Kyrgyz Bride Price Controversy
Twenty-one year old Ulan worries that he will be a bachelor for some time to come. Though he has a girlfriend, the ancient Kyrgyz tradition that requires would-be grooms to pay a bride price, or kalym, to his fiance’s parents means the recent university graduate can’t afford to get married.
“I am supposed to bring 1,500 US dollars cash, a horse which costs 300-600 dollars, a cow which costs 200-350 dollars and a sheep worth 70 dollars and presents for the elders. At the moment this seems unrealistic to me, as I only earn 30 dollars a month,” said Ulan.
The kalym is one of the most important and ancient customs of the people of Central Asia, traditionally given to the parents of the bride as a payment for bringing up their daughter. Today, it varies from a symbolic sum of 50 to 5,000 dollars and often comes in the form of livestock or expensive household items such as rugs, furniture and appliances.
Proponents of the kalym see it as a positive practice that allows women to know their own worth while others say it turns them into a commodity and prevents many young people from starting a family.
“I have been with my boyfriend for five years now, and we would like to marry, but the material situation of my boyfriend does not allow him to pay the kalym which my parents asked for me,” 20-year-old Gulbarchyn told IWPR.
“My parents told my boyfriend to bring at least 1,000 dollars, a horse, cow and sheep, not counting presents for the elders. Although I want to get married according to traditions, at the moment love and my happiness are more important for me.”
The kalym is determined by a gathering of elders from both families - the amount reflecting the woman’s qualities. If she is university graduate or employed in a good job then a larger sum is requested.
The bride’s parents then return part of the payment in the form of a dowry, which is usually smaller than the kalym.
Those who oppose the practice argue the tradition of the kalym runs contrary to the principle of equality between the sexes. “If one takes the viewpoint that women and men are equal, why should men pay a fee,” said 25-year-old Sultan.
However, economist and parliamentary deputy Kubanychbek Idinov insists that the kalym is not a fee for the bride - an important distinction, he said, if women are to avoid being treated like a purchased commodity.
“The words fee and kalym do not correspond to each other. This is an incorrect interpretation of the system between the parents of the groom and bride. The fee, even the word itself, insults the human dignity of the woman,” said Idinov.
The head of the Kyrgyzstan’s Muslim clergy, Yusur Yakubovich Loma, says the kalym isn’t recognised under Sharia law though added, “Every people have their traditions, if we take them away who will we be then? If by fulfilling these traditions, a man goes into debt, then this is not encouraged by Islam.”
Payment of the kalym can also be problematic if a marriage breaks down.
“My husband brought me a good kalym ... but when we separated, he demanded his kalym back, threatening to beat me,” said Nurmira, a resident of the village of Dolon in the Issykkul region, highlighting a common problem.
Psychologist Nazira Isaeva believes that before marriage the sum of the kalym is not important, but afterwards it may serve as a cause of discord. A woman’s position in her husband’s family depends on a good price being paid, allowing her to walk tall among her new family as well as her old.
“I increasingly notice that before marriage, women believe that [the kalym] is not the main thing and that it is not important. The most important thing is there is love. After they get married, it turns out that they give this a lot of importance,” said Isaeva.
Gulmira, a resident of Karakol in northern Kyrgyzstan, says she regrets not getting a larger kalym. “My parents gave me an expensive dowry, although the sum of the kalym was very small, but when I come home [to see them] my parents rebuke me because not much was paid for me,” she said.
Another Kyrgyz custom that is flourishing as a result of the kalym is the ancient tradition of bride kidnapping, which is becoming more widespread among families who cannot afford to pay.
While in some cases a woman may agree to be “kidnapped” by her boyfriend, so that they can afford to get married, in other cases women are abducted and forced to marry against their will.
Bride kidnappers also save on wedding costs as partnerships that begin with an abduction are usually marked with a more modest ceremony.
“I am not able to pay the kalym, but I have to get married, and I have decided to steal a wife for myself,” said 24-year-old Temirlan.
Economic hardship has also given rise to a distortion of the kalym under which hard-up parents – usually from the countryside – demand a bride price for their daughter then order her to return home after several days. This process is then repeated several times.
Despite the criticisms of kalym, many older Kyrgyz are reluctant to give up on the traditions and customs of their ancestors, saying it is difficult to simply reject one’s origins. “We are Kyrgyz, so we have to marry off women according to customs, because this is the parent’s duty and we have this in our blood,” said one mother.
Aijan Rakhimdinova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.