The custom of bride kidnapping, which began with rival clans stealing and forcing marriage on each others’ women, has grown into a large social problem in Kyrgyzstan over the past 50 years.
Some young men in this Central Asian state take to heart the well-known Kyrgyz saying, “A good marriage starts with tears.”
Especially in the rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, young men have come to see bride kidnapping as a socially acceptable way of obtaining a wife, according to Gazbubu Babayarova, coordinator of the Bride-Kidnapping Project at the American University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Babayarova herself managed to escape after being kidnapped for marriage by her boyfriend. Now, she works to help other victims.
A good marriage starts with tears.
One case documented by Babayarova involved a woman named Gulzat, who was kidnapped at the age of 18 and forced to marry her neighbor, a boy she hardly knew.
Speaking to Babayarova 10 years after the abduction, Gulzat said: “I felt something was wrong. Suddenly two cars came back. In the bright lights I couldn’t see anything, but I understood that they had come to kidnap me. Horrified I started screaming. Two of the boys closed my mouth with their hands and carried me into the car. I was screaming, yelling, crying, shouting, kicking, hitting … but boys were too strong.”
In an instant, Gulzat said, her dreams of becoming a journalist and marrying her boyfriend were shattered. The kidnappers stuffed her into their car and took her to the house of her abductor's uncle. Gulzat refused to leave the car, hugging the front seat tightly until her captors forced her into the house. Inside, a group of 10–15 women were waiting to pressure her to agree to a marriage.
The role of these groups of women is to apply social and psychological pressure to persuade the kidnapped girl to sign a letter of consent indicating free will to marry. These persuasion sessions can last for hours. In up to 92 percent of the cases, the bride gives in and marries her abductor, says Russel Kleinbach, professor of sociology at the Philadelphia University.
The fear of shame and rejection from their families and community elders can be intense for young Kyrgyz girls, and they have to be very strong to be able to resist the pressure. In most cases, parents of the kidnapped girls agree to the marriage out of fear of public ostracization. If the abducted girl refuses to marry, she faces social isolation because she is considered no longer pure. Even if she succeeds in escaping the unwanted marriage, her chances for another happier marriage are most likely ruined.
Gulzat agreed to marry her abducting neighbor Azamat. As a result, an imam was immediately brought to the house to bless the marriage with the Islamic Sharia law.
Ten years later, Gulzat is still married to Azamat and they have a son. She indicated feeling very sad about the marriage and said that she and her husband “still treat each other like strangers,” according to Babayarova.
Another case documented by Babayarova was that of a 19-year-old girl in south Kyrgyzstan, who was able to escape the long persuasion session by informing the abductors that she was not a virgin. As the story spread to the entire village, the girl went to live with her grandmother. The elderly woman was very embarrassed and yelled at the girl, telling her that she should marry her abductor because nobody else would. The girl then hung herself.
Her suicide note said: “Tell my dad I am still a virgin. I hope I am leaving for a peaceful place.”
The social pressure to marry is not only applied to girls. The parents of young men sometimes push their sons to abduct a girl because it’s cheaper than a formal courtship or because they are in need of an extra person to work in the household.
Many boys also see bride kidnapping as part of Kyrgyz culture, and some even help others to kidnap would-be brides. Sometimes the boys feel proud about kidnapping a girl and say that it is a show of manhood, Babayarova noted.
If a man fails to marry his kidnapped bride, he too faces social stigma. In one incident, a boy kidnapped three girls, but failed to marry any of them. He then committed suicide in shame.
According to Babayarova, bride kidnappings have become more violent in recent years.