Ala Kachuu: Kyrgyzstan’s Drastic Marriage Ritual and its Malign Influence on Women’s Right

In Kyrgyzstan the common practice of bride kidnapping is raising serious questions about the rights of women. Ala Kachuu involves the kidnap of women usually under the age of 25 by a prospective groom and his acquaintances. The woman is then taken to her intended spouse’s family home where she is pressured - through persuasion, threat or force - by the groom’s female relatives into consenting to marriage. The practice has been on the rise in recent years, and most rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and the onset of Kyrgyzstan’s independence.

The practice of ala kachuu has existed in Kyrgyzstan for the past century. But, in its current form, it cannot be considered a traditional cultural practice, as prior to Soviet control in the country it was very rare and, when it did occur, consensual.  Now however a Human Rights Watch report, ‘Reconciled to Violence’, and a separate academic study, ‘Kidnapping for marriage (ala kachuu) in a Kyrgyz village’ (by Russell Kleinbach, Mehrigiul Ablezova and Medina Aitieva), have proven how widespread the practice has become and its present coercive form. According to the Human Rights Watch report: “One long-time researcher of this phenomenon, who founded and runs an NGO to help victims of abduction for forced marriage, said, ‘We did research on how many women married by agreement and how many were kidnapped. I was surprised that some 40 percent of women in the city were kidnapped and in villages it was more like 60 percent, and that in some villages the percentage of women kidnapped was more than 80 percent.’” The Kleinbach et al study found that 66% of the women in the village they surveyed had been kidnapped without their consent.

NGOs and human rights groups in the region have emphasised the need for the legal system to intervene to protect women’s right to self-determination. This is an uphill battle in a country whose government seems to accept that the issue of marriage is within the jurisdiction of culture and tradition. The practice conflicts with Article 16 of the Declaration of Human Rights and is illegal in Kyrgyzstan. However, Human Rights Watch contends: “In practice, despite the law against kidnapping, there are no negative social or legal consequences for men who kidnap. They are not prosecuted for the crime. Among most elements of society no stigma attaches to abducting a woman for marriage or serving as an accomplice to such a crime.” Ala kachuu is a routine practice, and is even held in high esteem by government officials and law enforcers: “Several government officials who spoke to Human Rights Watch contend that bride-kidnapping is a tradition and that it is almost always consensual. With some exceptions, officials failed to acknowledge that abduction of women for forced marriage is a serious crime and that the state has an obligation to punish the perpetrators and prevent future incidents.”

The practice is hardly ever reported to the police by the women who undergo it. Furthermore, their eventual consent is generally expected and usually given. Whether it is given willingly or is attained through coercion is debatable, and varies from case to case. The pressure the young woman meets with from her female elders is in itself a strong motivation to accept her proposed groom in a society that reveres the authority of the older generation: “Young women raised, as many ethnic Kyrgyz are, to be agreeable, to respect their elders, and not to challenge those in authority are particularly vulnerable to the pressure put on them by their abductors and their accomplices.” (Human Rights Watch report).

 More strikingly, fear of the social disgrace incurred through detainment at the groom’s home overnight is a strong factor in many brides’ acquiescence. In a culture that insists upon pre-marital virginity, a woman fears rejecting marriage and returning to single life with her maidenhood in question. Her own family may often pressure her into remaining with her kidnapper to avoid the shame that would be caused by her refusal. Abductees may be raped to compound this incentive: “Experts hold a variety of views on the frequency of rape in cases of abduction for forced marriage. While there are virtually no statistics on this, some NGO leaders believe that rape occurs in all or most cases of abduction, whereas one expert said it was not widespread. Several women victims of kidnapping interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they were raped by their abductors.”

The violence and psychological pressure that women are subject to in the course of ala kachuu can often continue throughout the marriage. Women who are kidnapped and forced to marry do not decide their husbands on the basis of their previous relationship with them-many do not even know their kidnappers [1] - or what they know of their character and history. Marriages can therefore often be very unhappy. The relationship is also founded on the basis of force and is therefore more likely to involve domestic violence. When a woman’s will is not respected during the marital agreement it is unlikely to be thereafter. And when force is a glorified aspect of male-female relationships, how much restraint does society expect of men in their treatment of women?

Although the practice revolves around female submission to male domination, it is the groom’s female relatives who force the marital scarf on the bride, symbolically marrying her. What is often so shocking about the practice is the involvement of these female co-conspirators. The cruelty of ala kachuu is taken as a part of the way of life in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps this is why previous generations of kidnapped brides are keen to enforce their own fate on their daughter-in-laws. The crowd of female relatives who harangue the young bride show no mercy; filmed footage usually shows them enjoying the ritual, immune to the young woman’s distress. It is as though they disapprove of the girl’s stubborn resistance as if appalled by the assumed privileges of the younger generation. This poses difficulties for those who urge condemnation of the practice. How can a woman’s refusal be taken seriously when her female forebears in this tradition so clearly dismiss her will. Their zeal and enthusiasm suggest the bride’s resistance is temporary, and that she will later embrace the practice like her female superiors.

Added to this, is the difficulty of determining the bride’s attitude to the treatment she is subjected to. It is in fact the case that some marriages orchestrated by this method end happily with the bride later embracing her status of wife. Is this simply Stockholm syndrome reformulated as a lifestyle choice? Or, knowing wifedom to be their designated role in society, are these women simply pleased to have fulfilled their fate and to have avoided spinsterhood? This perspective is evidenced in the Human Rights Watch report: “A government human rights official explained the role that he says abduction plays in ensuring that women get married: ‘I am a Kyrgyz man who grew up here and on the one hand I see it as a violation of the woman who then can't marry the man she loves, but also many women are very shy, their behavior is very different, especially in the villages. We advise women not to associate with men. Our girls don't know how to deal with men. When they grow up, they don't know what to do. Some women are grateful [to be kidnapped, otherwise they say they would never have gotten married. If there was not this tradition, then they would never get married and have children, so I also look at it from that angle. I don't support bride abduction myself.’" The variation in women’s responses to the practice makes the application of universal legislation difficult.

In circumstances where the woman later embraces the marriage her initial resistance is often viewed as part of the courtship ritual. In refusing is the woman playing the part in which she has been cast, that of the hunted, and thereby endorsing the tradition of ala kachuu by her feigned refusal of it? This poses further difficulties for legislation which relies on clarity of meaning and therefore cannot respond to such a duality. If it is part of the tradition that a woman resists, and the tradition is considered a positive thing then it can be argued that women’s resistance should pose no objection to ala kachuu. If ala kachuu is considered to be a positive tradition and the law can therefore be overlooked in its favour, when can the law be invoked to regulate the practice? If the woman is coerced into the marriage, if she is raped to deny her maiden status and force her into the marriage, how should the law intervene when it is habitually swept aside in favour of the practice?

The denial of a woman’s right to freely chose her spouse and thus her future- as a woman’s life in Kyrgyzstan will usually revolve around her domestic circumstances- is a gross human rights violation. The pressure, whether physical or psychological, a woman endures in the course of her abduction is another compelling reason for the practice to be outlawed, and this law to be stringently enforced. This is particularly the case in instances of ala kachuu where the bride is raped to deter her from refusing the marriage. If the law was treated as the authority on this matter, this practice would be stopped and so would the subjugation of women that occurs in so many instances.

[1] “According to the respondents [a representative sample responding to a survey on ala kachuu], 9 per cent of the men kidnapped women whom they did not know, whereas 22 per cent of women said they were kidnapped by men whom they did not know.” - ‘Kidnapping for marriage (ala kachuu)in a Kyrgyz village’ by Russell Kleinbach, Mehrigiul Ablezova and Medina Aitieva.

Images from Tumbr, BP3, Reginaldo Tracaja.


Foreda Begum

it could be said that it is a european ideal to want/able to choose your future spouse. By allowing this, wouldnt it create an uproar in thier society because there is a break in tradition? especially in a culture were courtship is looked down upon. Would (and how) can this resolve the society's chauvinistic attitude and lack of women's rights?

10 January 2011 delete
Nadia Hussain

The sustained chauvinistic culture is the hardest thing to change, especially when older generations are so deep rooted in this. It really is heart breaking and horrific to see that a once romantic tradition has been disfigured in such a way.

11 January 2011 delete
Syeda Salmah

excellent and very informative article about bride kidnapping......but i'd love to find out more on how it came about as a consensual tradition in the first place-what was the thinking behind it?

also, i think it's interesting factor about the leader of the country- i forget his name but there is the notion that in exchange for handing over the guerilla fighters in kyrgyztan to vladmir putin , putin is willing to let him rule the country under sharia law. unfirtunately the leader is obsessed with thinking that bride kidnapping is in line with sharia law- what a joke!? x

22 January 2011 delete
Mabrur Ahmed

syeda you totally mixed up the kyrgyz republic with Chechen North Caucus.

10 February 2011 delete
Kate O'Loughlin

Well Syeda, I remember reading that around the time when bride-kidnapping was a cultural tradition (before soviet rule, and nowhere near to the extent it is now) it came about because parents exercised such strict control over the children's decision to marry. So if a man and woman wnated to get married but didn't think they'd be able to get their families consent, the man would kidnap the woman (with her consent, so a staged kidnapping) and then they'd worry about talking the parents round after.

But apparently, prior to the end of soviet rule (during which peroid ala kachuu was expressly
outlawed) it wasn't very common, and rarely ivnvolved force. Theories for its resurgence now suggest it might be a way for the Kyrgyz to re-assert their cultural identity by reawakening what they see as a cultural tradition.


17 February 2011 delete