A fateful tradition
Every morning Zhainagul gets up around five a.m., very quietly, so as not to wake her two-month-old daughter. Sparks fly and electricity crackles as she uses a bare cable sticking out of the kitchen wall to heat up one of the hotplates. Then she takes a lump of the dough she prepared the evening before, presses it firmly into the base of an aluminum saucepan, and places the saucepan on the hotplate. Zhainagul bakes fifteen flatbreads like this.
When they are ready she packs them in plastic bags, dresses her daughter in warm clothes, takes her in her arms and leaves the apartment. Talas is a small town with 35,000 inhabitants in the west of Kyrgyzstan. Zhainagul lives less than five minutes' walk from the bazaar, where two shops take her bread. In the evening she returns to collect her money – just two euros a day.
Struggling with social ostracism
For this 19-year-old woman, the fact that she earns a little money and has an apartment of her own is a small triumph, even if her kitchen window is broken and the apartment has no hot water or heating. For her family, however, Zhainagul is a fallen woman without a future: a woman who has defied her husband. When Zhainagul was sixteen, she was kidnapped by a total stranger and forced into marriage the very same day. The mullah sealed the union according to Islamic law. As far as Zhainagul could see, she had no way of resisting the forced marriage.
"I didn't want to stay," she says, "but my relatives said: you've got no one else to look after you. You'd be better off staying; you have no choice." Zhainagul was a victim of bride kidnapping, an old tradition in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz call it "ala kachuu", which translates literally as something like: "grabbing a girl and running away". The custom originated among the nomad peoples who used to live in the region. Women were exchanged between clans or abducted in wars. However, Islam, which is currently enjoying a renaissance across Central Asia, does not sanction kidnappings like these.
Islamic and Kyrgyz law
Islamic dignitaries in Kyrgyzstan emphasize repeatedly and publicly that a Muslim marriage must be contracted by mutual consent. In practice, however, no mullah ever asks whether the couple whose marriage he has been summoned to solemnize according to Islamic law are in love, or have only just met.
Nargiza Sartaliyeva, the director of the crisis centre "Maana" in Talas, is trying to help the young women themselves become stronger. "We want to inform girls about their rights and encourage them not simply to put up with everything that's done to them." Bride kidnapping is actually illegal in Kyrgyzstan. According to Article 155 of the Kyrgyz penal code, bride kidnapping and forced marriage are punishable by up to five years in jail.
The problem is that bride kidnapping is never reported. Girls are taught to obey their elders, and this is what prevents the majority from protesting when they are kidnapped and forced into marriage. Sartaliyeva explains that the girls are usually also pressurized by the bridegroom's family. "According to custom, bread and salt are placed on the threshold, or a grandmother lies down in the way. The girls are told, 'If you step over this threshold, you'll be miserable for the rest of your life.'" Many girls lack the courage to defy the curse. Even their own families urge them to stay, out of shame.
Zhainagul too received no support from her family. Her parents died when she was young, and the aunt with whom she was living when she was kidnapped was positively glad that from now on another family would be responsible for her niece. Nargiza Sartaliyeva says Zhainagul's case is typical. "The young men know exactly who they can take: girls from poor families who can't defend themselves, and who are forced to stay for financial reasons."
The dire economic situation in Kyrgyzstan often leaves a woman no choice but to marry someone – anyone – who will provide for her. Along with neighbouring Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Poverty, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyz independence, and the increasingly unstable political situation are all contributing factors in the marked increase in the number of women being kidnapped and forced into marriage. For men who have lost their jobs, power over women is often the only power they have left.
Economic and political change
The bride-stealing phenomenon demonstrates clearly how significantly economic pressures have altered Kyrgyz society in recent years. Bride kidnapping has become an almost normal way of initiating marriage, especially in rural areas; and the poorer the education of the people, the less critical their view of the custom.
Yildiz Yamanbayeva is 62 years old. She has raised four children with her husband, whom she met while studying in the capital, Bishkek. They married for love, and Yildiz wanted her children to do the same. She is convinced: "If a couple is in love when they get married, it's easier for them to live with the ups and downs that come later on." But Saltanat, her eldest daughter, decided otherwise. Saltanat, now 27, was kidnapped twice. "The first time I didn't like the man," she remembers. "I ran away."
Then, two years ago, one summer afternoon, a girl friend suggested that they go to a café together. By the end of the day Saltanat found herself in the house of her future husband, a man with whom she was vaguely acquainted. He had staged the meeting in the café in order to kidnap her.
This time, Saltanat decided to stay. "After all, I was already twenty-five, and I was afraid no man would want me any more." Her mother, Yildiz, found it hard to accept her decision. But Saltanat is happy, and is now the mother of a daughter. She has never questioned her choice. Yildiz, however, is sure that "if it happens to her own daughter one day, she'll be against bride kidnapping too".
However, as Nargiza Sartaliyeva knows, it is far more usual for girls to end up the victims of domestic violence. This is what happened to Zhainagul. She gave birth to a son. Her mother- and sister-in-law, who also lived in the house, treated her like a slave. The whole family drank and beat her regularly. When, earlier this year, Zhainagul had a daughter, the violence got worse. "My husband said I was a bad wife. They took my son away from me and drove me out of the house."
She fled, taking only her daughter with her: the father's family refused to hand over her son. The little flat she lives in now is paid for by a distant relative. She has also received support from Nargiza Sartaliyeva, who gave her the idea of baking bread so that she could earn at least a little money. Zhainagul doesn't know what will happen next. What she wants is to find a husband who will overlook the fact that she ran away; a man who will take her and her little daughter in and treat them well.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins