Three years ago my roommate was bride kidnapped. Now it’s my youngest sister-in-law. E turned 18 a few weeks ago, right before her high school graduation party. She’s now in the middle of final exams, the results of which will go a long way toward determining which college she goes to. If she goes to college … there are 3 different families trying to kidnap her first.
To review: what is bride kidnapping? It’s the practice of physically kidnapping a woman (or girl), taking her to your house, and requiring her to marry you. The practice can range from ‘mild’ – where couples have pre-arranged and mutually agreed to the kidnapping – to extreme – where a woman is held down by a man’s friends while he rapes her and thereby makes her his bride. Bride kidnapping happens throughout Kyrgyzstan and in some parts of Kazakhstan, though supposedly nowhere else in Central Asia (I’ve heard of cases in formerly nomadic parts of Africa as well … one running if unproven theory is that it is somehow related to (ex) nomadism).
My previous posts on bride kidnapping were simplistic and naive. This one will be too. But a far more nuanced and insightful analysis of bride kidnapping written by local researchers will be coming out soon (shameless plug: it’s part of the research project I’ve been leading for UN Women over the past year. Once it’s ready, I’ll post a link). Their work has shown that BK is not simply or even primarily an act of out of control men, but rather a deeply contextualised social phenomenon supported by actors of all genders, ages, and social statuses. Indeed, those who play some of the most prominent roles in bride kidnapping are the to-be-husband’s mother and sisters-in-law. These women often instigate the process, selecting not only when the kidnapping will happen but also which girl is to be kidnapped (note that in these instances, the man himself does not get to select his bride; he may be as unexcited about the prospect of marrying as his kidnapee is). When the kidnapping happens, it is also these women who play the key role in ‘convincing’ the bride to stay (anywhere from reasoning with her to forcibly holding her down), confirming her virginity and making sure it is lost (‘advising’ if the couple has problems in the act; making sure there is a proper bloodstain on the sheets once it’s over), and organising the wedding party that will last for days if not weeks after the event. New brides generally take over responsibility for all housework after they’re wed, and so these elder women have a huge incentive to support the practice: mothers are freed from their lingering household duties and have a new caretaker in their old age; the wives of elder brothers can pass their housework to the new, younger bride and enjoy relative freedom (plus have a new servant to boss around).
So with that context, back to E. As the youngest daughter (and with a sister-in-law, namely me, who refuses to live with the in-laws or do their housework), E is responsible for 90% of the cooking, cleaning, clothes-washing (by hand), cow-milking, childcare and elder care in the family. She also goes to school full time. So she’s developed the reputation of a work-horse, precisely the sort of girl you’d want to replace yourself with if you were your family’s go-to servant. I.e. she’s prime BK fodder for all the sisters-in-law out there looking for a new hire. And now that she’s graduating from high school, she’s ripe: old enough and educated enough to be a good housewife and mother, young enough that she’s never struck out on her own – say, to university – or seen anything that would tempt her away from family life. Bear in mind that she’s lived in a village of 5,000 all her life, only visiting the city once for 5 days (and seemed quite terrified while here. She refused to leave the house alone, or even with me if there wasn’t also a male relative to protect us. Blew my mind).
Starting last week, men and their parents were arriving uninvited and unannounced at my in-laws’ front door, seeking an arranged marriage with E. When E and her parents refused – “We want her to go to university. She’s not ready to marry yet” – a few of the visiting families decided to bride kidnap her. The first arrived two nights ago: a car packed with 6 men pulled up to the house around 9pm, switched off its lights, and sat waiting for E to come out, say, to go to the bathroom (no indoor plumbing in the village) or check on the cooking (outdoor stove). Fortunately the family saw them before either of those things happened. One of her brothers told the men to get lost, and they did, but not before asking (somewhat stupidly), “when’s her next exam?” It’ll be easier for them to hang out at her school, waiting to grab her off the street when her family isn’t around (these exams are also why she can’t just hide out with us in Bishkek for the next several months. She’s stuck in the village – prime and easy bait for BK – until she finishes her finals. There has to be a way the schools could organise their academic calendars better to help minimise this danger-phase for their female students).
Rumour has it the next attempt is coming in a few days … but you can never really tell. Will it be sooner? Where will it happen? In the meantime, E is stuck in the house afraid even to go to the outhouse; she’s in need of constant supervision and accompaniment by a brother or parent. And of course the truly scary thing is that you just don’t know how the bride kidnapping will go down if they manage to get at her: will they rape her? Will they break her wrist or ankle if she struggles too much (quite a few cases where such things have ‘accidentally’ happened)? Will this be a relatively gentle bride kidnapping, with only yelling, invocations of family honour and humiliation, and force from female relatives (already traumatic enough as is)? She knows she won’t stay and her family will fight to get her back, but what awful things will happen in those moments between the snatching and the leaving?
Which brings me – selfishly – to myself. If she is kidnapped, really the only person who can get her back is her oldest brother, who happens to be my husband. Standard procedure: the oldest brother shows up with 10 or so of his burliest friends, forces his way into the kidnaper’s household, and extracts his sister with much yelling, screaming, and attempted humiliation raining down from the prospective husband’s female relatives. From what I hear, only the eldest brother is capable of making it into the household (my own impression from various conversations, not a research result or anything). My husband and I live in Bishkek, a 6 hour’s drive from the village. Those are 6 hours during which any number of awful things could happen to E if she has to wait for him to arrive. So really, he should be hanging out in the village, accompanying her everywhere and waiting to be on-hand should the worst happen. Which sucks because right now he’s the one taking care of our 10-month old while I work. So he leaves (for a week? for two?) and I stop working, plus the baby doesn’t sleep because he loves his dad too much, and there go two weeks of sleep and income and baby happiness because some idiots can’t take “no” for an answer.
The irony here is that my husband’s family is also putting intense pressure on his little brother – the same one who told E’s potential kidnappers to get lost – to marry. With E graduating and hopefully going to university and a foreign daughter-in-law who’s basically useless, they’re stuck without anyone to do their housework. Plus my mother-in-law is seriously ill and increasingly needs care and attention. The solution? Find yourself a second, more useful daughter-in-law. R, the little brother, is anything but ready to get married. His type is more “fantastically beautiful city girl” than “dutiful and obedient village wife”, so his dating efforts have thus far been unsuccessful. And so the last time he visited the two of us had this conversation:
M: (reading excerpts from the UN Women research on bride kidnapping) This stuff is unreal. Did you know that elder sisters-in-law encourage kidnapping?!
R: Yeah of course. So when are you gonna pick someone for me? (joking)
M: You realise, if you kidnap someone I’m sneaking her out of the house. Or calling her relatives.
R: Yeah, yeah. (long pause) But still the kidnapping must be interesting.
M: Are you crazy? Can you imagine how awful it is? You don’t even know which one is your husband. You’re stuck working for his family your whole life.
R: No, not to be the girl! To do the kidnapping. It must be a real experience.
M: What if a girl got together all her friends and kidnapped you and you thought she was unattractive and uninteresting but you couldn’t leave? How would you feel?
R: Oh come on. That’s silly.
M: Seriously, imagine. And if you kidnap someone I’m getting her out, consequences be damned.
The thing is, I really like my little brother-in-law. But he says things like this and I feel like we’re from different planets. And I wonder how serious he is. I wonder how serious I am. Could I get her out? Would I go to the village – a place I hate for its customs and constrictions and small minded gossip – to rescue a girl I don’t know from a guy who I think is better than the local average? If I went, how would I do it? Steal the car and sneak her out of the house somehow? I hope I never have to find out. And I hope Almaz never has to find out what it’s like to rescue E.