New documentary shines light on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan
A disturbing new documentary series this week shines a light on Kyrgyzstan’s growing culture of bride kidnapping.
Tonight’s first installment of the five-part series “Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan”, from New York-based independent media company Vice, conveys the social and cultural complexity of the practice.
Reporter Thomas Morton and director Jason Mojica travel to the Issyk-Kul region of the country to gain an insight into the preparations of a kidnapping and the realities of seeing it through.
As might be expected, the distressing practice involves abducting a woman or girl, often off the street, and forcing her back to the bridegroom’s family home where she is pressured into going through with the wedding.
Often families are coerced into accepting the marriage by the fact their daughter is held overnight at her kidnapper’s home – a deed which is seen to sully her innocence and therefore marriage is considered the best, if not only, option.
Disturbingly, as Morton informs us in a voiceover, it’s not a fringe custom, and almost half of all marriages in rural areas of the country begin in this manner.
Unsurprisingly, it is revealed that marriages of this kind register higher incidences of brutality in the form of spousal abuse, and frequently lead to divorce.
Russell Kleinbach, founder of the Kyz Korgon Institute, a non-governmental organisation that works to abolish bride-kidnapping, explains that high levels of depression and even suicide are also recorded responses to the attacks.
Morton and the Vice team, posing as wedding photographers, manage to follow would-be bridegroom Kubanti as he prepares to heist chosen wife Nazgul.
Whilst arranged marriage as a concept is not unknown to most viewers, the fact that the actual preparations for the wedding are taking place unbeknownst to the bride proves disconcerting and, at times, painful viewing. Festive décor, food and a stream of vodka sustain the party spirit.
While Kubanti’s family are seen at home preparing for the wedding, he and his troupe of friends carry out the abduction by luring his victim to the local watering hole, which, as Morton observes, is a practice more at home in the animal kingdom.
Despite Kubanti being known to her, even as a prospective groom, Nazgul’s howls of terror and plaintive cries for her mother make for wrenching viewing as she is bundled into a mini-van and driven away.
The abduction is intercut with footage of the killing of a sheep for the wedding banquet, and ’lamb to the slaughter’ is a sad summation of the bride’s plight as she slowly loses her fight against her abductors.
The notion of abduction featuring in nuptials jars horribly with Western precepts of entering into marriage.
Ernest Abdyjaparov, director of pro-bride kidnapping film Boz Salkyn (2007), explains that “the West condemns bride kidnapping but they offer us nothing we can follow”, citing gay and lesbian marriage, divorce, HIV, violence and drugs.
However it seems there are elements of a shared tradition, as we follow Kubanti’s male relations as they descend on Nazgul’s home to obtain her family’s acceptance of the marriage, somewhat sheepishly. This also applies quite literally: a sheep is presented as a peace offering – recompense perhaps for the theft of their daughter.
They are more willing to acquiesce than Abdyshava Zyinagul, the bereaved mother of one girl who took her life following her own kidnapping.
Despite being rescued by her family, pressure from extended relations led them to eventually bend to the wedding, and she explains how her ‘picky’ daughter was forced to endure first the humiliation of the kidnapping, and then marriage to an ill-educated, anti-social spouse.
This is perhaps the most horrendous aspect to the practice, the removal of choice and the abuse of free will and human rights of the victims; not just in the practice of bride kidnapping but in bearing the after-effects of an unwanted marriage.
As Morton observes, in Nazgul’s case it’s less as if one family are losing a daughter and more as if another are gaining a maid. This is particularly heartbreaking when we learn of her aspirations to finish school and train as a lawyer.
Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian land-locked country, bordering China, which was governed by Soviet rule for the majority of the last century. The country reverted back to Islamic rule in 1991, which brought something of a resurgence in tradition and cultural pride.
Tradition is the justification most bandied around by Kyrgzys young and old as to why the practice still takes place.
Abdyjaparov believes it can, in part, be attributed to the cultural virtue of innocence; modern day proposals are often met with rejections, he says, even if the woman wants to say yes. By refusing and putting up a fight they are publicly seen to be pure.
He also believes the practice is on the rise as it is a way of “reviving some of the aspects of our culture”, a case Kleinbach refutes. He contends that whilst the practice isn’t new it primarily evolved in its modern incarnation as a response to Soviet rule and did not pre-date it, as it also goes against Islam.
However, through conversations with numerous Kyrgyzs, from family members to the kidnapped bride, it is clear many labour under the impression that the practice is the fulfillment of some kind of cultural precedent. And as Kleinbach states, “tradition stands above religion, and religion above law”.
There is certainly something cloudy about the role of tradition in the whole thing; whether there is an element of show, that the bride is expected to protest for the family’s sake, whether her response is expected.
However regardless of whether Nazgul had any marital inclination towards Kubanti, it would be difficult to misconstrue her fear at the way the marriage was thrust upon her.
Men steal brides, Morton believes, for the same reason anybody does bad things anywhere – simply because they can – “the oldest and shittiest reason in the world”.
Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva recently pleaded for a greater legal response to the incidence of bride kidnapping, stating that around 15,000 women each year fall victim to the practice.
Despite these shocking numbers Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun told news agency AFP that no one has ever been brought to account for bride kidnapping, despite the fact the offence legally carries up to 3 years in jail.
Most villages in Kyrgyzstan operate under de facto ruled councils which do not necessarily abide by state legal systems, making it hard for convictions to stick – that is if the women even come forward.
Bubusara Ryskalova, director of a women’s shelter, tells Morton that victims rarely turn to police, with only two or three cases being reported each year.
“Ninety-five per cent of women stay, even if they don’t know him. The reason is Kyrgyz girls are educated from childhood to be obedient. And here we have the result of that.
“There are cases when the family lives happily, or the woman tolerates him all her life [but] there is no love, nothing”.
It is Nazgul’s grandmother who sums up the futility of the situation: “No, I don’t think it’s good, but what can we do?”