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Despite Official Measures, Bride Kidnapping Endemic In Chechnya

As many as one in four marriages in Chechnya begins with the bride being kidnapped.
As many as one in four marriages in Chechnya begins with the bride being kidnapped.
Dagmara burst into tears when her son told her that he had kidnapped a teenage girl to force her to marry him.

It was in August of 1999, shortly before the start of the second Chechen war, when her son abducted one of his classmates -- a pretty girl with big blue eyes, curly hair, and a disarming smile.

"Three of his friends forced her into a car while she screamed that she didn't want to get married to anyone -- that she wanted to become a businesswoman rather than stay at home like a hen," Dagmara, 48, said.

When Louisa's aunt arrived to speak with the girl, she said the kidnapping was the teenager's own fault because she chose to wear a dress that day -- instead of the pants she usually wore. The families negotiated, and within a few hours had agreed the couple would marry.

"Eleven years have passed but I still cannot express how I felt when my son told me… It was so sudden. I could not stop crying when I saw this tiny 16-year-old girl," Dagmara, who didn't provide her last name for safety reasons, said.

Bride abductions are an endemic phenomenon in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In Chechnya alone, rights activists say as many as one in four marriages begins with the woman being kidnapped and forced to wed against her will.

The social stigma attached to spending the night in a man's house -- or even just a few hours before being rescued -- is enough in deeply traditional societies like Chechnya, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to shame a woman into marrying her abductor.

But as widespread as it is, bride-snatching is a practice that Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov wants to end.

Earlier this month Kadyrov announced a drastic increase in the fine for bridal kidnapping to 1 million rubles, about $33,560, up from about $1,011. And fulfilling a longstanding demand of women's rights activists, he has also pledged to apply Russia's Criminal Code for abductions, which stipulates a sentence of between four and 20 years in jail, to bride kidnapping.

"Knowing that he will get a prison term, the young man will think a hundred times before venturing out and kidnapping. From now on police will investigate each instance, without waiting for a complaint," Kadyrov reportedly said on October 17.

Analysts say, however, that the practice of bride kidnapping is related to the deterioration of women's rights in Chechnya, which has escalated markedly under Kadyrov's rule.

"The situation of women in Chechnya is really, very unfortunate and it's been growing worse and worse in the past several years," says Tanya Lokshina, a Russia researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Chechen government officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

Tradition, Parody, And Tragedy

Long seen as an exotic eccentricity of Russia's southern regions, the practice of bride kidnapping was parodied in the classic 1967 Soviet film "Prisoner of the Caucasus." The wildly popular film tells the story of a man arranging the kidnapping of his niece by three men -- named the Coward, the Fool, and the Experienced One. The plan is foiled by a young man who falls in love with her.

The practice has also appeared in Western pop culture thanks to the 2006 comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." In the film, Borat, a fictional Kazakh documentary filmmaker, falls in love with Pamela Anderson after seeing her on "Baywatch." He later tries to kidnap her by stuffing her in his "traditional marriage sack." He is, of course, tackled and handcuffed by security guards -- and rejected by Pamela Anderson.
Chechen President Kadyrov has said he wants to end the practice of bride kidnapping.

But despite the parodies, the practice can lead to tragedy. Four people -- including a stolen bride -- died in car chase last year when the kidnapper tried to escape from the woman's family.

Lipkhan Bazayeva, the head of the Chechen women's rights organization Women's Dignity, said men often kidnap brides because they don't want to be bothered with the courting procedure, because they are jealous that another man likes her, or as a matter of pride after being rejected.

"It has brought great pain to the parents and the girls who got kidnapped. It seems romantic to the young men and they call it 'Chechen tradition,' but it is not the tradition," Bazayeva said.

Lokshina says kidnappings often take place because a woman, even if she wants to eventually marry a man, will tell him she's too young, or that she needs to finish university first. In response, he then kidnaps her.

In other cases, a couple who want to marry without their families' approval will stage a kidnapping to put their parents in a position where they have to allow the wedding.

"[But] sometimes women are just kidnapped by people that they've never met in their entire lives -- by perfect strangers who like them, and want them for a bride. All those things are happening," she said.

"Such cases of forced bridal kidnappings are indeed frequent, and they're growing to be even more frequent."

The woman's male relatives are then put in the difficult position of having to "sort things out" with the kidnappers, and the woman can be considered tainted, or difficult, after refusing the marriage.

"[The women are] thinking of the consequences or the problems that their father and their brothers are going to be burdened with, and they prefer to sacrifice themselves, if you will, for the well-being of the family," Lokshina says.

A Growing Problem

Lokshina says bride kidnapping is on the increase for several reasons, the biggest being that the risk of prosecution is so low. She said because the negotiations are conducted privately between the families it is impossible to know exactly how drastic the increase is, but anecdotally, the number of kidnappings appears to be escalating.

She adds that authorities are also trying to "put women back in their place" after their influence in society increased during Chechnya's brutal separatist wars from Russia -- the second of which only ended in 2009 -- when they had to provide for and protect their families.

Moreover, the Islamization of Chechnya, which began after the breakup of the Soviet Union and escalated when Kadyrov came to power in 2007, has led to a deterioration in women's rights.

Since June groups of masked men, primarily law enforcement officials, patrolled the streets of Grozny, shooting paintballs at women who didn't cover their heads or who wore clothing they deemed immodest. Lokshina said the attacks reached a peak during Ramadan and have since tapered off.

In July, Kadyrov voiced approval for the attacks on state television saying that immodestly dressed women should "disappear from the face of the earth."

Imam Magomed, a Muslim scholar who is responsible for conducting wedding ceremonies, said bridal kidnappings are forbidden by the Koran.

"Of course I would never conduct a wedding ceremony if the bride rejects the groom. It is forbidden by the Koran and it is immoral. Parents from both sides always try to negotiate with a great respect. But I wish we did not have the bride stealing at all," he said.

While bride-kidnapping is often considered -- and defended as being -- a "traditional" practice in the region, Russell Kleinbach, a professor at Philadelphia University who is an expert on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, said that is a myth.

He said any type of kidnapping was rare in the region before the 1950s and the majority of "abductions" were staged -- more like an elopement. He said the practice gradually became less consensual, and has only been drastically increasing since the 1950s.

"The new family which the bride had been taken into expects the girl to get comfortable and start living a regular life. However, these families don't understand or take into consideration the tremendous impact this experience has on the girl's mental and physical health," Bazayeva said. "The girl would feel left with no choice."

Lokshina added that the social stigma is so great that the community actually considers the kidnapping to be the woman's fault if she has spent time, or "flirted" with a man when she was not ready to be married.

"It takes a great deal of courage, and fortitude, and formally showing of disrespect for your elders, to refuse to stay," Kleinbach said.

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report

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