Kidnapping Women: Discourses of Emotion and Social Change in the Kyrgyz Republic

In 1974, Anthropological Quarterly published a special issue on bride theft. Since then, considerable work has been published on the practice. Drawing on my fieldwork in the Kyrgyz Republic, I assess current understandings of the practice. I argue that although functionalist and symbolic approaches to kidnapping are still relevant, it is necessary to consider kidnapping in the context of intensifying discursive competition over marriage, gender roles, and authority. In my account, kidnapping is a practice that both supports and undermines existing systems of oppression. As such, it has become a powerful engine of social change. [Keywords: Marriage, love, power, gender, family, former soviet Union, Kyrgyz republic].

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Publication: Anthropological Quarterly
Author: Borbieva, Noor O'Neill
Date published: January 1, 2012

An institution-say, a marriage system-is at once a system of social relations, economic arrangements, political processes, cultural categories, norms, values, ideals, emotional patterns, and so on and on. (Ortner 1984:148)

Although prohibited by law, the traditional practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued in rural areas [of Kyrgyzstan]. cultural traditions discouraged victims from going to the authorities. (Us Department of state 2010)

In a segment of Bride Kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic, a 2004 documentary produced by political scientist Petr Lom, a young woman is carried, struggling, into a rustic dwelling. she stands in the corner of a dimly-lit room, surrounded by elder women in bright dresses and sweater-vests. Wielding a white scarf, they tell her she must marry the young man who has brought her there, against her will. At times she resists, crying and arguing with the women. At times she sits passively, even laughing at their jokes. she finally puts on the scarf, and the last time we see her, she and her new husband stand next to each other, smiling and proclaiming their happiness.

Conventional wisdom among the Kyrgyz asserts that bride kidnapping (alyp kachuu1) is a unique Kyrgyz practice.2 Actually, bride kidnapping, which is also known as bride "theft," "capture," or "abduction," has been documented all over the world and throughout recorded history (e.g., Ċrhem 1981, Ayres 1974, barnes 1999, bates et al. 1974, Evans-Grubb 1989, McLaren 2001). In most societies where it has been observed, bride kidnapping is a rule-governed practice, an alternative to more acceptable forms of marriage, such as arrangement (bates et al. 1974). barbara Ayres (1974:238) defines bride kidnapping as "the forceable abduction of a woman for the purpose of marriage, without her foreknowledge or consent and without the knowledge or consent of her parents or guardians" then qualifies that kidnapping can be "genuine" (forced abduction) or "mock" (elopement). the extent to which a young woman is involved in the planning of the abduction can vary in different societies and contexts (Kudat 1974, Werner 2004), but many societies (including the Kyrgyz) do not formally distinguish between kidnappings that are forced and those that are elopements.

Bride kidnapping is particularly well-documented in the former soviet Union where early soviet ethnographers detailed its popularity among a number of ethnic groups (Kleinbach and salimjanova 2007). Fannina Halle, a European ethnographer who traveled through central Asia and the caucasus in the 1930s, described soviet efforts to outlaw the practice as part of a project to raise the status of the Union's southern women (Halle 1938:129, see also Keinbach and salimjanova 2007:226). soviet reformers viewed kidnapping as an index of the wildness of outlying lands and the need for socialism's civilizing mission, says bruce Grant (2005:49), and considered it "the ur-example of gender inequality in caucasian societies." Kidnapping was illegal under socialism, as it is today, but laws against it have always been difficult to enforce (Kleinbach and salimjanova 2007).

Since the dissolution of the Ussr, a number of scholars have noted that the practice seems to be on the rise in central Asia (Amsler and Kleinbach 1999, bauer et al. 1997, Human rights Watch 2006, Kleinbach 2003, Kleinbach et al. 2005, Werner 2004). this scholarship has been accompanied by front page articles in The New York Times (smith 2005) and The Chicago Tribune (rodriguez 2005), as well as articles in The Independent (Lloyd-roberts 1999a), The Economist (1996), and numerous webzines.3 the release of Petr Lom's film in 2004, perhaps more than any other depiction, has made bride kidnapping part of the American imagination. the documentary, which was broadcast on Pbs and shown at film festivals all over the world, includes footage of three actual kidnappings as well as interviews with the participants. Although the film provides no commentary and has been charged with violating ethical standards of filmmaking, it is a valuable ethnographic document.

Barnes (1999:69) writes in his survey of the 19th century scholarship, "We may be led astray by the tendency to see marriage by capture as a unitary institution...and therefore to expect for the 'problem of marriage capture' a single answer." Earlier scholarship interpreted bride kidnapping using functional or symbolic analysis, or presented kidnapping as a means by which patriarchal systems of oppression are reinforced. Although these accounts provide useful insight, they do not ultimately explain kidnapping, at least as it is practiced in Kyrgyz society. Drawing on four years spent in Kyrgyzstan (including two years of ethnographic research) as well as ethnographic accounts collected by other scholars, I argue that kidnapping in Kyrgyz society is used in a variety of ways by individuals who are struggling to respond to changing conceptions of love, marriage, and authority. by mediating competing ideals, kidnapping ultimately serves as a potent force for social change.

Encountering Kidnapping

The formerly soviet nations of central Asia include five republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,4 tajikistan, turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These republics became independent (mostly against the will of local populations) in 1991, when the soviet Union dissolved. the Kyrgyz republic, where I did fieldwork, lies on the eastern edge of the region, sharing a border with china. Kyrgyzstan is a diverse nation of 5.6 million people,5 comprising numerous ethnic groups, languages, and religions. According to 1999 figures, 65 percent of the population is ethnically Kyrgyz. there are sizable minority populations of Uzbeks and russians and smaller populations of many other ethnicities. 75 percent of the population identifies as Muslim.

I first arrived in Kyrgyzstan in 1997 as a prospective Peace corps volunteer. Like most westerners who visit Kyrgyzstan, I heard about bride kidnapping almost immediately. During our three-month Peace corps training, stories were passed among the women in my group about two of our language teachers-young, attractive Kyrgyz women-who had been "kidnapped" and were now divorced. confused, we collected and shared information, ultimately coming to understand bride kidnapping as a tradition by which a young man abducts a woman he likes, sometimes a woman he has never talked to, and forces her to marry him. If the marriage does not work out, he will be able to find someone new. she, however, will probably remain alone, like our language teachers. Female virginity is highly prized among Kyrgyz, so the marital choices of a divorced woman are limited.

That fall I moved to my field site, a small town in the south. the two eldest daughters in my host family were close to marrying age, and the topic of kidnapping came up often. Nurjana6 and Gülayim enjoyed shocking me with stories of relatives and friends who had been kidnapped back in their parents' mountain village of Ak tash.

Within a month of my arrival, one of the girls' cousins was kidnapped. "Our eje7 is really crying now," Nurjana said to me one day in september. Elmira was 24. Her parents were wealthy and prominent in Ak tash, and she was studying at a university in bishkek, the capital city. she had been spending the summer at home when Meder, a former boyfriend, invited her to accompany him to meet some mutual friends. Instead of taking her to meet them, however, he brought her to his home. Nurjana told me that Elmira did not want to marry Meder. she had another boyfriend in bishkek whom she loved. If Elmira's parents had supported her she could have left, Nurjana explained, but they told her she had to marry Meder. I told Nurjana I did not understand why Elmira's parents would force her to marry someone she did not love. Nurjana explained that Kyrgyz people believe a young woman cannot leave the home of a suitor when she is brought to his house as a bride. Once she has entered, her happiness lies in that house. Nurjana went on, "If she leaves, she will be known as a girl who has 'crossed the threshold [bosogodon ötüü].' We believe she will never be happy in her life." shortly thereafter, we traveled to Ak tash to attend Elmira and Meder's lavish nike toi (wedding celebration8).

About a year and a half later, a family living near my host family kidnapped a bride. several months before the kidnapping, I was visiting them for tea when the young man in the family, Dastan (22), mentioned he had started visiting Zura, a young woman who lived in his father's village. He said he hoped to marry her soon. their parents knew each other (the families were distantly related) and approved of the match. she was 16 and still in school, however, and the families agreed the couple should wait to get married until after she graduated a few months later. When I next visited, Dastan announced that he was planning to kidnap her. she would not agree to marry him before her graduation parties. Kyrgyz society is patrilocal; at marriage, the bride leaves her family to live with her husband and begin a new life in his community. According to Dastan, Zura wanted to finish school and celebrate with her childhood friends, but he knew that graduation parties are notorious for kidnappings and was afraid he would lose her to another admirer.

A few months later, Dastan did kidnap Zura. the day after the kidnapping, I accompanied a few neighborhood women to pay respects to the new bride. We brought white scarves and baskets of bread and sweets. At the house, the mood was festive. relatives bustled around the courtyard and everywhere cooking pots and samovars steamed. We entered the large receiving room where a curtain had been strung across a corner to hide the bride. In many regions of Kyrgyzstan, it is customary for a bride to be secluded in this way for up to three days after she is married. she does not have to do any housework during these three days, and must cover when she goes outside. Guests may meet the bride, but they must bring a gift of money or food (köründük) in exchange for the privilege of seeing her.

When I went behind the curtain, Zura stood up and bowed several times. Dastan stood proudly next to her. I had been instructed to drape a scarf (jooluk) on Zura's head, kiss her, and wish her happiness, which I did. she had a sweet, young face. I searched her eyes for the despair and resentment I expected in a girl who had just been through a traumatic abduction, but she seemed calm, even happy.

Afterwards, drinking tea in the next room with the women from the neighborhood, I heard the full story. Dastan had told several of Zura's relatives that he was going to kidnap her, and they agreed. On the fateful night, he went to her house and invited her out for a walk, as he often did. rather than walking around the neighborhood with her, however, he led her to a waiting car and took her to his family's home. At the house, she cried and fought, and even tried to climb over the garden wall. those shocking words ringing in my ears, I told Dastan as he walked us out that I was disappointed in him. I was puzzled when he protested, "No, no, she wanted to come [özü kaalagan]!"

Analyzing Kidnapping

Defining Kidnapping

Although individual kidnappings vary considerably, Kyrgyz described kidnapping to me as follows9: a man abducts a woman and brings her to his house. He turns her over to his female relatives who sequester her in a room and try to convince her to put on a white jooluk. by putting on the jooluk, she signals her acceptance of the marriage. the women are not supposed to force her to put it on, nor should they put it on her themselves. rather, with words-both sweet and harsh-they try to get her to agree to the marriage. this will not be easy, however. Even if the kidnapping was an elopement instigated by the bride, she must perform resistance (as Zura did). At the groom's house, she must weep, fight, and try to escape. this performance is one way she asserts her honor; local convention holds that a woman should not publicly show eagerness to marry.10

While the women of the household are with the kidnapped woman, news of the abduction is sent to her family. the parents of the kidnapped woman often have final say in the outcome of a kidnapping. If it is clear their daughter does not want to be there, and if they have concerns about the reputation or socio-economic status of the kidnapping family, they may give her permission to leave. More often, however, they will tell her to stay. Often, a woman who does not want to marry her kidnapper will stay to marry her kidnapper if her parents so wish.11 After all the parties have expressed agreement, an imam (cleric) will be summoned to perform the Islamic marriage ceremony, and the couple will begin living together as husband and wife.

Among Kyrgyz, kidnapping is one of several ways a marriage can begin. Although kidnapping appears to be on the rise (Kleinbach et al. 2005), arrangement is preferred. In Kyrgyz culture, as elsewhere, arranged marriage often allows the potential spouses some say in the proceedings (De Munck 1996, Hart 2007, tekçe 2004, Werner 2009:321, Zaidi and shuraydi 2002:496). Arranged marriages are often initiated when a young man tells his parents about a young woman he fancies. In fact, many Kyrgyz families expect a son to do this (it is an expectation some Kyrgyz young people described to me as a "burden"). He may identify a woman he barely knows or a woman he knows well and who may reciprocate his affections. His parents visit her parents, and, in the course of discussion, both families decide if the match is suitable. If the match is deemed suitable, negotiations begin for the various exchanges that lead to marriage. these may cover the payment of a bride price (kalym12), the size of the toi, and the contents of the dowry (sep). At the least, arranged marriage is a relatively transparent negotiation that maximizes the benefit to all and initiates an alliance between two families that will last several generations. Kidnapping, in contrast, may be instigated by any one individual or combination of the interested parties, and asserts the interests of the aggressing party/ies over those of the others. there are no negotiations. the couple begins to cohabit, and the exchanges and parties occur at the families' convenience (if they happen at all).

Function, Symbol, and Power in Kidnapping Scholarship

In the 19th century, "marriage by capture" figured prominently in anthropological studies of kinship and was associated with early stages of cultural evolution (e.g., McLennan 1970:20ff, tylor 1889:260). In tribal society, McLennan (1970:40ff) argues, families insisted on exogamous marriage but did not have good relationships with other tribes, making marriage by capture a necessity. Later writers also linked kidnapping to a desire to extend alliances as far as possible (barnes 1999:64, bates 1974:283, bates el al. 1974:236).

Recent scholarship, including a collection of articles in a special issue of Anthropological Quarterly (1974), recognized bride kidnapping's utilitarian function. Kidnapping is a "rational strategy" allowing those with few resources to meet their needs or maximize the benefit of available resources, wrote barbara Ayres (1974:241, see also McLaren 2001:978). In some societies, the scholarship shows, kidnapping helps young people, especially young men, circumvent obstacles to marriage (Ahearn 2001:106, stross 1974). In societies where premarital contact between the sexes is discouraged and it is difficult to identify potential spouses, kidnapping is a quick way to secure a wife (Kiefer 1974:123).13 Indeed, most commentators agree it plays a role in the Kyrgyz context, where female chastity is highly valued. In many Kyrgyz communities (especially outside urban areas), unmarried young women are kept at home and young people have few opportunities to meet, much less get to know, potential spouses. Long courtships can lead to damaging gossip. A Kyrgyz female activist quoted in the Chicago Tribune comments, "People say, 'Our young people do not have opportunities to meet or date each other. If you say [kidnapping] is such a bad tradition, suggest something new'" (rodriguez 2005, see also Kleinbach et al. 2005:197).14

A number of scholars have noted that the monetary cost of marriage, which is often highest for the groom's family, is another obstacle to marriage mitigated by kidnapping. the ethnographic record shows that by preempting the negotiations of an arranged marriage, kidnapping can lower the expected financial contribution of a groom's family (Ahearn 2001:105; conant 1974:324; Kiefer 1974:123; Kudat 1974:289; Lockwood 1974:262; McLaren 2001:957; stross 1974:342; Werner 1997, 2009:326). Aryes, however, finds no correlation between bride price and kidnapping in her survey (1974:242), and in many societies bride kidnapping does not reduce the cost of marriage but raises it. barnes notes that in some Indonesian societies, bride price after a kidnapping is many times higher than before and a kidnapping family's status will be lowered (1999:59). In many societies, kidnapping can lead to a blood feud or criminal prosecution (bates 1974:275, Lockwood 1974:254, stross 1974:344).

In the pre-soviet era, bride kidnappings in central Asia may have resulted in high indemnity payments (Kleinbach and salimjanova 2007:222). today, however, kidnapping appears to lower the cost of marriage for the groom's family in both Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities (Kuehnast 1997:299, Werner 2004:71). Among Kyrgyz, the groom's family pays a bride price, sponsors the toi, and provides the new couple with a place to live. the bride's family gives the household property. In the second segment of Lom's (2004) film, a kidnapper's father describes the unreasonable demands of families they have approached. "they say, 'give money, bring it to the toi. show us everything beforehand.'"15 After kidnapping, he says, his family will be able to keep the marriage payments on their own terms.16 Lom also links bride kidnapping's popularity to the economic crisis:

Kyrgyzstan has suffered a lot during the transition from communism. Unemployment, particularly rural unemployment, is very high-estimates put it as high as 40 percent. And there are similar estimates about the numbers of people living below the poverty line, around 40 percent. because Kyrgyz marriages are traditionally very expensive... bride kidnapping has become a much more attractive option. If you kidnap a girl, you usually still have to pay a dowry, but the bride price is usually around a third lower. (sadiq 2004)

In all of the societies mentioned in this scholarship, marriage marks a change of status, when young men and women become adults and full members of a community, therefore gaining access to new material and social resources. Men (and women) who do not marry may be considered "social deviants" (stross 1974:344).17 by allowing a greater number of young people to marry in an otherwise highly regulated and inflexible system of marriage, this scholarship suggests kidnapping functions as a "safety valve" (stross 1974:344) that reduces social frustrations and tensions. this frequently appears to be true among the Kyrgyz. because marriage offers so many benefits, few Kyrgyz men and women remain single, and those that do, experience intense pressure from their parents and from society in general to marry.

Acknowledging kidnapping's function in these societies, however, does not exhaust its ethnographic interest. Functional accounts leave kidnapping's distinctive ritual form unexplained. the symbolic power of the kidnapping act is acknowledged even in the earliest scholarship. According to barnes (1999:67-69), early theorists understood marriage by capture as a signification of a bride's sorrow over leaving her family or of her subjection to her parents, or as a rite of passage. As elopement, it could invoke a society's collective memory of a more violent past, when marriages occured by legitimate capture (barnes 1999:60). Ayres (1974) and Kiefer (1974) understand kidnapping as a way for suitors to challenge the emotional bond between parents and children. Among the tausug of the Philippines for example, kidnapping is "the symbolic taking of the mother (wife) from the father (wife's father) who controls her" (Kiefer 1974:123). Ayres (1974:248) views kidnapping as a "delayed and displaced acting out of the Oedipal conflict." Michael Herzfeld (1985:42) shows that kidnapping in a Greek village, as disguised elopement, was a way for a prospective groom to demonstrate his resourcefulness and masculinity to his future affines, thereby winning their acceptance. In the Kyrgyz context, Lori Handrahan (2004) argues that kidnapping is an assertion of ethnic identity and male power.

Even though the ethnographic record reveals kidnapping to be almost exclusively a practice in which a woman is taken by a man, kidnapping's implications for our understanding of gender relations in these societies is neglected in the earlier scholarship. In the AQ collection, only Kudat (1974:302) explicitly acknowledges, that kidnapping can be linked to the more general oppression of women. barbara Ayres (1974) finds that bride abduction has been documented mostly in societies in which both fathers and mothers are involved in childrearing-not exactly the classic image of patriarchy.

The recent literature, most of it on central Asia, in contrast, interprets kidnapping as a form of violence that reinforces systems of gender inequality. In this scholarship, central Asian culture is described as patriarchal18 and kidnapping as "a product, producer, and reproducer of gender stratification and inequality" (Amsler and Kleinbach 1999:195). Kleinbach and varying co-authors have conducted survey research in Kyrgyz communities to measure the popularity of kidnapping and document changing rates of kidnappings19 (Amsler and Kleinbach 1999, Kleinbach 2003, Kleinbach et al. 2005). their findings that the rate of kidnapping is increasing, they argue, "points to an increase in male dominance" (Kleinbach et al. 2005:198-199). cynthia Werner views kidnapping (among Kazakhs) as a form of gender-based violence that "serves as a mechanism for men to assert and maintain power over women" (2009:328). recognizing that a kidnapped woman can agree not to stay, Werner proposes that women usually stay because of the increasing salience of a "discourse of shame," which tells women they will disgrace themselves, their families, and the kidnapping families if they refuse to marry their kidnappers. she argues that the increasing power of this discourse has become a means by which "men assert further control over female mobility and female sexuality" and marks "a shift towards greater patriarchy" (2009:315).


These three theoretical approaches to kidnapping provide useful insights, but the third requires special comment because of increased scholarly interest in the extent to which women are oppressed by the complex of beliefs and practices theorists refer to as "culture" or "tradition" (e.g., Merry 2006, Narayan 1997). I do not contest that central Asian culture is patriarchal. Men tend to have more economic and political power in Kyrgyzstan, and rely on what Paula Johnson (1976) has called "direct" (rather than "indirect") power and "concrete" (rather than "personal") resources.20 I question, however, the assumption that patriarchy and kidnapping are uniquely linked, or that kidnapping's popularity is an indicator-the canary in the coal mine-that Kyrgyz women's greatest concern at this historical moment is oppression suffered at the hands of Kyrgyz men. Leaving aside the literature's neglect of global systems of inequality which arguably have a much more devastating impact on Kyrgyzstani citizens of all sexes, these arguments are problematic for several reasons. First of all, it has long been a truism in feminist anthropology that female subordination is "one of the true universals, a pancultural fact" (Ortner 1974:67). Assuming this to be true, describing a society as male-dominant just restates the obvious, and says little about the unique way inequality manifests practically. In other words, if we accept that kidnapping is linked to male dominance, the burden is still on us to explain why male dominance has manifested in this particular form.

Second, the understanding of kidnapping as a practice by which young men wield power over young women is based on a simplistic, "binary" theorization of power which assumes discreet agents (in this case, young men) wield power against discreet victims (young women). this assertion neglects the contributions of Foucault and his followers, who have shown that power operates in more subtle and diffuse ways than through straightforward processes of domination (Foucault 1990:92, Mohanty 1991:71).21 this perspective has been usefully developed by talal Asad (1993), who argues that agency is the result of processes of subject formation which predispose a subject to act in certain ways but render these tendencies (and their sources) inaccessible to the subject (or anyone else). In Asad's formulation, the conscious subject (i.e., awareness) and the principle of agency (shaped by instinct, the body, and the unconscious) are separate (1993:15, Wilson 2006). Asad's account asserts that the workings of power within a society are inaccessible and embedded in complex interactions between subjects and the discourses, emotional predispositions, and material realities that form them. Following Asad, it may be more useful to speak of kidnapping not as the domination of victims by perpetrators, but as the actions of subjects in a cultural context that continually forms them.

Finally, the gender inequality argument is problematic because it does not satisfactorily address the widespread complicity of Kyrgyz (and Kazakh) men and women, young and old. responding to the recent glut of western scholarship and activist projects against kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyzstani reporter comments, "It so happens that our people's attitude to forced marriages (ala kachuu in Kyrgyz) is rather tolerant" (Karimova 2004). Widespread acceptance of the practice is evident in the Lom (2004) documentary, in which at least two mothers encourage their sons to kidnap, groups of married women aggressively urge a kidnapped woman to stay (some of them acknowledging that they were kidnapped, themselves), and female relatives of a spurned kidnapper express their disappointment that the girl has left, recalling how they cursed her as she went. In one segment, the film crew approaches a shy girl of ten or eleven, a member of a poor, rural household that has kidnapped a possible bride. they ask how she feels about the kidnapping. she is glad, she says, because a new woman around the house will mean less work for everyone else. In another segment, family members, young and old, male and female, sit around a table, encouraging the young man of the family to kidnap a bride, even advising him about possible candidates.

Contemporary authors acknowledge the widespread acceptance of kidnapping among Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, but their theoretical models cannot satisfactorily account for it. Werner invokes Deniz Kandiyoti's (1988) idea of the "patriarchal bargain" to argue Kazakh women's participation in kidnapping does not undermine the gender inequality argument. Kandiyoti argues elder women in patriarchal societies acquire limited benefits and status by colluding with patriarchal institutions' oppression of younger women. In Werner's telling, elder Kazakh women's complicity in kidnapping is a paradigmatic example of this patriarchal bargain. they encourage sons to kidnap, even if it is harmful to young women, because they anticipate the arrival of a bride will give them more power in the household. the problem with Kandiyoti's (and Werner's) argument is its oversimplification of women's motivations. Kyrgyz women I knew did gain authority and status as they aged, but they wielded this authority in ways that showed they were driven by a variety of motivations. Although some may have been motivated (in part) by a desire to inflict upon others abuse they had suffered, I believe most of the women I knew were motivated (at least in part) by a desire to work for the good of their families and communities. Even if an elder woman's participation in a kidnapping may look, from the outside, like an attempt to increase her own power, she may also be acting in accord with dominant discourses that tell her that her actions serve the best interests of all (or most) of the individuals involved.

Kleinbach and salimjanova (2007) offer an alternative explanation, implying that widespread complicity is a symptom of Kyrgyz traditionalism. they mention that in the course of their research, they have often heard the refrain, "kidnapping is 'our tradition,'" from both women and men (2007:218-219). this was a discourse I, too, often heard. After Zura's kidnapping, when I was drinking tea with the women of the neighborhood, they talked cheerfully about Zura's struggles, seeming to take heartless pleasure in what sounded like a traumatic experience for a defenseless young woman. "How can you approve of this when she obviously did not want to come?" I finally interrupted. "Oh, it is just our tradition," one woman said, dismissively. Kleinbach and salimjanova (2007) seem to understand this discourse as evidence that Kyrgyz people do not question ideas that are part of society's conventional wisdom.22 they were motivated by this discourse to do extensive historical research which they then used to argue that kidnapping, at least as practiced today, is not a tradition with a long historical record (Kleinbach and salimjanova 2007). Although the research their study produced is useful in its own right, the scholars seem to miss the point of the contemporary "tradition" discourse, which I interpret as an evasive response. For a people overwhelmed by development discourses imposed upon it by aggressive foreign organizations, the "tradition" discourse is a way Kyrgyz politely but firmly deflect criticism of their culture and traditions by outsiders, who they might consider to be unreasonably critical or merely uninformed.23

Kidnapping and Cultural Change

In order to understand why kidnapping is both widely practiced and widely tolerated in Kyrgyz society, it is necessary to consider not just the functional, symbolic, and gendered implications of the practice, but also its role at a unique historical moment. Kyrgyzstani citizens today are living through an era of disorienting social change and economic instability. changing material realities and the influx of foreign ideologies force Kyrgyz people to question the dominant discourses of their society, especially the dominant discourses regarding love and marriage. In the following sections, I argue that kidnapping is compelling and popular today because it mediates the tensions caused by different understandings of love and marriage that can arise between young people and elders and within families. As a practice that subsumes qualitatively different acts into one ritual form, kidnapping helps people with widely varying convictions about love and marriage inaugurate and/or maintain productive social relationships. In other words, it is something that those who support conservative discourses of love and marriage as well as those who would like to subvert them can agree on; kidnapping allows both groups to participate in social life but, at the same time, leaves open a space of debate.

Dominant Discourses

Before considering how kidnapping challenges the dominant discourses of love and marriage, it is useful to give a brief overview. In the dominant Kyrgyz discourse of marriage, it is an institution that serves a number of important functions. Marriage builds alliances between families, thereby extending social networks, increasing influence and professional opportunity, and reinforcing the solidarity of the community (e.g., Kuchumkulova 2007:122). Marriage is a rite of passage, bestowing adult status on the marrying couple and raising the status of the parents, who by marrying their children publicly fulfill one of the most sacred responsibilities of a Kyrgyz adult. Finally, marriage supports the physical and emotional well-being of the couple involved. Parents want to see their children marry as reassurance that their children will be taken care of in sickness and/or old age.24

This focus on marriage as an institution reflects a de-emphasis on romantic love. Although I heard many Kyrgyz boast that Kyrgyz young people marry "for love" (in contrast to young people of other central Asian ethnic groups25), this must be contextualized because understandings of love vary from culture to culture. the type of love familiar to members of democratic, capitalistic societies is what Anthony Giddens (1992:23) has called the "pure relationship": a relationship of constant emotional intimacy and equality between two people. Abu-rabia-Quedar writes of this ideal, "the individual expresses his/her uniqueness and falls in love with another individual's uniqueness; and through love the individual realizes his/her absolute right to choose a spouse" (2007:318). In capitalist societies, this ideal is upheld by the convention of long courtships which allow a couple to get to know each other intimately in the course of an extended series of meetings. For many Kyrgyz young people I knew, "marrying for love" implied a very different ideal. Like the liberal discourse, it implied some element of choice, but the courtships young people described to me sounded extremely short by my western standards. In other words, the pressure to marry quickly prevents many young people from establishing the level of intimacy, romantic attachment, and recognition of each other's "uniqueness" before marriage that is inherent to Giddens' "pure relationship."

Many Kyrgyz families encourage their young people to keep courtships short, partly to avoid damaging gossip (premarital sexual activity-although common-is not socially acceptable) but also because Kyrgyz do not believe a lengthy courtship is useful for revealing whether a couple will successfully weather the trials and challenges of marriage. Furthermore, young people are encouraged to marry early for a variety of reasons, and long courtships only delay this.26 Perhaps the most important reason is that marriage marks the transition to full adult status. to be full-grown and unmarried in this society is to be "matter out of place" and can attract unwanted attention and scorn (Douglas 1966:40). Unmarried men and women I knew-even those who were wealthy and successful-found themselves with little respect in their communities.27 the parents of young women have unique reasons to press their daughters to marry young. In Kyrgyz culture, partly because childbearing is so important, women in their late 20s are already viewed as less desirable.28 Also, the aging parents of young men have unique reasons to press their sons to marry early-they are eager to welcome a new bride to the household, as she will help with housework and care for the family's elders.29

Finally, it is important to consider how marriages are judged by society. According to the dominant discourse of marriage, the success of a marriage should be judged less by the existence or persistence of the "pure relationship," than on the mutual respect that emerges over time and creates a situation of friendliness (yntymak), prosperity (bereke), and fecundity. Kyrgyz expect spouses to fulfill culturally defined roles in the family (men having the responsibility to provide for the family and women having the responsibility to give birth to children and take care of the physical needs of family members in the home). If the individuals fulfill these roles successfully, many Kyrgyz told me, the marriage is likely to be peaceful and prosperous.

In this context, the importance of fecundity cannot be overemphasized. Kyrgyz people told me children, not spouses or even professional accomplishments, are the most reliable and enduring sources of happiness and satisfaction for a human being.30 Women, particularly, are believed to find happiness through children. salamat-eje, my former host mother, used to tell me, "Don't wait for the perfect man. there is no such person. It is more important to find someone who will do, so that you can get married and have children, because every woman has to have children. that is her destiny. that is the one thing that will truly make her happy." A woman interviewed for Lom's (2004) film, tells the film crew that she had been kidnapped. Asked if she and her husband love each other, she answers, "Of course. After having five children together, how can you not?" Many Kyrgyz people cannot understand why a couple would stay together if they could not have children. My friend burul, 26, told me she was happy for a classmate of hers who had recently remarried. the young man had been married unhappily-his first wife was not able to have children. He divorced, married a different woman, and soon after, had a baby. "He's really happy," she said. "I'm so glad for him." I told her I thought a married couple would stay together because of romantic love, even if they could not have children. she said, "but you have to understand that in Kyrgyz culture, children are the most important thing. that's the reason for marriage."

The continued preference for arranged marriage conforms to these dominant discourses of love and marriage, but kidnapping can also serve these discourses. several of the kidnappings documented in the Lom film occurred in response to encouragement or pressure from elders. Elmira's kidnapping, which I described earlier, is another example. Elmira was 24 and nearing an age when she would no longer be a desirable bride. Her kidnapping came at an opportune moment for her parents, who were clearly eager for her to settle down. Another example is the marriage of Farhat, a policeman, to Ainura. Farhat is the youngest son in his family and was the last child to marry. At the time of his marriage, his parents were elderly and anxious to fulfill their responsibility to marry him.31 they also desired a daughter-in-law who would care for them and help around the house.32 Farhat had a sweetheart in bishkek, but his parents did not approve of her because she was a city girl and they worried she would not adapt well to life in their village. Ainura, who lived in Farhat's village, was suggested as a possible candidate. the two met, and discovered that the only thing they had in common was they each loved someone else. Without telling Farhat, his family organized a kidnapping of Ainura with the help of Farhat's friend, Aziz. the kidnapping was an unpleasant surprise for both Ainura and Farhat, but they both agreed to the marriage and today have two children. In all of these cases, kidnapping was used in a way that conformed to conservative discourses of marriage: it ensured young people married young, without long courtships, and/or to individuals approved of by their elders. Most notably, it affirmed marriage as a social institution whose main function is to strengthen social solidarity and ensure social welfare.

Cultural Change

In a recent study of a Nepali village, Laura Ahearn (2001) considers how changing attitudes about marriage and love are connected to other forms of social change. Drawing on raymond Williams's notion of "structures of feeling," which she defines as the "qualitative changes in the way people experience and interpret events" (Ahearn 2001:52-53), she argues that social shifts occur when new social and/or economic contexts make old discourses problematic. In Ahearn's fieldwork community, emergent changes in structures of feeling include increased appreciation for the value of individual agency (as opposed to fate), romantic love, free choice in marriage, and gender equity. she links these changes to new economic opportunity and the rise of the development sector.

Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan today, ideas about love, marriage, gender, and agency are changing in the context of drastic social and economic shifts. since independence, the Kyrgyz republic has experienced profound economic, political, and social change. Movements critical of corruption and oppressive policies ousted two presidents. the republic's withdrawal from the soviet Union and the neoliberal reforms imposed by world financial institutions have resulted in a drastic reduction in the availability and quality of social services, as well as growing poverty, high unemployment, and corruption. In addition to these economic and political shifts (and partly because of them), numerous foreign ideologies have entered the country since independence and are changing the way people think about self, community, and authority. these ideologies include liberal discourses such as capitalism and democracy, along with global religious movements such as evangelical christianity and scripturalist Islam. by emphasizing individualism and critical thinking, these ideologies empower Kyrgyzstani citizens (especially members of the younger generations) to question traditional mores-such as the authority of elders or the pursuit of professional advancement-even if this means putting off marriage.

The increasing popularity of foreign faiths requires special comment, as young people involved in these groups may find themselves forced to follow nontraditional paths to marriage, either because families reject members who have converted to new faiths or because converts fear their parents will force them into marriages with people they view, for religious reasons, to be unsuitable. In these cases, religious communities often take on responsibilities that were traditionally shouldered by parents and relatives, including helping young people find suitable mates, serving as a support community for a new couple, and even helping pay wedding expenses. the case of Nurjana (introduced above) serves as an example of these dynamics. While in high school, Nurjana became involved with a turkish Muslim organization, and grew critical of her parents' lax attitudes toward religion. Once she was in her early 20s, she turned to her religious community to help her find a potential mate. When her turkish friends introduced her to a young Kyrgyz man who was part of the network, she agreed to marry him and only later informed her parents. One of several wedding celebrations held in their honor was subsidized by the turkish community.

Another important source of changing ideas about love and marriage is global popular media. since the era of glasnost'33, young people in the region have had access to world media (Fierman 1988). today, movies from Hollywood and bollywood, translations of western romance novels, and soap operas from the Americas influence ideas about love and marriage as well as deeper conceptions of identity, gender ideals, and life goals (Kuehnast 1998, Mcbrien 2007). Many young people I knew mentioned wanting to experience the kind of romantic love they saw in popular media, love that more closely approximates Giddens' ideal of the pure relationship, even if that meant delaying marriage until they found partners who met drastically raised expectations.

For couples who have been influenced by these changing discourses, kidnapping is an attractive option. Like elopement, kidnapping allows young people to marry when their elders disapprove of a sweetheart for financial or social reasons, to speed up a marriage they feel could be undermined by parental hesitation, or to avoid an arranged marriage that is being forced upon them. Just as kidnapping can be used to serve conservative interests, it can be used as a way for young people to assert their marital desires. In the next section, I explore how one practice can serve such diverse purposes.


Some scholars who study kidnapping in contemporary central Asia suggest that studying elopement and forced abduction together is "misleading" (e.g., Amsler and Kleinbach 1999:187). these scholars argue that in order to construct a theoretical understanding of kidnapping, researchers must "distinguish between the qualitatively different acts referred to by this name" (Amsler and Kleinbach 1999:187), and they do so by focusing on the level of the prospective bride's consent.34 Although I agree that Kyrgyz kidnappings are of many types, I do not believe creating a classification system based on the bride's consent contributes to a theoretical understanding of the practice.35 I argue, instead, that kidnapping is compelling to Kyrgyz because of its ability to subsume qualitatively different acts in a unified ritual form. Kidnapping makes it impossible to know who consented to what. this ambiguity allows kidnapping to be a force both for conservative values and for their subversion.

Three ethnographic examples illustrate the difficulty of assigning consent to a kidnapping event and demonstrate how kidnapping is both conservative and subversive. consider the example of Zura and Dastan (mentioned above). this kidnapping is difficult to categorize as consensual or nonconsensual. One complication I did not mention above is that Dastan's family had suffered a tragedy in the winter preceding the kidnapping, making it inappropriate to hold a toi. this meant kidnapping was inevitable if the couple was to marry soon. All parties to the marriage probably understood this, including Zura. since the community knew they were sweethearts, the community would assume a kidnapping was consensual. this could be awkward for Zura, however, because a Kyrgyz woman is not supposed to show eagerness to marry (see above, page 146, and endnote 10). Dastan and his relatives found a better solution. Long before the kidnapping, Dastan started telling people in the neighborhood that Zura did not want to marry him before graduation, and then boasting he would kidnap her. After the kidnapping, the family emphasized Zura's surprise and her aggressive resistance. Whether or not the kidnapping was the "forced" kidnapping of the family's version, their assertion of force confirms the point I made above, that forced kidnappings are not merely tolerated but widely accepted as a respectable form of marriage among Kyrgyz. If this were not the case, Dastan's family would have de-emphasized Zura's resistance so as not to attract community censure. by pointing out that Dastan's family actively portrayed the event as a forced kidnapping, however, I am not asserting that their version was necessarily a distortion and the kidnapping was consensual. certainly, ample evidence exists to suggest that it was not. (e.g., Did Zura hesitate to allow time for another sweetheart to act?) Whatever the reality-which is impossible to know-by emphasizing Zura's surprise and resistance, Dastan and his family upheld her honor in the eyes of the community, and by extension, their own.

The second example concerns Qilich and Aigerim. In his last year at the local university, Qilich met and started dating Aigerim, also a student at the university, but several years younger. they wanted to marry, but Aigerim's parents refused, saying they wanted her to finish her studies first (see endnote 26). Qilich was concerned that if they waited, he would graduate and move elsewhere, and they would never see each other again. He proposed kidnapping, and she agreed. Although the kidnapping was described to me, many years later, as an elopement, at the time it was presented to the community as a "forced" kidnapping. by staging a "forced" kidnapping, Qilich and Aigerim were able to marry for love. More importantly, Aigerim was able to marry against the wishes of her parents without compromising her good relationship with them.

One more ethnographic example is the story of bakyt and Kunduz, students at a high school in my community, who married by kidnapping soon after graduation. According to rumor, Kunduz was pregnant and forced bakyt to kidnap her by going to his house and refusing to leave. Whether this was true or malicious gossip is hard to know, but despite the rumors, the marriage was respectable in the eyes of the community because it was presented, publicly, as a kidnapping, which implied bakyt had forced the marriage. In a society whose dominant discourses of marriage condemn premarital sex (and punish women disproportionately for the impropriety), the illusion of forced kidnapping can be particularly useful to women in such compromising circumstances, allowing them to secure a quick marriage and avoid public shame.

In all three cases, the ability of kidnapping, as a ritual form, to obscure desire and render it difficult for an outsider to know who wanted what, made possible marriages that went against conservative expectations and/or family desires. In the case of Dastan and Zura's marriage, the families wanted the young people to marry, even though it was unseemly so soon after a death in the family. Kidnapping allowed Qilich and Aigerim, a young couple, to flout their elders' attempts to postpone (or perhaps prevent) a marriage. For bakyt and Kunduz, kidnapping may have allowed a young couple to transgress conservative community mores without suffering repercussions. these kidnappings are not unusual in the way they make it difficult to locate consent. Instead, this ambiguity is what makes kidnapping useful and popular among Kyrgyz today.

The Pace of Change

As Ahearn discovered in her community, changes in "structures of feeling" do not emerge quickly and linearly, but gradually and "dialogically... through the social and linguistic interactions of individuals" (2001:52). In Kyrgyz society, new discourses about love and marriage have not replaced existing ideas but instead intensified disagreement and anxiety. If most elders caution that young people who put off marriage to build careers or find one's "true love" will find happiness and security more elusive, young people are unsure. they are attracted to new, romantic visions, but often find the more conservative ideals, such as the belief that the most reliable source of happiness is not romantic love or career but family-raising children, watching them grow up, marrying them off, and seeing the cycle begin again-confirmed by their experiences.

By the time a young Kyrgyz woman has reached adulthood, she has seen many friends and relatives married by kidnapping. Many Kyrgyz women I talked to admitted that even though they did not want to be kidnapped, they believed the success of a marriage has little to do with how it begins. Nurjana, Gülaiym, and I explored this question in countless conversations about married females we knew, in which we compared what we knew about their lives and their marriages. In these conversations, we discovered that freedom of choice did not always correspond with marital happiness. Many women we knew who married for love were unhappy because their husbands were abusive or unfaithful, or could not support them financially. In contrast, one of the women who seemed happiest was an aunt who had been kidnapped against her will. According to the aunt's own telling, she was miserable when she was kidnapped, because she was in love with someone else. Many years later, she learned that her sweetheart died young. Now she says she is glad she was kidnapped, because if she had married her sweetheart, she would not have a husband and would be unhappy. Gülaiym and Nurjana thought this aunt and her husband were happy, noting the way their aunt was eager to make herself attractive for her husband and the way he worked hard to support her and their three children. saying this is not to dismiss or trivialize her initial distress, but to point out that Kyrgyz young women are attentive both to the distress a kidnapped woman may feel, as well as to the later trajectory of the marriage.36

A particularly poignant example of how a young woman struggled to reconcile competing discourses about love and marriage is the story of cholpon, a college graduate and former beauty queen. In college, she had many suitors, but rejected them all. In her early 20s when I knew her, she was increasingly anxious about finding a husband. In our conversations, cholpon told me about a boy she fancied, who resisted her advances. she also told me about timur, a respectable young man much older than she and highly regarded by her parents, who had made known his desire to marry her. she confided to me that she was not in love with him, and expressed the hope that another candidate-a "true love"-would materialize. One afternoon shortly before her 24th birthday, she was kidnapped from her office by a young man from her village. He and several of his friends took her by car to his house, where she was received as a bride. cholpon refused to agree to the marriage, insisting her parents would not make her stay. Indeed, they soon came to take her home. shortly after the kidnapping, however, cholpon was wearing a new pair of gold earrings. they were an engagement gift from timur's family. Although cholpon had said she wanted to wait for her "true love," the kidnapping seemed to add to her increasing sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the unforgiving Kyrgyz marriage market, forcing her to give up her earlier dreams of love. In the remaining weeks before the wedding, she spoke differently of timur. she expressed her respect and love for him, and seemed to look forward eagerly to beginning a family with him. Although leaving a kidnapping is to flout conservative discourses and could be viewed as a relatively subversive act (on the part of both cholpon and her family), the refusal only sent cholpon back into a social milieu governed by the same conservative discourses. Her story reveals that the challenges facing young Kyrgyz women are less about any one practice, than the coercion inherent in a social system that imposes a uniform vision of the "good life" on all individuals.


Many Kyrgyz kidnappings are disguised elopements. In these cases, kidnapping is employed by young people to assert their romantic desires in contradiction to dominant discourses, such as the importance of marriage as an alliance between families, elders' control over marriage, and the de-emphasis on romantic love. If kidnapping were merely used to challenge the dominant discourses of marriage, however, it would not be so widely tolerated by men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Kidnapping is widely tolerated because it can be used to affirm the desires of young people and new discourses about romantic love and free choice, just as easily as it can be used to enforce the dominant discourses. In fact, even when it is used by young people to challenge the authority of their elders, it may still uphold other ideals of marriage with which the elders would agree, including the importance of keeping courtships short and marrying early in life.

In this paper, I have explored how common explanations of kidnapping are incomplete. Kidnapping not only serves important economic and social funcitons, it also is a compelling ritual and a manifestation of male dominance. In order to account for the varied functions of kidnapping, it is important to attend to the historical context. Kidnapping's popularity is a response to tension over changing structures of feeling that have emerged in an era of rapid social and economic change. the ambiguity inherent to the kidnapping act mediates the tension that might otherwise result within families and communities over different beliefs about marriage. Kidnapping allows an act of desire to be disguised as an act of coercion and gives an act of coercion (and by extension an act of desire) a veneer of respectability and promise. Marriage is risky; it is a liminal moment when new social relations are formed and young people take on unfamiliar roles. Kidnapping helps preserve good feelings during an otherwise dangerous transition.


Thanks to Zamir borbiev, steven caton, Michael Herzfeld, Engseng Ho, Zahra Jamal, russell Kleinbach, Linda racioppi, Fatima sartbaeva, John schoeberlein, cynthia Werner, two anonymous reviewers, and my many Kyrgyz friends and informants. special thanks to Zamir and Fatima for helping with Kyrgyz spellings and translations. Any errors that remain are my own. Drafts of this paper were presented at the Harvard Anthropology Department's Middle East Workshop (fall 2006), in John schoeberlein's "culture Wars in central Asia" (fall 2007), at the Michigan state University's Asia studies center (fall 2009), and at the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne's Anthropology club (spring 2010). thank you to everyone who participated in these fora. Funding for research and writing was provided by (in chronological order) the IIE Fulbright Program, the social sciences research council, the Harvard University Department of Anthropology, the Harvard University Graduate council, the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and an IPFW summer Faculty Grant.


1Also spelled ala kachuu.

2Pusurmankulova (2004) quotes a Kyrgyz official who says, "No other nation upholds this tradition. We should feel ashamed."

3Handrahan 2000a, 2000b; Lloyd-roberts 1999b; Pratova 2006; sadiq 2004.

4Officially, the Kyrgyz republic.

5All figures taken from cIA World Factbook 2011, but reflect 1999 census figures.

6In the ethnographic sections, the names of most people and places are pseudonymous.

7Eje literally means "older sister," but is required when addressing or referring to females older than the speaker.

8Toi is used to refer to large feasts held to mark a number of occasions, including marriage, the birth of a child, a circumcision, or the purchase of a home. Nike is the Islamic marriage ceremony and distinguishes the feast as linked to a marriage.

9The kidnappings filmed by Petr Lom (2004) follow this ideal quite closely. see Werner (2009:316) for a similar ideal among Kazakhs.

10Even in non-kidnapping weddings, a bride must demonstrate her reluctance to leave her family. she performs a weepy, often hysterical farewell when the groom arrives to take her from her home, and sits glumly at the wedding feast.

11See the Lom (2004) film for an exception. In the opening segment, the kidnapping family tells the girl her family has agreed to the marriage, but she still leaves.

12Also spelled kalyng.

13In a quantitative analysis of the Human relations Area Files probability sample, Ayres (1974:244), could not demonstrate a correlation between kidnapping and restrictions to pre-marital contact. she finds, instead, that kidnapping is common in societies where childrearing is shared between men and women. Interestingly, men do play a larger role in childrearing among Kyrgyz (who accept bride kidnapping) than among Uzbeks (who do not) (see, e.g., Kuchumkulova 2007:105).

14Kuehnast's informant tells her kidnapping is "the result of the helplessness of a man who thinks that there is no other way to marry a woman" (1997:298). An official interviewed by Human rights Watch comments, "Many women are very shy...We advise women not to associate with men. Our girls don't know how to deal with men. When they grow up, they don't know what to do. some women are grateful (to be kidnapped), otherwise they say they would never have gotten married" (2006:88, parentheses in original).

15English translations of the film dialogue are my own.

16According to The New York Times, "Kyrgyz men say they snatch women because it is easier than courtship and cheaper than paying the standard 'bride price'" (smith 2005).

17Human rights Watch (2006:93) comments, "Fear of being stigmatized as an unsuccessful man can influence a man's decision to 'get' a bride through kidnapping."

18Petr Lom states that, "Kyrgyzstan is still a very patriarchal, male-dominated society" (sadiq 2004). Human rights Watch also describes Kyrgyzstan as "highly patriarchal, with women's roles in public and private life circumscribed" (2006:6). Lori Handrahan writes, "Of all the violations committed against women in the current nation-building process, bride kidnapping is the primary assault" (2000b:21). The Chicago Tribune comments, "the abduction of [Kyrgyz] women to coerce them into marriage has become...ingrained in the country's male-dominated society" (rodriguez 2005). Kleinbach et al. write "Non-consensual kidnapping of a bride is obviously an act of male dominance" (2005:196).

19These authors acknowledge that their research is part of an activist project to stop kidnapping (e.g., Kleinbach et al. 2005:200, Kleinbach et al. 2008-2009).

20According to Johnson (1976:100-101), direct power is rendered openly, such as by giving an order. Indirect power is wielded unobtrusively, such as through manipulation, and with the hope that the individual will achieve a desired outcome without others realizing that influence is being asserted. concrete resources include material resources, knowledge, and physical strength. Personal resources include relationships and popularity.

21"By power," Foucault writes, "...I do not have in mind a general system of domination exerted by one group over another, a system whose effects, through successive derivations, pervade the entire social body" (1990:92).

22This discourse, that Kyrgyz (and central Asians in general) lack the "critical thinking" skills to question inherited traditions, was commonplace among members of the ex-pat community when I was working there.

23Kleinbach and salimjanova (2007) do not acknowledge the influential volume edited by Hobsbawm and ranger (1983), in which a number of scholars argue that the importance of a "tradition" is not found in its history but in the way it is constructed and reconstructed by actors in support of immediate interests.

24Kanybek, 31 and divorced, described the pressure from his mother to remarry: "she says to me, 'Please, we will worry about you. We are old. We will die soon. Get married and we won't worry.'" Kanykei, 26, heard similar things from her parents, who told her to marry because they were concerned about her. "they say, 'We will worry about you until you get married.' I know it's because they love me and don't want me to be alone.'" she tells them she is happy, "but my mother and father are elderly, and I can understand them. I know they will never be at peace until I marry."

25One discursive construction of ethnic difference I heard while doing fieldwork among Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Ferghana Valley was that Uzbek marriages are always arranged by elders, with the young people meeting only briefly (if at all) prior to marriage, while Kyrgyz young people get to choose who they marry. Although this construction is somewhat idealized, it is interesting to note that kidnapping is almost unheard of among Uzbeks. When I first lived in Kyrgyzstan, it seemed ironic to me that Kyrgyz, who give young people more freedom in marriage, tolerate a practice like kidnapping, while Uzbeks do not. I have come to believe that it is exactly this tension between freedom and control that creates the need for a mediating factor like kidnapping.

26There is considerable variety among Kyrgyz regarding the ideal age of marriage. In villages, and/or among families that do not send their young people to university, this can be as early as the late teens. Among educated classes and urban Kyrgyz, however, many parents hope young people will finish a university degree before marriage (c.f. the story of Qilich and Aigerim, page 160). After the degree is finished, however, parents will be anxious to see a child marry.

27Aizat, a successful professional woman in her early 30s, told me that the questions regarding why she remained unmarried had become so unpleasant that she barely leaves her parents' house when she visits her native village.

28One of the kidnapped women in Petr Lom's film, Norkuz, had a boyfriend at the time she was kidnapped, but was happy with the marriage. Lom remarks, "Why? Well, first, she was 25 and not married, and this is very old to be single in Kyrgyzstan" (sadiq 2004).

29A mitigating factor, however, is that the groom's family is responsible for most of the marital expenses and may need to delay marraige until sufficient funds have been collected. In such cases, kidnapping can be an attractive alternative.

30In many of the kidnapping narratives reported by Kleinbach and co-authors, Kyrgyz informants end a harrowing story of a forced abduction with an account of how many children the couple has. the implication, possibly lost on the western reader, is that the couple has found happiness, whatever the initial context of their marriage. When people learned I was childless, they often quoted the following Kyrgyz makal (saying), "Balasy bar üi bazar, balasy jok üi mazar" (A house with children is a bazaar, a house without children is a graveyard). It is also important to note that children are particularly important today because of the economic crisis and the dismantling of the socialist welfare system. In the absence of state structures to support the elderly, family networks are the only reliable source of support and care in old age.

31This is also true of at least two kidnappings portrayed in the film (Lom 2004). In the film, a number of elders speak of their eagerness to see the young men in question kidnap their brides because they want the men to marry.

32Many Kyrgyz observe the tradition that all the children move away from home except the youngest son, whose family cares for his parents until their death and then inherits their property.

33Glasnost' refers to the period in the Ussr when Gorbachev eased government control of the press and other media.

34They propose categories to distinguish types of kidnapping based on the level of consent of the woman involved. In the work of Kleinbach and co-authors, a kidnapping can be "consensual" or "non-consensual." "Non-consensual" kidnapping is defined as kidnapping. "by deception or force, not in love and woman not wanting to be kidnapped" (2005:197). More usefully, cynthia Werner divides kidnappings into three categories: high consent, medium consent, and low consent (2004:82-84).

35In her discussion of a small village in Nepal, Ahearn (2001) points out that the notion of consent is itself inherently problematic. In the language of her field community (as, indeed, in our own), consent implies passivity. In her community, even though village sentiment has, to some degree, turned against capture marriage because it implies a lack of consent from the woman, the consent that is expected in examples of elopement still reaffirms a patriarchal system in which a man is expected to be an active agent who persuades a woman to marry him (2001:249-250). In other words, the existence of consent does not imply the absence of coercion. In the case of Kyrgyz kidnapping, the contemporary scholars who want to distinguish kidnappings based on consent forget that kidnapping is not itself marriage, and that any kidnapping that ends in marriage implies the existence of consent in some form.

36In contrast, Nurjana and Gülaiym believe Elmira, also kidnapped against her will, did not end up happily married.


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Author affiliation:

Noor O'Neill Borbieva

Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne

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