Why you should care
Because to erase an outdated tradition, they might need all the help they can get.
With a bottle of vodka in hand, a Kyrgyzstani mother declares in earnest that they’ll be kidnapping a bride-to-be for her son in an hour or two. “We need her in the field,” she tells filmmaker Petr Lom, looking straight on. “The car is at the gate.” And so begins a bizarre scenario in which Lom gets a front-row seat to the big day, a kidnapping and marriage, and a glimpse at the ominous ever after.
More than a decade later, the 50-minute documentary, called Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, is a crucial tool in Gazbubu Babaiarova’s arsenal in fighting for this so-called Kyrgyz tradition to be recognized as criminal human rights abuse.
In Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, a girl is said to be kidnapped every 40 minutes in the practice called kyz ala kachuu. A man organizes a kidnapping of a girl he likes, where she might be taken off the street and bundled into a car, and ultimately forced to marry him.
The fight is personal: Babaiarova was kidnapped when she was 23.
Ask someone on the street in Kyrgyzstan, from the cities to the villages, and chances are they’ll know about the bride-kidnapping tradition. Though how it came about is less clear. Some might tell you it’s an ancient tradition going back to when they were horsemen. But retired Philadelphia University professor Russ Kleinbach’s research shows it only started in the 1950s, for reasons that are hazy but might be part of a backlash against the Soviet Union. There is no mention of it in the epic poem of Manas, a legendary figure revered in Kyrgyz tradition, which academics say is quite telling.
Today, bride kidnapping is illegal by Kyrgyz law, Islamic law — the predominant religion in the country — and international law. But a widespread cultural acceptance of the practice remains, and leaving the house once kidnapped can bring shame on a so-called bride’s family. Consequences for women who do flee can include rape, attempted suicide, and being shunned and holed up in a women’s shelter.
With data suggesting the practice rose in recent decades along with post-Soviet Kyrgyz nationalism, Babaiarova, 38, is trying to re-educate her country village by village via her Kyz Korgon Institute. When she shows Lom’s documentary to high school boys and girls, the reaction is often embarrassment, she says, and it starts a dialogue challenging the notion that kidnappings are part of the culture.
And for her the fight is personal: Babaiarova was kidnapped when she was 23.
Studying English and then business administration at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, she met her would-be kidnapper, and they became friends. Marriage wasn’t in her plan, so she refused his proposal, and he kidnapped her after a little encouragement from his friends, she says. Still, Babaiarova escaped.
She was lucky. Her dad held strong and demanded to hear from his daughter directly. As fake tradition goes, the kidnappers must try and get permission from the bride’s family the same day to have the nikah, the religious blessing of the marriage. As one of 11 children in rural Kyrgyzstan, Babaiarova and her sisters were not forced to wear headscarves, and the family emphasized higher education. One sister even divorced her kidnapper and was not shunned, so Babaiarova’s captor knew better than to push her family.
Kleinbach co-founded the Institute in 2009 with Babaiarova after working on a university project together. Their research, published in 2013, found that their methods reduced non-consensual kidnapping (some people stage kidnappings for pageantry and to save on marriage costs) from 51 percent to 27 percent of their interviewees. “At one point people did some national campaigns on billboards and things, but I think it’s contact in villages” that works best, Kleinbach says.
But for Kyrgyzstan to experience its #MeToo moment and fully squelch the practice will take a major cultural shift. Eugenia Chung, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is producing a feature film on bride kidnapping called After The Rain, says Babaiarova’s educational programming could use some updating, and an emotional appeal would have more power than one based on facts and figures. The fact that a parent would tell a daughter it would be shameful to return home … “that’s the moment where she loses all hope, any energy to fight. She just accepts it as her destiny,” Chung says.
But refining the Kyz Korgon curriculum and reaching more people requires more international money, and the group lives from grant to grant. Babaiarova now works on grant applications and data collection remotely from the Czech Republic, where she’s raising her three children, ages 9 and under. She seems to have an urgent need to be useful and spends her free time learning languages. Babaiarova would like to continue working in human rights and perhaps become a lawyer, and she would consider returning to her homeland one day.
Babaiarova says that four or five years ago, funders showed more interest in bride kidnapping, but check writers’ whims change based on hot topics. “It’s my NGO, so I can work for free, but my staff … ” she says, fending off the frustration. After Babaiarova helped set up Kyz Korgon, other NGOs such as Open Line slowly came on to the scene.
Now as #MeToo has spread around the globe, women are speaking out more, not just on bride kidnapping but the scourge of domestic violence and harassment in Kyrgyzstan. But the practice remains stubbornly pervasive. The most recent data from the United Nations Development Program finds that 13.8 percent of women younger than 24 married by some form of coercion. Prosecuting a kidnapping is difficult, and typically results only in fines, but Babaiarova says “there must be a bad outcome” to deter perpetrators.
This year, a brutal case in which a 20-year-old medical student was kidnapped by a suitor and stabbed to death, right inside a police station, led to large protests and calls for tougher penalties against bride kidnapping. Wide media coverage of such events helps the fight against bride stealing, says Kleinbach, as it sparks fresh fury. Indeed, following a major rally in the capital, an organizer received thousands of messages from victims of gender-based violence.
It’s taken more than a hashtag to gain allies in Kyrgyzstan, where women continue to struggle for the most basic of rights. Regardless of the form and available resources, Babaiarova will keep fighting.
OZY’s Five Questions With Gazbubu Babaiarova
• What’s the last book you read? The Son by Joe Nesbø.
• Name one thing on your bucket list. To work in Africa.
• What worries you? Letting my daughters go away when they are old enough. Always worry who they meet, what their friends will be like and how they choose their life partners. I worry and hope they won’t be hurt. Strange that I don’t worry about my son that much.
• Who is your hero? My mom.
• What can’t you live without? These days — the internet.