Bridenapping: a terrible Krygyz “tradition”

It’s an idyllic summers day here in rural Kyrgyzstan. Somewhere in a village nearby a young woman is probably being kidnapped and forced to marry. They call it ala kachuu – literally to take and flee – and NGO estimates say that 40-50% of Krygyz marriages go down this way. There’s some impressive photography here.

The unsuspecting bride to be is scooped up by the groom and his henchmen groomsen and taken by car to a ceremonial yurt. The women of the groom’s family set about convincing the bride that marrying their relative is a good plan and when she submits, as the majority do, a wedding ceremony is performed. At some point the bride’s family is brought along. They generally give their consent.

Best case scenario this bridenapping is just an incredibly unusual ad traumatic way to pop the question. Men capture girlfriend like this, and some have talked about it in advance. Then the protests that the bride makes are a show of their innocence and purity. That’s the claim of this documentary that talks frankly with bride and groom. It’s well worth watching, but despite the veneer of consent, it left me feeling pretty squeamish.

Estimates suggest that two thirds of bridenappings are not the best case scenario. The young woman is taken against her will by a potentially unknown groomzilla. Social pressures lead her to comply with her kidnappers’ demands. But brides who find themselves in marriages like these don’t have a good time. There are high incidences of domestic violence and suicide.

Kygyz who are questioned about kidnapping claim its tradition, but it’s not an ancient one. Sure roving horsemen used to rape and steal, but their violence was abhorred by society not ordained. Neither is the practice sanctioned by the kind of Islam practiced here.

There is a more modern explanation of bridenapping as an unintended consequence of Soviet pushes for gender equity. The Soviets offered education and relative independence to young women. The advent of collective property meant the demise of the dowry payments that had made the system of arranged marriages go. But young couples in love still faced an uphill battle to convince their traditionally minded parents they could make their own marriage choices. If the parents were unmoved the groom would sometimes ‘kidnap’ his bride in what amounted to a dramatic form of eloping. Once the bride had spent the night with him she was impure, and her family couldn’t protest her ongoing union.

Since independence in 1991, Krygyzstan has fought hard to establish a national identity of its own. The relatively new bridenapping seemed like a good thing to pick up and claim as a cultural pillar.

Bridenapping is illegal. But police apparently don’t know this is the case, or don’t care. They’re prepared to turn a blind eye. Debates about the proper legal status for bridenapping continue. As they do estimates suggest between 8,000 – 12,000 women are bridenapped each year.

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