ASTANA – Following the release last week by the New York Post, among other media outlets, of a video claiming to show a bride-kidnapping in Kazakhstan’s Akmola region, the nation’s officials are assuring the world that the practice is illegal and widely condemned, and the Prosecutor General’s Office has declared the video a harmless pantomime.
Being officially forbidden and punishable by up to 15 years in prison hasn’t completely eradicated the ancient custom: a number of women interviewed for this article had been indirectly touched by kidnapping, though none feared it.
“Bride kidnapping in Kazakhstan is considered a crime against fundamental human rights and freedom of choice,” Aigul Solovyova, member of the Mazhilis (lower chamber) of Kazakhstan’s Parliament, said in response to questions on Oct. 14, shortly after the video became public. (Since then, Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General’s Office has declared the video’s kidnapping a fake.) “Given that, the criminal code has an article providing for long prison terms for such a crime. If there is a need, the punishment will be toughened even further.” Kazakhstan’s punishment for kidnapping has been on the books since at least 1997.
The Prosecutor General’s office issued a press release on Oct. 17 saying that kidnapping is punishable by law by up to 15 years in prison and confiscation of property, and that law enforcement bodies investigate and prosecute such cases.
They also said they had looked into the video of the purported bride-kidnapping and found it to be only for show.
According to the prosecutors, the woman in the video has been living in a civil union with the man she is shown being brought to marry since last August and had dated him for a year before that. The woman told the prosecutors that she moved in with the groom’s family of her own free will. The demonstrated coercion, she said, was due to her “desire to demonstrate the observance of national traditions,” the statement said. Charges will not be filed.
Azat Peruashev, leader of the Ak Zhol Party and leader of the party’s group in the Mazhilis, called forced or coercive marriage unacceptable. “Marriages based on violence instead of love and respect for the woman, the mother of the future children, are obviously flawed and unequal,” he told The Astana Times on Oct. 14.
“Deputies of all parliamentary parties have recently supported the stiffening of criminal liabilities for actions that are appraised as a criminal offence and not as a tradition,” he said. Fortunately, he added, real bride kidnappings are rare.
Despite official denunciation, several Kazakh women contacted for this article said kidnapping had affected someone close to them. They also say that kidnappings may often be organised with the collusion of a woman’s family and friends.
“A distant relative of mine was kidnapped against her will,” Rakhilya Ibildayeva, 25, told The Astana Times. Ibildayeva works as a software developer in Astana and comes from Taraz. “Everything was organised by her sister-in-law. It was mainly because my cousin was 30, and that’s the point by which she was supposed to find somebody, and since she hadn’t, people decided to ‘help’ her.” The kidnapped woman’s mother spoke preemptively with the man her daughter was dating at the time, Ibildayeva said. She talked him out of interfering with the kidnapping, Ibildayeva said, because he had “taken too long to marry her.” “The situation with him was like, ‘You had a chance but you don’t have money, so get lost.’”
Now, two years later, Ibildayeva’s cousin has two children by the kidnapper. “Knowing how she was before, I want to say that kidnapping didn’t make her happy as a woman. As a mother, maybe. As a woman, no. My mom, who was at the wedding, said, ‘Her eyes don’t have the spark she was known for anymore.’”
While kidnappings may be violent, it is often social coercion and shame that convinces women to stay. One way to prevent women from escaping is not necessarily to bind or threaten them – but for the oldest grandmother among the organisers to lie across the threshold of the door. There is a belief that if a woman steps over the grandmother to leave, she’ll have no joy in her life.
As is often observed in Kazakhstan, practices in the north and south seem to differ. “The north and south of Kazakhstan differ in many things, like keeping traditions and rituals,” business analyst Kymbat Yeltayeva, 25, told The Astana Times. Yeltayeva is the namesake of an aunt who was kidnapped for marriage more than 25 years ago.
“For me, as a girl from the north of Kazakhstan, it is also difficult to believe that these days, in a country as developed as Kazakhstan, such things can happen.” But, she said, a school friend who moved to South Kazakhstan was the subject of an attempted kidnapping a few years ago.
“She had been married for around a year when a guy tried to kidnap her. She was taking a taxi and suddenly he was driving in the wrong direction. When she asked him why, he said that for a couple of days he had been observing her and liked her, so he’d decided to kidnap her!” Yeltayeva’s friend called her husband, convinced the driver she was already married and was let go.
“As to the question of why a girl does not go back after she was kidnapped – it is about fear,” Yeltayeva said. “People would say that her pride was taken after she’s been with another man and no one would marry her after this.”The tradition of fake kidnappings makes it hard to gauge the real extent of the practice of non-consensual bride-kidnapping. Fake kidnappings are sometimes arranged between couples to get around their parents’ objections or even between families to avoid the traditional “kyz uzatu,” the bride’s farewell party. Traditional Kazakh hospitality calls for extensive feasting and gift giving, and these parties can be very expensive.
The women interviewed for this article rarely mentioned the police. Ibildayeva suggested that calling the police might make a kidnapper think twice before trying again, but it wasn’t clear the police were called in any of the circumstances mentioned, or that anyone expected the perpetrators to be prosecuted. However, none of the women expressed any fear of kidnapping, or said they could be coerced or forced into marriage.
Statistics from the Prosecutor General’s Office of Kazakhstan report 56 registered cases of kidnapping across the country in the first nine months of 2014, including 18 cases of kidnapping women. Fifty-four people were prosecuted for these crimes under Article 125 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code. It is unclear how many instances of kidnapping go unreported.
Aida Haidar, 25, a TV producer in Astana who is originally from Kokshetau, called the recent video [which the prosecutors found to be fake] very sad. Kidnapping is very rare today where she comes from, she told The Astana Times.
“I knew about kidnapping because one of our neighbours actually got married to a man through this barbarous ‘arrangement.’ At the time, if a girl came back home, it meant she brought shame to her family. I found out that she was married through kidnapping when she was getting a divorce. She spent 18 years with a man she never was in love with,” Haidar said.
In contrast, Haidar said, her parents emphasised her education and career, and discussions of marriage are only to encourage her to choose someone who shares her interests and beliefs, she said.
None of the women interviewed for this article said that their parents had warned them about kidnapping or that they feared it. They also said they feel free from any social pressure to accept a forced marriage.
“I think now that women are independent and care less about what others say, we will overcome this kidnapping problem,” Yeltayeva said.