Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Kidnapped Brides Controversy

Kazak society is split on the contentious practice of bride abduction, a long-standing tradition for young men looking to marry.
By Olga Dosybieva

It was at a family wedding in the South Kazakstan countryside where 17-year-old Marina first came face-to-face with the ancient custom of bride kidnapping.


Marina, a slim and attractive Shymkent student, overheard a man and woman discussing how they planned to abduct her on behalf of their son who was looking for a wife. She laughed off the comments, confident her own, more modern parents wouldn’t allow their daughter to be married against her will.


Other young women living in the south aren’t so blase, however. Many live in fear they’ll be kidnapped by their would-be husbands – a controversial practice that some in the country see as a harmless tradition and others view as a barbaric violation of human rights.


“I can’t imagine how you can spend your entire life with a person you don’t know,” said 19-year-old Aitkul. “Many of my girlfriends are scared that they will be kidnapped.”


Aitkul’s worries are more than justified. Though it is illegal under the country’s criminal code and punishable by up to five years in prison, unofficial statistics suggest that around 20 per cent of marriages in South Kazakstan involve a kidnapped bride.


Young Kazak women tell of being invited to the cinema in groups of two and three, and eyed up as potential wives and kidnap victims.


Other cases are more bizarre. Back in the Soviet period in the Jambulskaya region, friends of a bridegroom, who usually doesn’t participate in the kidnapping, told IWPR that they went to the wrong window and abducted an aunt rather than the intended victim.


In some cases, the kidnapping is consensual, concocted between the bride, groom and his family if the girl’s parents won’t agree to the wedding. It’s also seen as a useful way for men to avoid the bride-price - the payment made to the bride’s family- and means major savings on the wedding ceremony, a cost that is footed by the groom’s family.


Saule Ashirbaeva, a middle-aged housewife, said, “[Otherwise] if a young man wants to get married, his parents must have 5,000-10,000 US dollars to give a decent wedding. The older generation pays even more attention to the marriage traditions. The groom must give presents to every male relative of the bride – suits, robes and livestock.


“The women must be given gold jewellery and costumes. Weddings are celebrated on a grand scale, with many guests invited, from 200 to 500 people, and a lavish banquet.”


Though some kidnappings are consensual, many are not. These women are taken against their will, and some are sexually assaulted. Under Kazak tradition, once a girl has been away from home for even one night she cannot be accepted back into her family again. Even her mother will refuse to take her back and usually advises the girl to resign herself to her fate.


“A girl who comes back is not destined to be married, and she will be cursed by relatives,” said Saida, a housewife and mother of three daughters.


Most women, therefore, don’t go to the police to report they’ve been kidnapped.


Saltanat Karakozova, press secretary for the South Kazakstan police department, said two criminal cases were opened last year, but were closed when both sides resolved their differences.


A senior police officer from the region, Serik Jumagulovich, told IWPR that he couldn’t remember anyone ever being imprisoned for abducting a bride.


“Usually people who voluntarily release the kidnapped person are freed from criminal responsibility, if there was no element of any other crime in their actions. In such cases an agreement is usually reached, the girl either remains or leaves – with what consequences, the police are not interested.”


Kidnapped brides are a controversial issue in Kazakstan. Some like 73-year-old Kuanyshbek, considered to be an expert in the customs and traditions of Kazakstan, support the practice.


“A friend of mine saw a girl for the first time at a party and kidnapped her that same evening. They still live together, they raised seven children and now they are bringing up grandchildren,” he said.


Others like Kuralai, a member of a businesswomen’s association, believe it is barbaric. “The fact that women do not assert their rights and are scared of rumours and insinuations is nothing more than legal and cultural backwardness, and this custom is in itself amoral,” she said.


Students Gaziz and Daniyar agree that stealing the bride is not a manly act. “It shows weakness and lack of confidence in yourself and disrespect for the parents,” they said.


Doctors, meanwhile, warn that the abducted women suffer enormous psychological damage from the experience.


“To create a family, it is necessary to know each other and to be prepared for changes,” said Chokan Baimukhamedov, a doctor in South Kazakstan. “The stress suffered by a girl at the beginning of family life has its consequences. Most family couples created against the will of the woman remain unhappy.”


Mukhabbat works as a nurse in a village ambulance station. At age 17 she was invited to take part in the staged abduction of her girlfriend which had been planned in advance by the couple who both wanted to marry.


Happy at the prospect of an adventure, Mukhabbat agreed to help.


She went with the pair to the groom’s home where the intended bride was pushed aside and Mukhabbat chosen in her place by a family member who pointed a stick and said, “We’ll take that one.”


Her friend was taken home, and Mukhabbat stayed behind. She is now 29, has three children and a lifeless manner.


Her adventure, like that of so many Kazak women, has proved to be a long one.


Olga Dosybieva is an IWPR correspondent in Shymkent.