Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been actively pursuing the path of cultural revival on every level, from transforming the northern swamps into a modern capital with a yurt-shaped entertainment center to strengthening the role of the Kazakh language. Yet the inevitable challenge that accompanies such a revival, especially after roughly seventy years of the local culture being repressed by the Soviet Union, is how to reconcile traditionalism with modernity and eliminate the less welcome vestiges of the past.
One such issue is the questionably traditional bride abduction practice that has been on the rise since the 1960s. Just recently, on November 18, 2015, the 24KZ national news station reported that police were investigating a 28-year-old man in Charyn, a village in the south of Kazakhstan who admitted abducting a woman and bringing her to his house for the purpose of marriage. He claimed that there was no malice in his actions. The parents of the woman – a 21-year-old from the same village – had contacted the police, claiming that their daughter was held captive against her will.
This case is a rare occasion when authorities get involved, and is also unusual because police were considering charges under Article 126 of the Criminal Code, “Illegal Deprivation of Freedom,” which is for cases not related to kidnapping. It is punishable by restriction of freedom or imprisonment for up to three years. The offence most associated with abductions, Article 125, “Kidnapping,” exempts from criminal liability a person who voluntarily releases the person they kidnapped.
While some researchers report that a fifth of women in the Kazakh rural south were married through abduction, hardly any of those women report to the police. There is great value placed on virginity, and the social pressure from rumors alone may bring dishonor to the entire family, making it impossible for the daughter to marry anyone else because she will be considered “unclean.” The parents of an abducted woman may support her marrying a stranger, out of fear of the gossip and shame that will follow if the girl returns home after spending a night at the abductor’s house.
There are variations in the ritual of bride abduction, but it commonly entails these steps: The bride is abducted by a group of men, driven to the groom’s house where his female relatives try to convince her to stay and to write a letter of consent telling her parents that she came willingly. A white cloth is placed on the bride’s head to signify her acceptance of the marriage. In extreme cases, when the bride is especially unwilling to stay, a senior female family member lays down in the doorway. If the woman steps over, she is believed to have been cursed.
Yet not all the cases are forceful abductions. Some are pre-planned spectacles where the abduction is mutually consensual and staged either for amusement or to avoid dowry or a bride price, which many cannot afford. Other romantic instances of abductions are the ones where the bride was promised to another man, or the parents do not want the marriage to take place.
However, it is forced abductions that have been on the rise, sometimes involving rape and causing significant trauma for the prospective bride and even her suicide. The majority of cases in which the bride is stolen occur in the villages of the south of Kazakhstan, which is regarded as a more traditional, patriarchal and nationalistic region. It is estimated that seven percent of abductions involve an underage bride, but no official statistics exist since marriages with underage women are often performed according to the local customs and are not officially registered.
Although bride abduction is often mistakenly attributed to Islam, the theft of women and horses apparently took place amongst rival tribes in the area prior to the arrival of Islam in the 12th Century. The practice was banned by Soviet Union in 1920s as part of a broad effort to raise the status of women. Besides, as anthropologist and Central Asian studies specialist Cynthia Werner has written, “ethnographic accounts of pre-Soviet life suggest that most Kazakh marriages were arranged by family members when the bride and groom were still young children,” and bride abductions were unusual.
Although there have been some reference to the abductions as the return of a tradition, cultural anthropologist Zira Nauryzbajeva says that, according to the common law of Kazakhs up to the early 18th century, abduction and rape were equal to murder and punishable by death. The very notion of a tradition is problematic in the Kazakh context, she says. “Talking about the revival of the Kazakh customs in the area of family law relations is ridiculous. It had been a tribal society in the full sense of the word for more than two centuries. In general, our striving to revive the tradition always bears some sort of domestic, nonsensical character. While intellectual traditionalism has long been established, an attempt to return to a past stage, to revive vitality from the past, is fraught with distortion, farce and sometimes even Satanism.”
The increase in the abductions in recent years has several reasons. In the 1970s the costs of marriage began rising, and as it became more difficult to provide a sufficient dowry there was a decline in arranged marriages. An abductor still had to make an “apology payment” (keshirim), but it was much lower than paying a bride price.
During the Soviet Union period, women worked and were educated as part of the effort to bring them equality with men. With the country’s independence in 1991 came a lowering of women’s status in society and a shift to greater patriarchy.
The issue is widely debated in the media, but there is no consensus amongst government officials. Some of them consider the issue as either nonexistent or of secondary importance and a subject for local women’s organizations to manage. Others suggest that it is a crime for which the punishment should be increased. Tengri News, a Kazakh English language media outlet, reported that NGOs see a rise in resistance to the practice, mostly from brides’ families.