The fall of the Soviet Union brought with it the promise of new freedoms for many people in central Asia – but perhaps not the women of Kyrgyzstan. Since independence, the old "ritual" of bride kidnapping (exactly what it sounds like) has made a serious comeback.
But the tradition has been updated, as Petr Lom, reporting for the US TV documentary series Frontline, explains: "Some say Kyrgyz men used to snatch their brides on horseback. Now they use cars, and if a villager doesn't have a car, he hires a taxi for the day."
Yup, this is for real
The news and campaigning site Global Voices Online reports an alarming resurgence of bride kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan over the last two decades: as many as 8,000 women each year, the state’s ombudsman estimates. Perhaps a third of marriages begin with an abduction; in the countryside, it's as many as half.
For outsiders, one of the more shocking aspects of these kidnappings is that they are so casual. One family told Lom that they didn’t have the dowry demanded for the girl their son wanted to marry, so they turned to plan B: grab her off the street. When that plan failed, they had a few drinks and came up with plan C: kidnap the girl working at the bar.
In other cases the kidnapping is more theatre than terror: the girl knows the man she will marry, maybe even loves him, and the kidnapping is a homage to tradition. Yet even these instances involve capture, with the future groom snatching his bride off the street with the help of friends, rather than, say, a more subtle proposal.
It's illegal (wink, wink)
Bride kidnapping is against the law in Kyrgyzstan, but it goes on happening – and the abductors are rarely prosecuted, in part because many police don't know it's illegal, in part because families expect and accept that their daughters will be taken.
Many young women submit to their kidnappers (and to the female relatives who seal the union by wrapping a veil around the abductee). Some go on to enjoy happy marriages, in spite of their initial protests. Others stay with their new husbands because their families put pressure on them – it's widely assumed that a kidnapped woman won't be a virgin any more, and in Kyrgyzstan that matters a lot.
For some, it is too much to bear: Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service sponsored by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, has reported on two women who killed themselves in the past two years.
Earlier this year, the Kyrgyz parliament considered a bill to penalise Muslim clerics for blessing unregistered marriages: it was thrown out because it would also have affected polygamy – another illegal but common practice.
Women in Kyrgyzstan still have some big battles to fight.
Learn more: The NGO Open Line has been making videos to educate the people of Kyrgyzstan about abduction. Global Voices explains.