Women in chains: The stolen brides of the Caucasus and Central Asia

“What would be better? If she married a man without money or education out of love?”

Suleyka is dressed all in white. Her long lace dress is adorned with pearls and her elaborate wedding hairstyle is shrouded in a veil.

We are in a small village in Chechnya. The table is richly laid, carpets hang on the walls, grapevines grow in the garden.

The groom, whom she did not choose herself, enters the room to inspect his bride. The mood among the women who assist Suleyka to get ready for the wedding becomes noticeably tense. “I don’t want to see any hair.” He says gruffly. “Dress her properly or there will be no wedding.”. The women, many of them cousins and aunts of Suleyka, hurry to hide her hair. With a grim face, the future husband leaves the room.

Suleyka herself accepts it. Just as she had to accept everything else. Her kidnapping, the negotiating of male family members about her future after she was subjected to violence, the wedding, the veil, the man she neither loves nor appreciates. Only her eyes convey sorrow. It is recognizable to everyone that her wedding day is not a happy day for her. But no one expected that anyway. The guests still dance and celebrate.

A Western reporter, who has been granted permission to attend the celebration, says to a Chechen woman attending the celebration, „I say this with all respect. To me, this tradition is cruel.“

The woman, barely older than forty, replies shortly: „For you it is cruel, for us it is the way things are. You came here to study our traditions. I am sure if she marries a man without money and without education out of love, in five minutes they divorce.”.

“May Allah punish them”

In the West, the tradition of bride kidnapping is almost always perceived as an Islamic legacy. However, in Islam’s teachings, bride kidnapping is not only not allowed but harshly punished. Even the Sharia, the strictest law known to Islam, forbids bride kidnapping.

But why does it continue to happen today, especially in Central Asian and Caucasus countries?

The tradition in the Caucasus goes back to the time of tribal wars, rivalries between tribes, families and clans. At that time, it was considered dishonorable to marry a woman from another clan. Therefore, a man could only marry a woman if he was able to kidnap her.

Money is a big factor, too. In the Caucasus, a dowry is traditionally demanded, which can be very high and most men in the economically weak region cannot afford it. This goes together with the families having high demands on the future husband of their daughter, both in terms of his education and his income.

If the man is too poor and not considered a suitable candidate in the families eyes, he often turns to kidnapping to nevertheless get his will.

The real price is paid by the woman: A woman who has been kidnapped is considered dishonored, regardless of whether rape occurred.

The dowry that the family can demand is reduced by kidnapping. That is why families are sometimes willing to marry their daughter to her kidnapper. Because “Who would want her now anyway?”.

But this is not a given for the kidnapper. Sometimes blood feuds break out due to the alleged dishonor of the daughter that can last for generations.

In some cases, bride kidnapping has been used to punish women who have broken societal norms or to forcibly marry them off against their will.

In addition: Bride kidnapping was seen as a kind of competition between men, in which those who reached their bride first through the kidnapping were celebrated as heroes.

This leads to the conclusion that bride kidnapping is mainly based on deeply enrooted patriarchal structures, both then and now.

The fight against bride kidnapping gains new drive

During recent years, there has been a marked increase in awareness of the issue of bride kidnapping. Governments in Central Asia and the Caucasus have taken steps to criminalize the practice and provide support for victims. In some countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, bride kidnapping is now considered a form of domestic violence and is punishable by law.

This is especially noticeable because Kyrgyzstan has today the highest number of bride abductions, with around 12 000 women a year falling victim to this form of violence.

Women’s rights organizations have also been working to raise awareness about the issue and provide support for victims. These organizations often provide legal services and counseling for women who have been victims of bride kidnapping. They also work to raise awareness about the issue and provide education about the legal rights of women.

In addition, initiatives have been launched to combat bride kidnapping. These include public awareness campaigns, media initiatives, and community-based initiatives. In some countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, there are now laws in place that make bride kidnapping a punishable crime.

While bride kidnapping is still a problem in Central Asia and the Caucasus, there has been a significant improvement in the situation. Women’s rights organizations and governments have taken steps to raise awareness and provide support for victims. With continued efforts, it is hoped that bride kidnapping will eventually become a thing of the past.

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