That a young man or woman might not choose whom they marry is contrary to modern, western thinking.  We typically marry whom we would, rarely with restriction.  Ours is a fiercely personal concept of marriage that way.  It might surprise some, then, that in many countries matrimony is not experienced similarly.

Consider Kyrgyzstan.  There a method is practiced that to our thinking might seem anachronistic, a vestige of days less democratic: bride-napping.  And it is, cultural relativism in this instance aside.  And, surprisingly, despite being illegal and contentious, it is on the rise.  With Russia’s sphere of influence retracting and cultural restrictions easing, former republics feel freer to assert their nationalist identities, at times overzealously.  At the community level residents have brought into the cultural fold old traditions, some that were at the time of Russian expansion found only in folklore.

Case in point: bride-napping.  A typical event might happen as follows: A young man sees a young women, perhaps his classmate, perhaps a stranger, and decides she will be his wife.  He finds a car, tells his family, organizes his friends, and chooses a day.  Come that day, with his friends in his car he stalks his potential wife until that critical moment when he executes an ambush.  Without qualm, the group of young men grab and hoist the unsuspecting young woman to their shoulders and dash for the car.  At breakneck speed the group then race to the groom’s hometown, making appropriate phone calls en route to alert family and relay progress, while in the backseat the young woman is beside herself with dismay.  Any stop along the way is discreet, and the young woman is never left alone or allowed to talk with anyone outside the car who might come to her aid.

Once in the groom’s hometown and within sight of his house, the horn blares and rubber burns, until into his family’s fenced-in compound his car screeches, to a halt, dust everywhere, plume trailing, and family ready and waiting.  Immediately all are to arms and abuzz.  Out of the car goes the young woman, terrified and hysterical, into a tangle of arms made by the boy’s mother and female relations.  Holding her tightly they carry her sobbing to the porch and past the door’s threshold–that impassive, possible point of no return, the point that in this context defines group morality and immorality, shame and pride, pure and impure.  But all is not lost for her.  She has until the dawn of the next day to escape or be freed.  Few, however, are working on her behalf, often not even her parents.  Most, the women primarily, are encouraging her to stay.  They each have their reasons.  Having passed beyond the threshold of a suitor’s door, the matter is now one of honor, and in the cultures of Central Asia, next to nothing trumps honor.

Honor now falls to the young man’s father, who is bound to make contact with the young woman’s parents.  If contact is not made, should he have made effort his community does not hold him accountable.  Should contact be made, the two sides conduct a suitability test, but rarely with the young woman’s interest in mind.  More important is how the histories of these two families compare, one against the other, as far back as seven generations, and how much in kalym, or dowry, the young woman’s family must pay.  If in this process no conflicts arise, the young woman’s fate is sealed: she will marry the following day, despite any personal misgivings.  Should a conflict arise, the door is flung wide, possibly upon an unknown village, and, pushed and prodded, heckled and browbeaten, she will again cross that damning threshold, perhaps now with greater understanding, to make her way to a home she might be unsure of how to find and to a family that might now not receive her.  Should she escape on her own before sunrise, despite having gained her freedom, her purity will be questioned and marriage possibly never realized.

In those final hours, with others but alone, she looks around, listens to the blathering women sitting next to her and asks herself which is her best choice: to stay where uncommitted unmentionables fade with matrimony and maternity, or to try to return home, where, though blameless, she will be blamed, where once hopeful about her future, she will feel less hope?  In bleak despair, her situation–like her inscrutable culture–must seem a mocking, half-told riddle.

For further reading, consider:

Central Asian Survey (June 2007) 26(2), 217–233, “Kyz ala kachuu and adat: non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan,” by Russ Kleinback and Lilly Salimjanova

Written by Dan Cooper