Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan: A Documentary Review Essay from a Sociological Perspective

Bride kidnapping, needless to say, happens to be just another version of the game ‘kokpar’ where women are dragged to the future groom’s home just like how the carcass of a dead goat is dragged to the goal. As insensitive and disturbing it sounds, this inhuman way of marriage, widely prevalent in rural Kyrgyzstan shows both men and women accepting of this tradition despite denouncing its existence. With polar contradiction in their actions and their views, the Kyrgyz are continuing the tradition of bride kidnapping for the sake of Manas, their Islamic holy book of the law. As Russell Kleinback, a Bride kidnapping expert puts it, “They believe, tradition is Manas and Manas is Kyrgyz”.

Thomas Morton, the host of the documentary with his team assists a young East Kyrgyz villager Kubanti, in a bride kidnapping by offering their services as wedding photographers. The team witnesses the kidnapping, the marriage, and many rituals of this ancient custom. They interview the groom (Kubanti), the bride (Nazgul), and their respective families to know more about the tradition, its significance, and their views on it. The team also interviews Abdyshova Zyinagul, mother of a kidnap victim who lost her daughter due to this tradition of bride kidnapping to suicide alongside a married Kyrgyz couple Madiev Tynchtyk (Kidnapper/husband) and Ormonova Elmira (Kidnapee/wife) asking them about their experience. To see the wider picture and the effects of this tradition in women’s lives, Russell Kleinback, a bride kidnapping expert who gives more insight on the origin of this tradition, its transformation, and its legality. Additional interviews include Ernest Abdyjaparov, the director of a 2007 pro-kidnapping movie “Boz Salkyn” who gives his explanation on his view of the tradition, and the director of women’s shelter, Bubusara Ryskulova who explains the situation of women, the mentality and the aftermath. The documentary ends with the end of Kubanti and Nazguls’s wedding celebrations as Thomas and the team bid goodbye to this small village in East Kyrgyzstan.

“You guys be careful, don’t make her black and blue”, Kubanti passes this comment followed by laughs of the groomsmen as they leave for the kidnapping denoting immense insensitivity Kyrgyz men have towards women in their community. When Thomas asks about Nazgul’s consent, Kubanti assures that he knows her and that she too is willing to marry him but not by being kidnapped. Despite knowing Nazgul’s preference Kubanti moves ahead with the plan due to the pressure put by his entire family and their strict belief in the traditional way of kidnapping and marrying a bride. Kubanti and his groomsmen with Thomas and team reach the location; upon spotting a policeman one refers to the police as “a problem” where as the others reassure that they know the policeman and that they’ll talk to him if something happens. This shows how lightly law regarding this crime is taken in Kyrgyzstan, as bride kidnapping expert, Russell Kleinback mentions the two laws which make bride kidnapping illegal, one being if a woman doesn’t know the man and if the girl does not want to be kidnapped even though she knows the man. Director of women’s shelter, Bubusara Ryskulova says, very few women turn to the police for help and that there are only one to two cases a year, and that 95% of the women go back to their husbands home even if they don’t know the man. She also adds that Kyrgyz girls are taught to be obedient and passive since early childhood to make them less defiant to this tradition of bride kidnapping.

Functionalists would see this tradition as a means to resolve conflict in society and maintain stability as many men would otherwise get rejected and probably commit crimes like harassment and rape. The functionalist approach would see this tradition as a means of carrying on the society as ‘normal’ by creating and strengthening bond between the families of the bride and the groom as rituals in these types of marriages includes the grooms family gifting food and sheep to the bride’s family in compensation to taking their daughter with the aim lessen their grief. “The bride’s family would look at it as less of losing a daughter and more as gaining a sheep” (Thomas Morton).

The conflict theorists would see this tradition contributing to gender hierarchy and would focus on economic class relations apparent in this institution like the focus put on the financial situation of a family to conduct the marriage by bride kidnapping as it requires high expenses including massive feasts, gifts, fees of Imams and decorations for both the grooms and brides family. The conflict perspective would also consider the alternate situation where the same institution of bride kidnapping would allow men to marry despite their lacking financial stability as in this tradition all one needs is a getaway vehicle, few groomsmen for kidnapping and few women to persuade the bride to put on the scarf, once a girl spends a night in the grooms house the society puts pressure on the bride and her family to give her back to the groom as she is no more pure. Abdyshova Zyinagul, mother of a kidnap victim who lost her daughter to suicide admits giving her daughter back to the groom despite her unwillingness to do so after she was forcefully kidnapped and married. She says, the society did put a lot of pressure on her so she ignored her daughter’s claims of the husband being uneducated, eccentric and antisocial and that he hurt offended and humiliated her in front of people.

Interactionist, especially the phenomenological approach would see this kidnapping tradition in that community as acceptable which otherwise in other societies would be considered severely criminal. Ethnomethodological approach would see this as the way of the society to tag a women or a girl as “taken” after spending one night at the male’s house and “married” with the acceptance of the scarf over her head. Interactionist would be interested in understanding the interactions such as the act of the groom’s family asking for forgiveness, the girls putting up initial resistance even though they want to get married given that in their tradition “no” means innocent and pure where as an instant “yes” would make her look desperate and suggest that she might not be chaste. Symbolic interactionist would see the hanging of the bed sheet post wedding night, a proof that the bride did bleed on the sheet, meaning, she was a virgin as an aspect of the Kyrgyz tradition where symbols such as the blood stained bed sheet were used. Interactionist would focus on the latent meaning behind the act of hanging it for everyone to see and small actions like walking out of the tent without showing their back post marriage, women putting on a scarf to show that they’re married and just how in this tradition the meanings of the words itself such as “Kidnapping” which has such a negative connotation is looked proudly and is accepted as “a gift of marriage” in the Kyrgyz tradition.

The feminist perspective would look at it as unacceptable and as a tradition inconsiderate of a women’s dignity, as disrespectful and inhuman. In the post marriage interview of Nazgul, she admits not knowing anything about the kidnapping and expresses her sadness as she didn’t want to get married that way. This approach would consider the tradition of marriage by bride kidnapping as a tradition which fosters violation of women’s rights and would consider it as a gender based abuse because it is done only to women and is humiliating and forced. It would consider the strong patriarchal influence Kyrgyz society has as the rituals of kidnapping, forced persuasion on the girl to put the scarf on, the hanging of the blood stained bed sheet to signify the brides virginity and the gender based socialization done to girls to be obedient and passive as means to continue male dominance as women have no rights and no say in this tradition. As soon as the marriage ends Nazgul (the bride) is sent to the kitchen and is made to prove herself by doing the household works like cooking, serving, cleaning and hosting. “Might be a case of one family not having lost a daughter so much as another gaining a scholarly maid” (Thomas Morton).

The documentary is a complete package as it shows many stories of marriages by bride kidnapping like of Kubanti and Nazgul’s, a fairly happy wedding where both the bride and the groom get mutually married. Then in contrast some stories with sad endings like of Abdyshova, whose daughter committed suicide after being married and of the Kyrgyz couple where the wife compromised to marry her husband even though she wanted to marry someone else all due to the societal pressure and the tradition. The interview of the bride kidnapping expert, Russell Kleinback who provided meaningful insights on the origin of the tradition in ancient Conan lands and how it started and went in rise after the fall of communism during the soviet period; he explains about the importance of Manas, their oral tradition and holy book which put tradition before law and even religion. With meaningful interviews of people like Ernest Abdyjaparov, the director of the pro-kidnapping 2007 movie “Boz Salkyn” where he flaunts his Kyrgyz tradition despite knowing that the west condemns it, as he argues that it is a way of reviving their culture and that the west has no right to condemn it for it has brought many other worse negative cultures like gay/lesbian marriages, drugs and HIV Aids and the interview of Bubusara, director of the women’s shelter in Kyrgyzstan who explains the horrific reality of the bride kidnapping as she shows how it leads to domestic violence, abandoned children, high divorce rates etc.

With contextual music and the use of Kyrgyz songs referring to this specific tradition like Balalaika Virgin, Moonlight on the Volga and so on as the soundtrack, the exchanging shots between contradictory stories and interviews to present more broad understanding with valid evidence of this tradition of marriage by bride kidnapping, the documentary is well presented. With minimum biased influence from the host on the interviewees, the documentary consists of information relevant to all spheres of this Kyrgyz tradition. With no claims of proving or denouncing the tradition, through smart and effective editing the documentary shows bride kidnapping for what it is and highlights its after math in people’s, especially women’s lives.

Bride kidnapping although prevalent in rural Kyrgyzstan, it’s a wide spread tradition all over Caucasus and Central Asia. It is prevalent mostly in patriarchal regions consisting of strictly male dominated institutions such as religion and marriage. Such tradition affects both the mental and physical development of girls as most are forcefully married in their teenage. Causing increase in maternal death rate and high infant mortality rate, this tradition confines women to the household restricting them of education, independence and individualism. Crimes like kidnapping, forced marriage, rape and marital rape are normalized by such tradition of bride kidnapping which makes a woman just another substitute for the dead goats carcass as men snatch and throw her, playing a real life version of ‘kokpar’. The difference being the goat is dead in the game but women aren’t.

Social Media: Sneha Dahal- (Insta: @khoikunikho, Fb:@khoikunikho)

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