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Cows And Kidnapped Brides In Kyrgyzstan

The cows begin to come home

KRASNAYA-RECHKA, KYRGYZSTAN -- If anyone had told me six months ago that I would be sitting in a small village in Kyrgyzstan waiting for the cows to come home, I would have thought they were crazy. I had come with my video crew to interview a family about the Kyrgyz tradition of bride kidnapping and we wanted to film the bride milking the cows. They were due home, we were told, by 6:00 p.m. Now it was almost 8:00 p.m. and no cows.

Suddenly cow #1 meandered into the compound completely unconcerned about our schedule, and stood dutifully to be milked by the "bride," married two years ago and now pregnant.

It was amusing, but the subject is no laughing matter. Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is considered a "tradition" -- albeit a 20th century one -- that came into flower in the 1960s and really took off in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. It still happens in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Studies say that in some areas of Kyrgyzstan as many as 80 percent of the marriages are the result of kidnapping and the vast majority of these are nonconsensual. (Sometimes kidnappings are planned as a kind of elopement.)

'Marriage Scarf'

The kidnapping of this young woman, Dunuyobubu Ahunbaeva, at 19 was typical. Her husband saw her at a party in the village and decided she was a good candidate for marriage. I asked him why he didn't just get to know her a bit and make sure they were suited. He replied that he wasn't sure she would agree and he didn't want to be rejected.

The kidnapping went like this: the groom and some of his friends grabbed her off the street, put her into a car, and brought her to his family's house where the women in his family surrounded her, trying to convince her to marry him. As is the custom, they kept trying to tie a "marriage scarf" around her head to signify her agreement.

One of Dunuyobubu's daily duties is milking her husband’s family cow
Subjected to fierce psychological pressure including the threat of a curse and lifelong misery if she does not say "yes," most brides, like this one, eventually give in. This process can take hours, sometimes days and may include rape, thus assuring the shame of the woman and her family if she refuses. At some point the girl's parents are notified of the pending forced marriage and they almost always consent, so great is the social stigma if they allow the woman to come home.

The new bride then begins a period of wife-training that can last for years, or until a newer bride is brought into the husband's family. She is ruled over by her mother-in-law, and by her sisters-in-law, and spends her days as the chief cook and bottle washer, floor sweeper, house cleaner, and cow milker. Unlike Cinderella, she does not become a princess.

Our bride worked the entire four hours we were there while we were invited to relax and eat with the rest of the family.

'Happy Bride'

Dunuyobubu was described as a bride who ended up happily married, at least so we were told. But during our interview an incredible thing happened. I asked her to tell me what took place when she arrived after the kidnapping. She and one sister-in-law started reenacting the scene where the sisters-in-law were trying to put the wedding scarf on her head. Then the bride curled up in the corner, scarf over her head, and began to tremble. Her face became anguished and terrified, reliving that day. She looked like a caged animal.

Later her husband arrived home. Asked how he usually greets his wife when he arrives home, he asked her to make him some tea.

Maybe this young woman really is happy, despite appearances. Maybe some kidnapped brides do find love. But does that make the practice acceptable as some told me? The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and many others say "no": it is a violation of a woman's basic human rights. Does the end justify the means?