A 27-year-old Kazakh woman is fighting traditional attitudes in seeking justice against five men she accuses of trying to kidnap and force her into marriage.
Bride kidnapping is a common practice in Kyrgyzstan and parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, even though the long-standing practice is prohibited by law.
Among the men that Aruzhan -- who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy -- accuses of trying to abduct her in July 2020 is a co-worker at a military unit in the southeastern Almaty Province.
"I got a phone call from my colleague who asked me to make a cake for his brother's birthday," says Aruzhan, who supplements her income as a civilian contractor by baking cakes. "I didn't have time as I was going to visit a friend, but my colleague insisted that he would give me a lift to my friend's house if I made the cake."
Aruzhan's colleague picked her up at a village bus stop near her home. As they drove to an intersection near the Kulzhin highway, four other men got into the car.
The colleague said they were friends of his "who happened to be hitchhiking." Aruzhan says she became suspicious when the car "took a wrong turn."
She immediately demanded the man stop the vehicle. "He pulled over to the side of the road and said, 'We're going to snatch you.'"
"Snatching a bride" -- or bride kidnapping -- is a banned but widespread custom in some parts of southern Kazakhstan in which a man, usually with the help of a few friends, captures a woman of his choice for marriage.
In some cases, it's just a pre-wedding ritual performed by the groom and his friends after getting the woman's consent. But many cases involve nonconsensual kidnappings, with the victims targeted and forced into marriage against their will.
Most bride-kidnapping cases in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan go unreported. The victims often stay in these marriages because returning home would bring shame to the woman and her family in the conservative societies in which they live.
Dreading such an outcome, Aruzhan says she tried to fight back. "I jumped out of the car but the men tried to force me back into it." She says she resisted their attempts by holding tight onto some racks atop the car, crying, and pleading with the men to let her go.
Hundreds of vehicles passed by on a busy highway leading to Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, but no one "stopped to help me," Aruzhan says. "I was begging them for help, but people just recorded me on their mobile phones as they drove by."
Finally, Aruzhan's colleague got a phone call from the police, who demanded the men report to the nearest police station. "We found out later that someone called the police and gave the license plate number of my colleague's car, and police found his name and phone number," Aruzhan says.
The men took Aruzhan to the Talgar district police station. Despite the bruises and scratches on Aruzhan's arms, police let the men go free.
Aruzhan filed a formal complaint against the men.
Aruzhan was summoned to the police station two days later. An investigator assigned to the case advised her to withdraw the complaint to avoid "being summoned thousands of more times." She rejected his advice -- but the case was still closed.
According to documents obtained by RFE/RL, the district police concluded that the suspects in the kidnapping case were not "subject to criminal liability" because they "voluntarily decided to abandon their intended act [of kidnapping]."
RFE/RL contacted the Almaty regional police office about Aruzhan's case. The regional police said they supported the Talgar officials' decision to close the case.
In September, Aruzhan submitted a complaint to the district prosecutor's office, accusing police of mishandling her case. A new probe was launched in November. But in March she found out that the authorities had again decided to close it without pressing charges. She was again told the men had not committed a crime.
Aruzhan says she was left traumatized by the incident and is disappointed in the authorities' attitude toward her case. She fears her kidnappers might come back for revenge after her multiple complaints. Since the death of her father three years ago, Aruzhan lives with her mother.
Many people in that small rural community are aware of the kidnapping attempt and Aruzhan believes police inaction toward her abductors sets a bad precedent. She says it emboldens other potential bride kidnappers who see that men can get away with trying to snatch a woman for marriage.
Despite her fears and failure thus far, Aruzhan is determined to continue her fight until the perpetrators face trial. In Kazakhstan, nonconsensual bride-kidnapping is a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years in prison.
"What happened to me can happen to any other young woman here," she says. "The offenders must be punished for their actions so they don't try the same thing with other women in the future."