Plight of Kyrgyzstan brides who are kidnapped, raped and abandoned

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The Independent Online
SANJAL SITS in the kitchen chain smoking. "It's going to be the happiest day of my life", he says, nervously. "You look as if you're preparing to go to a funeral," his friend Aziz teases him. Within a few hours, the two boys are planning to kidnap a bride for Sanjal.

The bridegroom, a sophisticated 21-year-old law student dressed in a Boss jacket and Levi jeans, says he had no choice. It is the tradition in Kyrgyzstan. The youngest son must look after his parents. They are in their sixties and want him married.

He is undeterred that the penalty for bride-stealing in the former Soviet republic is a two-year prison sentence. "The girls' families never bring charges", he says. But, as an educated, good-looking young man, why doesn't he simply ask the girl? "I've only ever seen her at university," he replies, "I've never spoken to her. She may have a boyfriend for all I know. She may be in love. She might say no. I have to kidnap her."

The tradition of bride stealing is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan. It evolved in the days of the nomadic tribes, which roamed the country before Stalin collectivised rural life.

In those pre-Revolutionary days, a bride could cost as much as five horses and a lusty young man found it more expedient to snatch the girl of his choice, literally swinging her on to his saddle. The custom thrived even in the Soviet era and it still suits the climate of economic hardship that followed the Central Asian republic's independence in 1991.

But notions such as "assertiveness" and "empowerment" favoured by feminists in the West are catching on among the sisters in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. A centre dealing with rape, domestic violence and bride stealing has received more than a thousand calls since it opened a year ago.

Cowed and tearful young women come knocking at the door to attend therapy sessions delivered by women who were themselves kidnapped in Soviet times but have since learnt the language of sexual emancipation from their American sponsors.

It is too late, though, for young women such as Gulmira, 19, who tells the volunteer therapist how she was violently kidnapped when she was 16 and then raped and abandoned.

She can barely utter the words and will clearly need many more empowerment sessions before she could bring herself to look an abductor in the eye and defy what he considers is his right.

For the boys, it is all a bit of a lark. Doran Nuriyev, Krygzstan's most celebrated pop star, kidnapped his wife 18 months ago. Over vodka and cigarettes in his dressing room after a show, he and his best man (who, in Kyrgyzstan, also doubles up as kidnap accomplice)reminisce with glee. "I consider myself an bit of an expert," says partner-in-crime, Sergei Myktebek. "I've done lots of them but it can still turn out tricky. Doran's girl scratched me and I've still got the scars but we enjoyed it," he says, laughing.

"It would be great if it became legal." Doran agrees. He says he feels sorry that he did not allow his wife to finish her university education, "but we're happy now and she and the baby inspire my music".

Meanwhile, Sanjal's parents are excited about their boy's big day. His mother, Norguz, is quite matter-of-fact about what they have instructed him to do and she says she is looking forward to "10, no 12 grandchildren" from the young couple. Various daughters and daughters-in-law are busy preparing the house and the wedding banquet. The whole village has been invited to the wedding party.

Norguz reaches into an ancient leather trunk for the red crushed-velvet dress that her three daughters-in-law wore after they were kidnapped by her older sons and the "platok", the ritual headscarf.

According to custom, she explains, it is only necessary for the intended bride to cross the threshold of a boy's house and for the mother-in-law to cover her head with the headscarf for her honour to be compromised and for the marriage to become a fait accompli.

After this, it is left only for the local mullah to be summoned to bless the couple. Astonishingly, given the regularity with which kidnaps take place, the girl selected by Sanjal, 19-year-old Maja, has agreed to come along with a friend to a birthday party at his house. Unsuspecting, she walks across the threshold and is greeted by the women in the family who hover like predators.

Norguz, a formidable woman, lunges at the tiny girl with the headscarf. Maja screams and starts to fight like a caged animal, holding her hands above her head to stop the headscarf from covering here head. The women are unperturbed, they all say "come on, it is always like this", "It happened to us all", "You'll be happy." Maja, now hysterical, demands that someone goes back to the city to fetch her mother. Norguz agrees: "Your mother will tell you it is alright, it is our custom."

At this point, it becomes clear to me that this is much more sinister than the "courtship ritual" I had been led to expect. I intervene but I am brushed aside by the family. I then order a car which brings Maja's mother to the house.

Half an hour later, she storms in. "No, it's not our custom," she yells at Norguz. "My daughter is finishing her university education", and she gathers up her weeping daughter.

Sanjal is mortified. The "happiest day" of his life is not turning out as planned, Norguz and her daughters, surrounded by the prepared banquet, are in shock. They look helplessly as the car carrying Maja and her mother races out of the village.

Perhaps those lessons in empowerment and assertion are catching on, after all.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts' film Bridestealing in Kyrgyzstan will be shown on BBC2's `Correspondent' programme at 7.30 tonight