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

Tajiks Borrow Bride-Theft From Neighbours

In remote northeastern district, Tajik men have taken to specifically Kyrgyz custom of “stealing” brides.
By Fayzia Ahmadova

Abducting the woman you want to marry – with or without her permission – is a well-known if illegal tradition in Central Asia, but typical only among the Kyrgyz and Kazaks. Now it is taking off among Tajiks, apparently borrowed from their neighbours.

In the eastern Jirgatal district of Tajikistan, bride-theft survives among the Kyrgyz who form the majority population here, despite every effort to stamp it out under Soviet rule.

A local resident called Qaisiddin said Tajiks in Jirgatal has started copying the practice.

“Our neighbour was abducted on her wedding day by the guy who was in love with her. No one knows where he took her. But everyone knows that wherever they are be hiding, they will come out soon,” he said.

When he was young, he said, he often heard stories about such abductions – but only among Kyrgyz neighbours.

Now, he said, “The Tajiks think that if the Kyrgyz in neighbouring villages kidnap their brides, then why can’t we? That’s how it is turning into a new custom.”

Kyrgyz bride-theft stems from a nomadic tradition where the young man presents his new wife’s family with a fait accompli and avoids payment of “kalym”, the marriage “price” which can often be exorbitant.

In modern Kyrgyzstan, the tradition is often distorted so that a young woman is kidnapped off the street by a passing acquaintance or complete stranger, held against her will, and coerced into marriage as the least shameful option left to her.

Qaisiddin insisted that among the Tajiks of Jirgatal, it was always consensual.

“For us, it isn’t kidnapping, it brings two loving hearts together,” he added.

IWPR interviews in Jirgatal suggest bride-theft has become a definite trend.

“Tajik girls, too, are being kidnapped in our district, because we live alongside the Kyrgyz and we’ve adopted some of their traditions,” Daler Safarov, a journalist with the local Safina TV station said.

The Tajik authorities do not seem to be addressing the issue as it appears that most cases, as Qaisiddin suggested, are really consensual elopements. In any case, parents are reluctant to report cases to the police – however unhappy they are about the marriage – because of the shame that publicity would bring down on the family.

A Jirgatal resident who did not want to be named described how his brother abducted his childhood sweetheart, returning to the village three days before her arranged marriage and eloping with her. The couple went to a Muslim cleric who performed the religious wedding rite.

He said they were forced to arrange the “abduction” because the woman’s family – who have since disowned her – disapproved of her choice.

Mahmadullo Asadulloev, spokesman for the interior ministry in the capital Dushanbe, told IWPR there were no reports of abducted brides case on the police records.

“If such a case does occur and the girl’s family inform the police that she was abducted against her will, it will be treated as a serious offence,” he said, adding that under Tajik law, such cases would be prosecuted as a form of kind of kidnapping.

The increase in bride-thefts alarms some commentators, who say it is alien to Tajik culture and could lead to non-consensual abductions, as in Kyrgyzstan.

Temur Oksanov, an analyst from Tajikistan who is Kyrgyz by background, warned that if coercive abductions became common, it would have a serious social impact, and could lead to a rise in suicides among married women – already a common response to abusive marriages.

Most commentators agree the practice is unlikely to spread from Jirgatal to areas where there is no Kyrgyz influence.

“If you kidnap a girl here, it isn’t as shameful an act as it would be in, for example, [neighbouring] Garm or Tajikabad,” Safarov said. “If someone abducted a bride in those districts, he’d be killed immediately.”

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, a political analyst in Dushanbe, said most people in Tajikistan would oppose the kidnapping of brides.

It was only in Jirgital, where Kyrgyz and Tajiks lived alongside each other and sometimes intermarried, that two traditions could become intertwined, he said. Elsewhere in Tajikistan, the usual solution for young couples whose parents opposed their marriage was to go through the Muslim wedding rite in secret, and then tell their families.

“But kidnapping a girl and then making the fact public is just not done here. In Kyrgyzstan, a girl can be ‘stolen’ on her way to work or in some public place regardless of whether she consents,” he said. “In Tajikistan, though, even if the girl does give her consent, it isn’t seen as acceptable and it will be condemned by this patriarchal society. Her father and mother – especially the father – will never take back a daughter who has shamed them.”

Fayzia Ahmadova is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.