Forced marriages in this central Asian country are not simply about arrangements between families, but also strangers abducting women to be their wives.
BISHKEK - "Kidnapping the bride" is something of a German tradition – as when some of the groom’s friends lure her to the nearest pub and wait until he shows up to pay for the drinks.
But where Dinara Isakova is from, the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, kidnapping brides is nothing to joke about.
Isakova (not her real name) was whisked away on her mother’s birthday by a male colleague she barely knew. He was at a concert she attended and afterwards offered to drive her home. "I thought why not, I was in a hurry, we were going to celebrate my mother’s birthday.” The school teacher never made it back to the family home.
A male friend of the colleague’s was also in the car, and shortly after leaving the concert venue they stopped at a street corner to let another male friend in – that meant there were three men and Isakova in the car. They drove out of the city of Osh in the south of the country, and after three hours reached his parents’ house.
"I kept trying to talk him out of it, to explain that what he was doing was wrong.” Inwardly, she says, she kept vacillating between the desperate hope that her parents would somehow come to her rescue, and the idea that this was her destiny.
"At the time I didn’t have the feeling much less the knowledge that I had any rights,” she says. "I only knew that once he got me inside the house there was no going back.”
Isakova tried to resist but it didn’t work. She wrote her parents a letter saying she was fine, telling them where she was and asking her to come get her – but that last part of the letter was cut away by her captors. A week later, she was married.
That was 10 years ago, and she has divorced since. But there are thousands of cases like Isakova’s in Kyrgyzstan where kidnapping brides is still a very widespread practice. In fact, some 15,000 women are kidnapped and forced into marriage every year. In many regions, the practice is either justified as tradition or just simply accepted.
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Laws are often not enough
In Bishkek, the country’s capital, however, the spirit of democracy and a desire to adapt to Western practices prevail. So Parliament has hammered through a new law to fight the practice: for any victim of 17 years of age or over, the kidnapper now faces a prison sentence of up to seven years, 10 if the victim is younger than 17.
Until now, kidnappers usually avoided any kind of possible legal trouble by keeping a low profile – because although “bridenapping” is a tradition, even under the old law it was illegal. However after the fall of the Soviet Union the practice took on such huge proportions that it exceeded law enforcers’ ability to keep up with it.
"It was time for a new law," says Bubusara Ryskulova, who heads the Sesim crisis psychology center in Bishkek. "Democratization of both the government and society have helped get us this far, and now we need to make sure the law’s enforced."
She says raising awareness of the new law by talking about it in schools, families, in street campaigns, is essential: women have to know they can bring charges, and men that they are committing an act that could land them in prison.
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Some 15,000 women are kidnapped and forced into marriage every year (Irene2005)
However: "mostly in kidnapping cases it’s not just the future husband who’s involved but a whole group of people with him," says Ryskulova. So – particularly in cases where the bride’s family agrees to go along with the practice – having the courage to file charges with the police could still pose a problem, she admits.
What’s more, many consider that the honor of a family has been tainted if the bride leaves her new unwanted family and her unloved husband so the result can be violence, particularly in rural areas. Since the beginning of 2012, seven women have come to Ryskulova’s center for help, and that’s only a tiny percentage of cases.
For Dinara Isakova, the ordeal was short-lived: she and her husband got divorced a month after their marriage. "I rebelled, behaved badly in various ways also in public, we did nothing but fight," she says. And so the man she never wanted got tired of the marriage pretty quickly. She now lives in Bishkek, but when she goes back to provincial Osh, she says, people talk. They don’t think getting a divorce was right. Isakova says by now she’s used to it, or at least tries not to let it get to her.
When she divorced she was aware she’d have to deal with this problem, and “if they talk about me today, tomorrow it’ll be somebody else,” she says philosophically.
What does she think of the new law? “It’s important,” she says. “Women aren’t objects that you can simply appropriate.”
In the capital, the message has hit home. It certainly took a while, in fact the first parliamentary initiative to tighten the law failed. But as time went on media and political debates have been increasingly open. "The number of people who grasp the problem here has grown,” says Ryskulova at the Bishkek crisis center for women. Now that grasp has to start gain foothold in the rest of the country.