom too, has no prior knowledge of his marriage. The mother persuades both the woman and the man to get married.

Kidnapped women resist the capture either because they are genuinely traumatized or because they follow the tradition. Customarily, women must initially express opposition to the marriage as to not seem too eager.

If the woman consents to the marriage, the groom’s family ties a white wedding scarf on her head symbolizing her acceptance. Then, she is asked to write a letter to her family which the groom’s family brings to the bride’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. This is followed by an impromptu marriage ceremony.

white headscarf
A woman named Ainura wearing the white wedding scarf on her head. Image Credit: Jackie Dewe Mathews

If she rejects the proposal, she is either held captive in the groom’s house until she agrees or, until her family members arrive to discuss the matter with the groom’s family. Or, she is free to go or, she escapes.

Research suggests that the custom is only practised within the Kyrgyz community and woman of other nationalities aren’t usually targeted.

These occurrences are more common in rural areas where the tradition has been normalized as the population there is less educated and often accept traditions without challenging them.

The average age of the kidnappers ranges anywhere from 17 to 45 years old whereas the victims could range from 16 to 28 years old.  Meaning that often the kidnappers are a lot older than the targeted women.

When referring to bride-kidnapping, this post refers to non-consensual bride-kidnapping as it is illegal as per Kyrgyz law. It has been consistently criticized by many international organizations and local NGOs in favour of women’s rights. However, despite the laws, the tradition frequently occurs in Kyrgyz society.

 

Let’s take a peek into the past to understand its reasons.

 

Origins and Evolution of Bride-Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

The origins of this tradition in Kyrgyzstan are uncertain due to the lack of available data. However, experts and scholars speculate that it was originally, practised by the nomadic people to ensure the continuity and survival of the Kyrgyz people even in unforgiving climates through marriage and childbirth.

Other academics argue that bride-kidnapping without the consent of both the bride and groom was not originally a Kyrgyz custom. Kyrgyz customs are said to have been based on the Epic of Manas. Manas was a Kyrgyz warrior who is regarded as a hero by the Kyrgyz and the epic is a 500,000-line poem written in the 18th century.  However, there is no mention of bride kidnapping in the literary work.

manas statue
The statue of Manas in the capital, Bishkek. Image Credit: IWPR

On the contrary, the locals say this tradition isn’t written anywhere, it is only passed down from one generation to the other, verbally.

The custom is said to have been revived during the Soviet administration in the 20th century, after the fall of the USSR.

Decades of Soviet governance had influenced the Kyrgyz culture by completely dismissing and banning cultural elements like their traditional clothes, wedding customs, etc. Bride-kidnapping too was banned in Central Asia during the Soviet administration as it was like “selling women like cattle”. Arranged marriages, the traditional way to get married were also banned as a measure to exercise equal rights.

That is when the Kyrgyz people developed a sense of patriotism and wished to look into their original traditions to reconnect with their heritage and to establish a cultural identity.

They even looked at the more rural areas where the old traditions such as paying bride price and dowry were still safeguarded.

Due to the former era of communism, financial resources were shared among communities leaving little personal wealth even after independence. As such, the cost of bride prices and weddings increased. To reduce this cost, consensual bride kidnapping was practised.

Additionally, it was practised because couples who wished to marry each other would often lack the support or approval of their families. So, kidnapping became their only option.

 

However, being a patriarchal society, naturally, it was the men who decided which customs to follow and which ones not to follow and at the time, assumed that bride-kidnapping was in fact traditional. One study concludes that it ultimately only benefitted the men as they not only “restored’ their heritage but, also allow themselves the power to exploit the other half of the society in the name of tradition. All because of a false presumption.

Today, the high cost of the bride price or Kalym is still the reason why the cases of bride kidnappings have multiplied.

Secondly, the older generations found marriages after being kidnapped resulted in long and stable marriages, a value that they wanted to instil in future generations.

And lastly, the parents especially mothers involved in getting their sons married search for obedient women who can enhance their power and influence in the house, ensuring their superiority in the household.

Women, therefore, accept their fate because:

a) They are raised to be silent, submissive and obedient
b) It is the outcome of a patriarchal society
c) It is a part of their tribal tradition.

 

Consequences of Bride-Kidnappings 

1. Child Marriage 

Bride kidnappings often lead to illegal child marriages, a human rights issue that Kyrgyzstan currently faces. The minimum legal age for marriage for, both men and women are 18 years old, therefore, marriages of girls who haven’t attained the age of 18 are not registered or recognized.

However, in many cases, local priests are prepared to officiate the marriage of minors which even if the law doesn’t recognize, is valid in the eyes of the families of the bride and groom.

2. Well being of women 

Once kidnapped, the women face many hardships. Firstly, the incident absolutely traumatizes the women and dehumanizes them.

Secondly, it discourages women to complete their higher education as many get married before completing their studies. This too is a human rights issue as it denies a person their right to education.

Lastly, rejecting the marriage is seen as an act of defiance towards the local tradition. Moreover, women are considered spoiled if they escape.

In addition to these stigmas, people in the local community begin doubting the chastity of a woman once they stay at a man’s house overnight. The reason behind it wouldn’t matter, so people will disregard the fact that they were kidnapped and in some cases taken hostage by a man. Instead, people begin questioning the woman’s character and victim-shame her. This is also why the woman’s family also don’t take her back after the kidnapping compelling her to agree to the marriage.

As 90% of the population follow Islam, a woman’s virginity is given a lot of importance in Kyrgyz society and this presumption could affect the amount of bride price that the bride’s family may receive in the future. Ironically though, in Islam, any type of forced marriage is prohibited and is not even validated yet at least 1/3rd of Kyrgyz marriages happen through non-consensual bride kidnapping.

In conclusion, once kidnapped, there is no way out of the trauma. On one hand, there is the risk of being a victim of domestic abuse and spending their lives with a complete stranger while on the other hand, escaping will taint their image. Due to this immense pressure, many women commit suicide while others suffer from depression.

Only a shocking 8% of the victims manage to successfully reject this sort of marriage proposal.

 

Adding Fuel to the Fire 

The consequences are tragic enough however there are more issues which are as follows:

  • Due to its label as a Kyrgyz tradition, the consequences from the practice aren’t considered a real problem.
  • The rejection of a marriage proposal can sometimes hurt the masculinity of the captors causing them to turn violent and impose their ‘power’ on them in the heat of the moment. This has led to the murder of many women in the process.
  • There are many laws that exist to protect the rights of women. For example, by law, forcing someone into marriage can be penalized by sentencing the offender with up to 10 years of prison time. Additionally, sexual intercourse with anyone below the age of 16 is also considered a crime. However, the government has often been called out for not enforcing these laws enough.This is because these cases are highest in the rural areas were more than the national law, the decisions of a council of elders govern and decide social norms. It is difficult for law enforcement to work with them as they do not believe that abduction is a crime. Often times they’re involved in the kidnapping process.
  • Prosecution too has been abysmal as the majority of the cases go unreported. Either because the police dismiss the matter as it is tradition, or because the groom’s family have paid them off. This is why matters are usually resolved internally leaving many without receiving the justice they seek

.

Another Point of View

Even though the practice seems unconventional to most of us, it is still a part of their culture. This is how the locals justify it:

  • Societal norms in rural areas are decided by the council of elders as mentioned earlier. The reason they encourage the practice is to be able to have and see their grandchildren before their death.
  • Some men believe they will never get married unless they kidnap their women of choice.
  • Sometimes, couples willing to marry each other do not get the support of their parents regarding their choice. As such, they stage a kidnapping so by the end of it, they are compelled to marry. This however is a form of consensual kidnapping.
  • The topic isn’t taboo in Kyrgyz society. As much as it may shock us, the locals just don’t treat it like a misdeed. They are comfortable talking about the tradition which goes to show to the extent that it is considered a norm.  In fact, they feel a sense of pride in having the opportunity to assist in abducting or persuading the bride.
  • The involvement of women in the process shows that women just expect it to happen at some point in their lives no matter how traumatic the experience. Moreover, women who’ve been kidnapped and married later go on to convince kidnapped women to marry their captor.
  • Many truly benefit from the tradition. They go on to find their soulmates and are treated well by their husbands and in-laws. Some women even romanticize this phenomenon.
couple
A married Kyrgyz couple wearing their ceremonial attire. Image Credit: Silk Road Explore

 

Actions Taken Against the Tradition 

Following the recent murder of the woman during the kidnapping, women have begun to protest and organizing rallies in front of government establishments against the tradition.

protests
Women protesting in front of the interior ministry seeking justice for Aizada, the victim. Image Credit: BBC

Previously Kyrgyz political leaders had also condemned the practice.

The United Nations in accordance with the Government of Kyrgyzstan is actively working towards discontinuing the custom. In 2016 the UNDP had organized seminars for government officials, religious leaders, community leaders and journalists to start a conversation about related issues that are considered sensitive in the Kyrgyz society

New policies and reforms are also in the making based on the advice of women’s activist groups such as the law passed in 2016 that reinforced the protection of girls from child marriage.

 

Societal Changes 

Schools have recently begun teaching kids that the non-consensual practice of the traditional is illegal as it violates women’s rights.

A study concluded that divorce is gradually becoming more socially acceptable thus giving hope to the tortured victims of bride-kidnapping for a way out.

Most importantly, unlike the previous generation, this generation of parents are much more supportive of their children and would be ready to take them back if they were to escape abduction.

 

 

What do you think of this tradition?

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