13 June 2012

Bride Kidnapping, Again

This post wasn't sparked by an article like this sort of post usually is, but by the wedding celebration we're going to tomorrow.  It's the result of a kidnapping of our friend that took place several months ago.  It would technically be defined as consensual, but that doesn't mean it's gone over well.

Here are a few seemingly little-known facts about bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan:

  • Bride kidnapping is a defined as a private offense.  That means that the police cannot get involved unless the girl herself brings the charges. Of course, her family can be involved too, but the decision rests with her.  That rarely happens because there is tremendous pressure for her to not get the police involved.
  • Mullahs are not supposed to perform the niqah unless the marriage has been registered by the state.  Mullahs are aware of this rule and the fine that can be levied.
  • Mullahs are also not supposed to marry anyone against their will.  My husband has interviewed a number of mullahs.  It is not their intent to marry people who don't want to get married.
  • In addition, the boy's family gets the girl's consent before the niqah takes place, very often with her signed statement.  That doesn't mean her consent was freely given, of course, but it does make it hard to prove that she didn't want to get married.
  • This isn't specifically about bride kidnapping, but it applies here- many, many people in Kyrgyzstan think that a prison sentence is often, to put it in western terms "cruel and unusual punishment."  The prisons here can be horrific.
  • Again, not specifically about kidnapping, but laws in Kyrgyzstan are not designed to protect people's rights, but to further the needs of the state- this is a post-Soviet legal system.  The prison/legal/court system here does not perform all the same functions that the prison/legal/court system does in western countries.
Right now there's a proposed law floating around that would put a mullah in prison for 10 years if he married a couple without both parties' consent.  While that law sounds good, it would be useless for several of the reasons listed above. A lot of the laws foreigners lobby for here about kidnapping sound good, and they might get passed (because they can further the needs of the state by satisfying foreigners), but they don't change much, if anything.

But here's what I think is really important and that doesn't seem to be clear.  For bride kidnapping to become a regular crime in the way an American might think of it (in other words, wouldn't you call the police if your neighbor publicly kidnapped someone on your suburban American street?  it wouldn't do you any good here), bride kidnapping would have to be reclassified as a public crime.

I'm not sure there's much will for that to happen here.  Domestic crimes like spousal abuse have only recently moved out of the private sphere in the west anyway, and in my opinion that was a result of major social changes in the west that haven't happened here yet.  I don't think there's much desire here for the police to be allowed to get involved in what people consider private family issues. 

Also, even if a woman is willing to go to the courts, it can be beyond appalling what she is put through by the extended family (sometimes, even hers, not just his), the police, and the legal system in general.  Like I said, the courts are not set up to protect rights in these circumstances and while her life itself might not usually be in danger if she goes to the police, everything else might be.

A legal solution to bride kidnapping is not reasonable without some serious underlying changes in the legal system here.  Personally, I'm not willing to wait for that to happen.  I'm a lot more optimistic that social expectations regarding kidnapping can change, and change more quickly.  That's where NGOs and such ought to be focusing their efforts.

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