Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Kyrgyzstan, is a land-locked state in between Kazakhstan and China. Largely Islamic, it is known for its stunning mountains, unique cuisine, and a type of dead-goat polo called ] Kok Boru. Unfortunately, another aspect of Kyrgyzstan that puts it on the map is the practice of bride kidnapping.

The process of bride kidnapping, also known as kyz ala kachuu which translates roughly as “to grab and run,” is a lengthy one. Where a prospective groom, usually with the help of his friends, kidnaps a girl and takes her to his house. The girl is then handed over to the groom’s relatives where they physically try to force a white marriage-scarf upon her head, a symbol of the bride’s consent while trying to convince her that marrying her kidnapper is in her best interests. Once the bride gives in she writes a letter to her parents stating her willingness to marry which is presented to the bride’s parent’s by the groom’s family along with a bride price of livestock and other gifts. If the girl’s parents accept a nikah or Islamic marriage ritual takes place marrying the two and the girl moves into her new husband’s home.

While theoretically the bride kidnapping process allows the girl to refuse marriage, it is rare for the girl, who in many cases has only briefly or never met her kidnapper, to refuse. This is due to the stigma within Kyrgyzstan’s predominantly Islamic culture, which considers the victims of such kidnappings no longer to be virgins. Many kidnapers capitalize on this fact and rape their brides-to-be directly after kidnapping. The stigma is so great that the girls who do decide to refuse, who are now considered not ideal for marriage, are often not accepted by their families and in some cases driven to suicide.

Even though bride kidnapping is technically illegal in Kyrgyzstan the practice is still widespread. Hard data is hard to obtain but estimates range that between 20% to 50% of women in Kyrgyzstan have been kidnapped. Its defenders claim that bride kidnapping has been a part of Kyrgyz tradition for centuries. Although some scholars dispute these claims there are old Kyrgyz oral stories where bride kidnapping was done consensually, as a form of elopement. It should be pointed out that many of the kidnappings are in the spirit of these stories, consensually, as a strange proposing ritual. However, the tradition has also been expanded to include non-consensual marriages, and although the murky social view of consent has blurred the lines, one in three kidnappings are believed to be nonconsensual.

There have been some efforts to combat the issue of bride kidnapping, but they have been largely ineffective due to its traditional status, the government’s reluctance to enforce anti-kidnapping measures, and social leaders’ unwillingness to speak out against it. To be able to oppose bride kidnapping effectively, organizations must simultaneously deal with the practice on both the cultural and governmental levels. I believe two organizations could be able to take a decent stab at it: Musawah, and UN Women.

Musawah (Arabic for equality) is an international Islamic women’s rights NGO based in Malaysia. Founded in 2009 by an international coalition of Islamic feminists and the Malaysian NGO, Sisters in Islam (SIS) Musawah’s goal is to champion women’s rights in the Islamic world through feminist interpretations of the Qur’an and other holy Islamic works. It and SIS have been very successful in starting a grassroots Islamic feminist movement in Malaysia. The hope is that since Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Islamic, activism from an Islamic NGO will not be seen so much as meddling from outside forces on Kyrgyz tradition. Instead of trying to change tradition by attacking it with western ideals using religious values would be much more effective. This is especially relevant considering that Islam forbids forced marriages.

UN Women is an entity of the United Nations focused on “gender equality and the empowerment of women.” It works with governments around the world to further women’s rights in accordance with CEDAW. Backed by the United Nations, UN Women carries a pretty big stick, and could be used to put pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s government to help enforce its anti-kidnapping laws.

If this strategy of simultaneously employing UN Women to hit bride kidnapping high while using Musawah to hit it low was implemented, I believe that actual change to help stop nonconsensual kidnapping could happen.

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