Kidnapping the Bride: An Old Tradition Returns

by Z*

The sentimental traditions of Valentine's Day are receding ever faster in this month's rearview mirror when considering the new documentary from Al Jazeera television. Filmmaker Anthony Butts of Al Jazeera broadcast his investigative piece last week about the revival of the tradition of bridal kidnapping in Central Asia. In Kidnapped Brides, Butts skillfully captures the prevailing rural mentality of working men and their families in Kyrgyzstan, and the terrifying destiny of young women.

What drives these men to kidnap women they had never met before and forcefully marry them? The gloomy answer is that these societies are driven by unquestionable traditions. Far from everyone wants to abide by certain conservative traditions and yet seemingly everyone does. While bride kidnapping is mostly discussed as an issue in Kyrgyzstan, it is quite popular in Kazakhstan and in the North of Uzbekistan. The scary part is that it is progressing. What once was a part of old village culture is now becoming commonplace in cities.

However, there are several bride kidnapping scenarios that are widely overlooked in the West.

Scenario #1 — A Shakespearean tragedy:

Her parents do not like the guy or his parents. Or maybe her parents think that 18 is too young to get married. Perhaps, he is from a different social background. There are many reasons for parents to disapprove of marriage. That is when unstoppable Romeo kidnaps his Juliette. Her family is unhappy, the couple is thrilled with joy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

Scenario #2 — Let’s make a deal:

Her parents realize that it is time for their young daughter to have her own family. His family realizes that throwing a traditional lavish wedding party is unaffordable. Negotiations take place and both sides agree on kidnapping. Everyone is happily counting days till the newlyweds have grandchildren, no one is counting how much money has been wasted on a wedding and neighbors are the only losers who did not get to party.

Scenario #3 — She’s just not that into you:

They are co-workers or they go to the same grocery store and once in a while stop for a casual chat. Although she has a boyfriend, the guy is convinced that they are meant for each other. One day, he asks her out with some other friends so that she does not shy away from a date. Instead, the guy takes her home, where his grandma puts a white scarf on her head — she is a fiancée now. Her family is unhappy, she is unhappy, he is cautiously thrilled with joy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

And then, there is a scenario described in the Al Jazeera documentary:

Scenario #4 — I’m sorry, what’s your name again?

They haven’t met yet. She is already in his house surrounded by his entire family; tears are streaming down her face as she is trying to pull down the stupid white scarf and leave. Her family has no idea where she is. She is suicidal. He is clueless, but thinks that he is happy and his family is counting days till they have grandchildren.

When there are several scenarios to one issue it is easier to see why such traditions persist. Some happy endings create an illusion of the tradition’s legitimacy. It is not even about people not exercising their rights. It is about them being afraid to go against the tradition. A kidnapped bride will not easily find another man who will marry her. It is shameful to come back home after you had been a wife (technically, after having worn a white scarf on your head). What can be done is raising awareness. Unfortunately, the Central Asian region is not familiar with raising awareness. It sounds to them like some Western intrusion into their family privacy.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The photo shows a bridal kidnapping party in Turkmenistan circa 1871; the photo is from the U.S. Library of Congress and is in the public domain. To see an excerpt from Kidnapped Brides on Al Jazeera, please check below.)

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