Global Watch Update: Ala kachuu
by Tricia Dower
There was one boy Kyal fantasized might carry her off to his rich America. But in cultural anthropology class one day he said her country was turning into a tacky theme park. "Yurt World," he called it and everyone laughed, filling her with shame.
-- "Kesh Kumay"
Three years ago, I completed a story that drew upon the phenomenon of bride kidnapping, or ala kachuu, in Kyrgyzstan. That story, “Kesh Kumay,” part of the Silent Girl collection, was ignited by Petr Lom’s moving documentary "Kidnapped Brides" on CBC’s Passionate Eye in 2004. At the time, I had no idea that women were kidnapped into marriage in Kyrgyzstan. How many women, Lom didn’t know. In this interview, he said, "there are almost no scholarly studies on the subject, and the international human rights community has given the subject almost no attention.”
As a woman, I was horrified by what the documentary revealed. As a writer, I was excited. I had been looking for a modern counterpart to Shakespeare’s Kate (The Taming of the Shrew). When one woman tells Lom, “After the kidnapping, you've no choice —you start loving, even if you don't want to, you have to build a life,” I knew I had found my Kate in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
It took me many months to write that story as I needed to research life in Kyrgyzstan as well as the history and practice of ala kachuu. My research led me to conclude that women had fared better under the Soviets when it came to human rights. It was the Soviets that had made ala kachuu illegal as far back as 1927. It is still against the law, but ever since Kyrgyzstan became an independent republic in 2001, incidents of ala kachuu have become more frequent and the police seem to look the other way. As this 2004 article in Women’s News relates, the status of women fell in many areas following independence.
Recently I came across the name of Dr. Russell Kleinbach, professor of sociology at Philadelphia University. He was a Fulbright Lecturer at Osh State University in Kyrgyzstan from 1998-1999 and has made bride kidnapping one of his scholarly pursuits. (Apparently Petr Lom did not know about Kleinbach’s work with Sarah Amsler, instructor of Sociology at American University in Kyrgyzstan.) I wrote to Kleinbach and inquired about the current situation.
“I can say small progress is being made on the ala kachuu problem,” he wrote back. “For the first time, there are now crime statistics on kidnapping.”
He sent me a table of those statistics for 2006. Out of 73 cases that were registered with law enforcement agencies, 53 were dismissed and 16 were treated as criminal. It’s hard to say how many cases go unreported. Articles I had come across during my research indicated that as many as a third of Kyrgyz marriages result from non-consensual kidnappings (as opposed to consensual elopement type kidnappings). Kidnapped women are pressured by their parents to accept the marriage so that they won’t be “cursed.” Often the marriage is consummated by force, leaving the woman “spoiled” and unlikely to attract another husband.
Dr. Kleinbach also wrote, “We have done enough research to know a lot about non-consensual kidnapping, including that it is not an ancient Kyrgyz tradition, in addition to being illegal and not allowed in Islam. While the practice continues with tragic consequences, it is sometimes successfully resisted. This summer we plan to begin a one year study to test the effectiveness of our anti kidnapping educational program.”
Image of yurts beside Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.