When Aida Sooronbaeva was 17, she returned home after a day at school to find her grandfather tied up and their house ransacked. In vain, she attempted to hide but was kidnapped by a family friend for marriage. Despite vehemently protesting, she eventually succumbed to the social standard in Kyrgyzstan, where tradition upholds this bride kidnapping custom.
After 16 years of marriage, her body was a tapestry of scars from domestic violence. One day, after fleeing to the streets to escape the brutality and she was rescued by a passer-by.
“He kept me at home, never letting me out, just in the yard,” Sooronbaeva told Reuters. “I lived with him only for the sake of my children.”
“Now I perceive any man as an enemy. I never even think of getting remarried,” she added.
As per the custom, a man arranges for the kidnapping of a girl, whom he likes, with his friends and family. Whether the girl knows him or not is irrelevant. After some planning amongst his cohorts, the girl may be grabbed from the street and bundled into a car after which, she will be forced to marry him.
In the documentary, Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a would-be-groom is seen plotting with his friends and family to abduct the girl of his interest. His accomplices roar with laughter as he jokes, “You guys should be careful. Don’t make her black and blue.”
The men pile into a car to the blare of loud music as they go in search of the girl. Once they pinpoint her, some exit the car and snatch her – lifting her off the ground and bundling her into the moving vehicle. Screaming and crying, her flaying arms and legs are restrained as she calls out for her mother. When they arrive at her would-be suitor’s home, she is led to a tent where women drape her with wedding garments as she continues to weep. In the end, she agreed to marry the man with the consent of her parents.
In the predominantly Islamic country, the practice was outlawed in 2013 by Kyrgyz law and international law. Yet, in rural areas, it remains widespread and accepted as part of the cultural norm. Thousands of women fall victim to it every year. Tragically, bride kidnappings can also involve rape since it is deemed as a method of coercing the girl to accept the man as her husband. And for the women who attempt to escape, they are susceptible to a catalogue of other pitfalls, which can include suicide attempts and being ostracised from society.
Last year, a 20-year-old medical student, Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, was detained in a police cell with the man who abducted her. Moments later, she died after he violently attacked and stabbed her. Her murder sparked public outrage calling a nationwide demand for stricter sentences for such cases. The man in question was eventually imprisoned for 20 years.
More women have started to come forward about the bride kidnapping epidemic, as well as the domestic violence and abuse to which they are subjected. Generally speaking, in the former Soviet republic, getting a conviction for abduction proves to be difficult and may only end with a fine.
Often balking under societal and familial pressure, however, most of the bride kidnappings go unreported. Most victims are too fearful to take matters further due to the stigma associated with it or having been raped.
While many locals attest that the tradition must be upheld since it goes back to the ancient times of horsemen, an investigation by retired Professor Russell Kleinbach at Philadelphia University speculated that the custom only began in the 1950s.
In his study, Reducing Non-Consensual Bride Kidnapping In Kyrgyzstan, Professor Kleinback discovered that implementing educational programs in some areas proved to be effective in the reduction of bride kidnapping. Of the 122 Kyrgyz women in Karakol City region who were interviewed, 76% had been married by consent – which was an increase of 55% prior to the project. Meanwhile, those who were married by non-consensual kidnapping were 24% – which was down from 45% before the project. The report concluded that the findings demonstrated that “educational efforts must focus on the potential kidnappers (young men in their early-mid 20’s) as well as younger women”.