Abduction, Often Violent, a Kyrgyz Wedding Rite
By CRAIG S. SMITH
Published: April 30, 2005, The New York Times
ISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - When Ainur Tairova realized she was on her way to her wedding, she started choking the driver.
Her marriage was intended to be to a man she had met only the day before, and briefly at that. Several of his friends had duped her into getting into a car; they picked up the would-be groom and then headed for his home.
Once there, she knew, her chances of leaving before nightfall would be slim, and by daybreak, according to local custom, she would have to submit to being his wife or leave as a tainted woman.
"I told him I didn't want to date anyone," said Ms. Tairova, 28. "So he decided to kidnap me the next day."
Such abductions are common here. More than half of Kyrgyzstan's married women were snatched from the street by their husbands in a custom known as "ala kachuu," which translates roughly as "grab and run." In its most benign form, it is a kind of elopement, in which a man whisks away a willing girlfriend. But often it is something more violent.
Recent surveys suggest that the rate of abductions has steadily grown in the last 50 years and that at least a third of Kyrgyzstan's brides are now taken against their will.
The custom predates the arrival of Islam in the 12th century and appears to have its roots in the region's once-marauding tribes, which periodically stole horses and women from rivals when supplies ran low. It is practiced in varying degrees across Central Asia but is most prevalent here in Kyrgyzstan, a poor, mountainous land that for decades was a backwater of the Soviet Union and has recently undergone political turmoil in which mass protests forced the president to resign.
Kyrgyz men say they snatch women because it is easier than courtship and cheaper than paying the standard "bride price," which can be as much as $800 plus a cow.
Family or friends often press a reluctant groom, lubricated with vodka and beer, into carrying out an abduction.
A 2004 documentary by the Canadian filmmaker Petr Lom records a Kyrgyz family - men and women - discussing a planned abduction as if they were preparing to snatch an unruly mare. The film follows the men of the family as they wander through town hunting for the girl they had planned to kidnap. When they do not find her, they grab one they meet by chance.
Talant Bakchiev, 34, a graduate student at the university in Bishkek, the capital, said he helped kidnap a bride for his brother not long ago. "Men steal women to show that they are men," he said, revealing a row of gold-capped teeth with his smile.
Once a woman has been taken to a man's home, her future in-laws try to calm her down and get a white wedding shawl onto her head. The shawl, called a jooluk, is a symbol of her submission. Many women fight fiercely, but about 80 percent of those kidnapped eventually relent, often at the urging of their own parents.
The practice has technically been illegal for years, first under the Soviet Union and more recently under the 1994 Kyrgyz criminal code, but the law rarely has been enforced.
"Most people don't know it's illegal," said Russell Kleinbach, a sociology professor at American University in Bishkek whose studies of the practice have helped spur a national debate.
The few prosecutions that do occur are usually for assault or rape, not for the abductions themselves. There are no national statistics on how many kidnappings go awry, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that some end in tragedy.
Four days after the sister of one of Mr. Kleinbach's students was kidnapped a few years ago, her body was found in a river. The family that abducted her was never charged with murder.
In Mr. Lom's film, a family mourns a daughter who hanged herself after being kidnapped; they too were unsuccessful in bringing the abductors to trial.
Families use force to keep the women from leaving or threaten them with curses that still have a powerful impact in this deeply superstitious land. Once a girl has been kept in the home overnight, her fate is all but sealed: with her virginity suspect and her name disgraced, she will find it difficult to attract any other husband.
Brutal as the custom is, it is widely perceived as practical. "Every good marriage begins in tears," a Kyrgyz saying goes.
In Kyzyl-Tuu, a village not far from the capital, even the head man, Samar Bek, kidnapped his wife, Gypara, after she rejected his marriage proposals 16 years ago. She was a 20-year-old university student in Bishkek at the time and he, nine years older, was under family pressure to find a bride. Once at his family's home, she resisted for hours.
"I stayed because I was scared, not because I liked him," Gypara said as the couple's four children played around her. Her husband said he would not object if one of his daughters were kidnapped.
"If the feelings of the man are stronger than the feelings of my daughter, I'll let him take her," he said. "Love comes and goes."
The threat of abduction begins to haunt women once they reach their teenage years. Some women attending universities wear wedding bands or head scarves to fool men into thinking they are already married.
For Ms. Tairova, the anxiety began on the eve of her high school graduation when a friend confided to her that a man named Elim, eight years her senior, planned to kidnap her at the ceremony the next day. She attended the graduation but was terrified, unsure of whom she could trust. The would-be abductor never materialized.
"I think this happens to all young women when they turn 16," Ms. Tairova said, sitting in an empty room of the American University, where she now works.
She enrolled in the university in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad but soon learned that another family from her village was considering her as a bride for their son. Strangers began asking people at her school what she looked like.
Then one evening there was a knock at the door of the apartment she shared with her sister. Outside were 10 men, including the would-be husband. For six hours, Ms. Tairova refused to step outside her apartment. Finally the men gave up and went away.
Ms. Tairova went back to live with her parents and began working as a bookkeeper in a tobacco plant. One day a man came in and introduced himself. They spoke for about 20 minutes, but Ms. Tairova told him she was not interested in seeing him again.
The next day she was kidnapped. She was waiting with two friends for the company bus to take them home when a car pulled up. The two men inside offered all three women a ride. One of her friends knew the men, so they agreed. But when the driver took a detour, she became worried. When he stopped to pick up the man from the day before, she started to scream.
She grabbed the driver's neck and began to choke him, but the second man pulled her hands away. Desperate, knowing her only chance was to stop them before they reached her abductor's house, she blurted out in Russian that she "was not a girl anymore," a euphemism meaning she was no longer a virgin. It was a lie, but it worked.
The driver pulled over and the men got out to discuss what she had said. They climbed back in, silent, and the driver made a U-turn to return the women back to their village.
Ms. Tairova said her life in the village changed after that. Men showed no interest in her. People at the factory openly mocked her. Her father, angry that she had told such a damning lie but worried for her safety, escorted her to and from the bus stop each day.
Finally her friends introduced her to a suitor willing to overlook her questionable past. She told him right away that she did not want to be abducted; he promised that he would not. After several months of dating, he asked her to marry him. She demurred.
Then, one balmy September evening, she again found herself in a car filled with men, ostensibly on their way to a restaurant to meet other friends. But the car drove into the countryside and soon arrived at the farmhouse of her suitor's parents.
By then Ms. Tairova was hysterical. The men dragged her from the car and carried her kicking into the house. She swore at her future mother-in-law. She ducked and struggled when the women tried to put the jooluk on her head. Close to midnight, she broke free and ran outside into the darkness, but the men caught her.
Back in the house, Ms. Tairova refused to eat, drink or sleep as the night wore on. The next day her parents arrived and urged her to consent.
"I was angry and I felt betrayed," Ms. Tairova said, adding that she had cried the whole day.
But as with many Kyrgyz women, she eventually accepted her fate. She since has reconciled with her in-laws and says she is happy with her husband now.
"He says he had to kidnap me because he heard someone else was trying to kidnap me first," she said. "He's a good man."