Women's Rights

Kyrgyz cartoons battle stigma of bride kidnapping


Kyrgyz women describe their fight against the tradition of abducting intended brides.

BISHKEK -- Sports journalist Gulzhan Turdubayeva still cries when she thinks about the day she was kidnapped, taken to the home of an unknown man and told she would marry him.

"He was quite short. Apart from that I cannot remember much about him," Turdubayeva, who lives in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, said of the ordeal three years ago.

"I had never even met him before."

The practice of bride kidnapping, known locally as ala-kachuu, is widespread in the conservative Muslim-majority nation.


Kyrgyz women who were kidnapped by men wanting to marry them participate in a March 6, 2007, Naryn roundtable about bride kidnappings. The problem is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. [AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP]

An estimated 12,000 women and girls are abducted every year in Kyrgyzstan -- often with the connivance of their relatives -- and offered to a potential husband, according to the UN.

Turdubayeva resisted and, in the end, managed to escape unmarried. Many others aren't so lucky.

Now her story and those of four other women have been turned into short animations as part of a project aimed at lifting the veil on bride kidnapping.

"People see the drama of bride kidnapping in a girl getting bundled into a car by several men, but often it doesn't happen like that," said Tatyana Zelenskaya, one of the artists behind the "One Day They Stole Me" series.

"The real drama (comes) later when the would-be in-laws were persuading her to stay," Zelenskaya said.

"How did they impose their will on her in that moment and why did she accept the marriage? This is what I wanted to understand."

'I will never forgive'

Turdubayeva appears as "Nargiza" in one of the short cartoons.

Sketched in thick dark lines, it tells of her scheming aunt and how she was tricked into being driven to an unknown man's home under the pretence of getting a lift home from work.

"My mother is still in contact with her, but I will never forgive her," Turdubayeva said of her aunt through tears.

Other cartoons in the series are even darker.

In one of them, a heroine named Begaim is raped by the man she is supposed to marry, a common danger for women subjected to bride kidnapping.

In another, the marriage ends in divorce.

So far, the animations have only been shown as clips on YouTube, but Zelenskaya is hopeful they might one day be shown on national television.

In a sign of how sensitive the issue remains in Kyrgyz society, Turdubayeva is the only one of the five heroines to publicly reveal her identity.

While Turdubayeva has been widely applauded for coming forward, she has also received hate mail on social networks, where the clips have been widely shared.

The abusive messages came mostly from men.

"Some of them told me, 'You're a fool; you should have stayed with him. You are both Kyrgyz, which is the main thing,'" she told AFP.

Slow to change

The problem of bride kidnapping has deep roots in Kyrgyzstan.

As in other parts of the former Soviet Union, including the Caucasus, bride kidnapping pre-dates Communism, which failed to completely eradicate the practice.

Kidnappings surged after the impoverished country's independence from Moscow in 1991, as the country went into economic freefall.

Some experts have linked the practice to the economy, and specifically rural families' inability to pay high bridal prices, which are often reduced in cases where the bride is kidnapped.

Traditional arranged marriages, such as those seen in neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are less common in Kyrgyzstan.

Zulfiya Kochorbayeva, an analyst at the Agency of Social Technologies, a nonprofit group, adds that young rural men and women "lack places where they can socialise and build relationships."

"I remember at my school, one of my schoolmates was stolen straight from the graduation ball," Kochorbayeva recalled.

"Around half of my schoolmates got married in this way," she said.

Criminal offence

Kyrgyz officials say incidents of bride kidnapping are declining thanks to tougher legislation, including a 2012 law that specifically targets such kidnappings with prison terms of up to 10 years.

Kochorbayeva told AFP there had been recent instances of kidnappers receiving criminal sentences, alongside a push from civil society to curb the phenomenon.

But a UN report published in 2016 found that almost a third of people in the country were still unaware that bride kidnapping is a criminal offence.

And Kochorbayeva said instances of girls or women reporting the crime remain the exception.

"The rate of [such offences solved] is still very weak," she said.

"It is difficult for girls to file complaints, considering their own families may not support them."

That problem reflects Kyrgyzstan's patriarchy, she said.

"Here, the older generation decides the fate of the younger generation. That's the essence of a patriarchal society."

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