Kidnapping a bride

October 16th, 2011 Sections: Growing up Kyrgyz, Life In Kyrgyzstan, News

The article in the Independent

There are some themes that just won’t go away, no matter how much you want them to … and Ala Kachuu is one of them.

Ala Kachuu is the name given here in Kyrgyzstan to the practice of “Bride Kidnapping”.  When a young man, (often accompanied by a group of his friends), kidnaps a girl that has taken his fancy and takes her home where she is installed as his wife.  Despite the fact that, technically, it is illegal here in Kyrgyzstan, it persists and frequently makes headlines around the world.

Last week, for example, the Independent, (a British newspaper, sometimes referred to as a Broadsheet or as one of the “quality press”), ran an article headlined “‘Bridenapping’ – a growing hidden crime”.

The article was picked up by a number of sites from around the world, many of which presented the material in dramatic and sensational manner, for example: “In at least 17 countries around the world, girls are being abducted, raped and forced into marriage“.

The article, itself, whilst fairly graphic in parts, wasn’t quite so bad but still contained some strange comments.  For example, having discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan it jumped to consider a different location, with the linking phrase, “Nearby in Muslim Chechnya”.  Maybe for someone sitting in Britain, it seems that Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan are “nearby” each other, but there is something like 1400 kilometres between them!  The use of the word “Muslim” in that sentence didn’t help either.

It gave a review of the practice around the globe; it’s not exclusively a Kyrgyz tradition but is found in several Central Asian cultures, in the Caucasus and parts of Africa, as well amongst certain groups in South East Asia, the Tzeltal – the largest indigenous group in Mexico,  and apparently, even among the Romani in Europe. Back in history it can be found in Roman culture and it presented a problem for the Catholic Church which decided to recognize it as one of the valid reasons for the annulment of a marriage.

Even where it is no longer carried out, some elements reminiscent of Bride Kidnapping are preserved in some traditional practices and customs in different cultures and, indeed, some people think that the honeymoon is a vestige of it, “based on the practice of the husband going into hiding with his wife to avoid reprisals from her relatives, with the intention that the woman would be pregnant by the end of the month.”

Lucy Hazleton talk on TED.com

Anyway, the comments associated with the article on the newspaper’s website concentrated on the fact that most of the cultures in the report were Islamic … and there were several comments decrying not only the practice but the religion itself.  I thought this was unfair, simplistic and exposes people’s misconceptions and misunderstandings.  After all, reading any text, yet alone a “sacred text” like the Koran, Qur’an, is fraught with difficulty, (See, for example, Lesley Hazleton talk “Uncertainty touches the best of what is human in us” on www.ted.com).  Even if many of the cultures where the practice persists are Muslim, the religion itself does not sanction it indeed, according to Sharia law, (Islamic law) marriage cannot be forced on a partner; women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent.

It is also worth remembering that in this, the year of Kurmandjan Datka, where we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of her birth, that the Queen of the Alai and heroine of the Kyrgyz actually walked away from an arranged marriage to which she did not consent.

There is no doubt that Ala Kachuu still exists in Kyrgyz society, but there is some doubt about the extent.  Surveys carried out by Russell Kleinbach suggest that something like 80% of Kyrgyz marriages involve some form of “kidnapping”, but even he admits that, (contrary to assertion in the Independent article that it is a “growing hidden crime”), there is evidence that here in Kyrgyzstan, at least, the incidence of the practice is actually diminishing.  I came across an excellent blog post, for example, of some notes about a lecture that he gave in Tokmok earlier this year, where he apparently gives different figures and the post includes some discussion about the reasons for this.

For the record: Kleinbach is a Professor of Sociology at Philadelphia University, who is quoted in the Independent article as an “expert” on the topic.  (Oh, how I “love” that word, “expert”.  That’s not a personal comment against Kleinbach – but more a comment about the way the word is bandied about in an attempt to convey gravitas.  Although I have seen some strident criticism of his work, his job is to do the research and present his results, which I think he has done pretty comprehensively.)

One reason for the apparent fall in the rate of Bride Kidnappings, assuming that it is actual,  may be that legislation, (which has been at the forefront of the approach to the issue and concentrates on regulation, (i.e. prohibition), and punishment), doesn’t necessarily work in changing people’s behaviour, whereas “education” might be more effective as it can lead to a change in attitudes and social mores.  Here I mean “education” in its widest sense, not just in a “school situation”, although that also has its place.

For example, this year has seen a number of activities concentrating on Ala Kachuu which gained wide publicity locally.  There was especially a series of meetings and rallies to protest against the practice as a result of a young bride who had been kidnapped committing suicide.  Her husband’s family were apparently devastated, having no idea that she was felt so miserably about her fate, and the coverage gave several people the chance to tell their particular stories.  Of course, it was sad that it took someone’s taking of their own life to highlight the issue, but it made many people stop and think … and it has encouraged a sense of shame amongst some of them.

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When we set up the website links.kg, (a site dedicated as a portal providing to links to resources on the web about life in and travel to Kyrgyzstan), one of the most contentious issues we debated was whether or not to include articles about Ala Kachuu.  There are a depressing number of such pages – some of them excellent – just try a Google search on the subject.

Some of our staff felt that the nature of the articles would automatically be negative in outlook but others pointed out that it is a real feature of life here in Kyrgyzstan and cannot (should not?) be ignored.  We had already decided, for example, that we should include both positive and negative travel reports from bloggers.  In the end, we “chickened out” and chose just one article about the subject and included it.

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For the record: I wrote a postcard about Ala Kachuu last year

 

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