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Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 02:37 GMT

Kyrgyz bride theft goes awry

Kidnapping a bride doesn't always produce a happy family

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan, I had been told that the practice of bride stealing was so common that I had persuaded myself that it must be some kind of courting ritual.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts: "Rural tradition confronted urban modernity"
I expected to find that the bride wasn't actually stolen by force but that the kidnap added a frisson to the boy meets girl scenario or an element of drama to an otherwise staid, arranged marriage.

I'd also read that for a nomadic family a bride could cost as much as five horses. A city man was expected to make a substantial donation to the bride's family. Perhaps, I thought, in the cash strapped economies of Central Asia, bride stealing was simply a way of avoiding more economic hardship. I was soon disabused.

I arranged to meet the would be bridegroom and his best friend and accomplice for dinner. Far from the brash young men whom I was expecting, Sanjal and his friend, Aziz, were a bunch of nerves.

The eve of the wedding

While the boys chainsmoked, I ordered a bottle of the ubiquitous sweet Soviet champagne to reduce the tension and to celebrate the wedding I intended to film the next day.

Sanjal told me that he was 21 and a law student. Didn't he worry that he was breaking the law and the penalty for bridestealing was a two year jail sentence? "It's our custom", he said, shrugging his shoulders, "and the girls' families never dare bring charges. Anyway", he added, "I have to do it."

It turned out that this sophisticated university student with his Boss jacket and Levi jeans was the youngest son of farming parents. According to Kyrgyz custom, it is the duty of the youngest son to look after his parents. Since they were in their sixties they'd told him to get on with it.

Preparing the wedding banquet

Sanjal had seen a young woman, Maja, at the university who was two years younger than him and whom he had never spoken to but she was to be his bride. "But you're an educated young man" I said, "Why don't you just ask her?". "Because she might say no", Sanjal replied.

[ image: The whole village is invited to the banquet]
The whole village is invited to the banquet
The next morning, I drove the 20 minutes to the village where his parents live. The house was a hive of activity. Various daughters and daughters-in-law were preparing a banquet, the whole village was to be invited.

Sanjal's mother showed me the more intimate preparations. There was the red crushed velvet dress which her three daughters-in-law had worn after they had been stolen by her older sons and the vital headscarf, the platok.

She explained that it only required for the young woman to cross the threshold of the house and for her, the future mother in law to put the headscarf on her head for her honour to be compromised and the marriage would be a fait accompli.

The unsuspecting bride-to-be

Meanwhile, back in town, Sanjal and Aziz had persuaded Maja and a friend that they were taking them to a birthday party at his house. Surprisingly, given the regularity with which kidnappings take place, the girls agreed. I followed them in a car and watched Maja walk into the house, quite unsuspecting.

Sanjal's mother and the women in the family welcomed her and said that the other guests would be arriving shortly. Then the mother, a formidable woman who towered over Maja lunged at the girl with the headscarf.

The girl paled and screamed. She was soon surrounded by six or so female members of the family, all of them saying, "come on", "don't worry", "it is always like this", "it happened to us all." The tiny girl, threatened and terrified started to struggle like a caged animal, fighting with her hands above her head to keep the headscarf from covering her.

Education or marriage

I experienced one of those moments in a journalist's life when you have to stop observing events and get involved. The girl was shouting, "gdye miya mama". "I want my mother. Let me go."

[ image: Maja::
Maja:: "It's so savage, so primitive."
My translator and I arranged for our car to go back into the city to collect her mother. For the next half hour or so there was a stand off. Maja, crying hysterically, told me "It's so savage, so primitive. I can't believe this is happening to me."

Bizarrely, Sanjal's family was quite unperturbed by her reaction. They were convinced that she would soon come round and that when her mother arrived she would talk sense to the girl.

Maja's mother stormed into the room. She chastised her daughter for being so naive and then turned on Sanjal's mother, who said "what's the matter? this is our custom."

Rural tradition confronts urban modernity

"Oh no it's not", said Maja's mother, "my daughter is finishing her university education and we're off." Mother and daughter left.

Sanjal was mortified and ashamed. His mother and sisters were left dumbstruck, surrounded by the uneaten banquet. I made my excuses and left. This was clearly not the story that I had expected and I felt ashamed that I had been part of it.

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