KYRGYZSTAN: Where forced marriage begins with bride kidnapping

‘Frontline/World’ correspondent Petr Lom, a professor at Central European University in Budapest, first traveled to Kyrgyzstan to investigate Islamic extremism. But he stumbled across a strange local custom, which he decided to explore: Forced marriage through bride abductions.

CNN  We are breaking the law,” says Madiev Tynchtyk, a member of local government in a small village outside of the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, “but here everyone understands this is a tradition and you can’t change it.” 

Basically, here’s how it works:  A prospective groom gathers his friends into a car or van, drives to the home or neighborhood of his desired bride, then ambushes her and drags her kicking and screaming into the van and away from her family.

Although the tradition of bride kidnapping is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, authorities largely ignore the law. Nearly half of all marriages in rural Kyrgyzstan are a result of the practice, with the most common justification being “tradition.”

Bridenapping in progress

When Zhainagul was sixteen, she was kidnapped by a total stranger and forced into marriage the very same day. The mullah sealed the union according to Islamic law. As far as Zhainagul could see, she had no way of resisting the forced marriage. “I didn’t want to stay,” she says, “but my relatives said: you’ve got no one else to look after you. You’d be better off staying; you have no choice.”

PBS  Islamic dignitaries in Kyrgyzstan emphasize repeatedly and publicly that a Muslim marriage must be contracted by mutual consent. In practice, however, no mullah ever asks whether the couple whose marriage he has been summoned to solemnize according to Islamic law are in love, or have only just met.

Bride kidnapping is actually illegal in Kyrgyzstan. According to Article 155 of the Kyrgyz penal code, bride kidnapping and forced marriage are punishable by up to five years in jail. The problem is that bride kidnapping is never reported. In reality, however, for the few cases that reach the courtroom, and those who are tried for bride-kidnapping usually walk away after paying a small fine.

Girls are taught to obey their elders, and this is what prevents the majority from protesting when they are kidnapped and forced into marriage. Between 68 and 75 percent of marriages in Kyrgyzstan take place with bride kidnapping.

The Happy Bride

In the most disturbing case of all, Petr learns of a girl, Kyal, who was kidnapped from outside her home, then died. Four days after the kidnapping, her father picked up her body from a village a few hours away. She’d hanged herself. 

“I think they kidnapped her,” he tells Petr. “And she refused to stay. Maybe she resisted and was raped, so she hanged herself.” Even though the groom’s family does not admit to any wrongdoing, Kyal’s father wants to see an investigation. Though a widely practiced tradition, bride kidnapping has been illegal in Kyrgyzstan since 1994, but the law is rarely enforced. Kyal’s grief-stricken family prays for justice.

Women offering their blessings at a female genital mutilation celebration in Kyrgyzstan.

Not only are its historical antecedents pretty dubious, bride kidnapping has become a serious danger to the country’s women says Kleinbeck. “Spousal abuse is higher in kidnapped marriages, the divorce rate is higher in kidnapped marriages, and suicide rates are higher.” None of this seems to phase the men who have participated in this practice. “We are Kyrgyz,” says Madiev, “it is in our blood.”