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A Kyrgyz lawmaker campaigning against forced marriage is pushing for tougher rules to end the custom of “bride-stealing.”
Aynur Altybaeva, a member of the opposition Ar Namys party, has submitted two bills this year aimed at tackling unlawful forms of marriage.
After fellow legislators rejected the first of these, intended to prevent clerics from sanctioning marriage without formal registration, Altybaeva submitted a second bill just before parliament went into summer recess. This time, she is seeking a real deterrent to keep men from kidnapping women and coercing them into marriage.
Kyrgyzstan’s law forbids forcing a woman into marriage, and imposes a fine or up to three years’ imprisonment, but it does not set out special penalties for cases where the woman is kidnapped.
Altybaeva would like to see a sentence of five to 10 years for anyone who abducts a woman with intent to marry her, so that the offense would be treated like any other kidnapping.
Such abductions are common enough to cause concern to campaigners like Altybaeva.
While defenders of bride-stealing – called ala kachuu in Kyrgyz – argue that it is a long-established custom, historians say the original form was consensual, whereas now it is an act of violence. In the old days, a young man would stage an abduction – often with the woman’s consent – and present the marriage to her parents as a fait accompli so that he could avoid paying them the high “bride price” they would otherwise demand. In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, a young woman may be kidnapped off the street by a passing acquaintance or stranger, held against her will, and coerced into marriage.
In a report in late 2011, the Open Line foundation estimated that between 11,500 and 16,500 girls were kidnapped in this manner every year. In interviews with 268 abducted women, the group found that half had not met the kidnapper beforehand. Eight in 10 of the 268 cases ended in marriage, and one in five of the interviewees said they were raped before the wedding.
Altybaeva says marriages based on coercion are often short-lived. Because the wedding is generally blessed by a Muslim priest but not registered with the state authorities, the wives are not regarded as married in the eyes of the law and are thus not automatically entitled to property or alimony payments if they walk out.
Elnura (not her real name) told IWPR how she was kidnapped and forced into marriage three years ago.
“They drove me [to their village] and took me into a house. I kept on screaming and trying to run away, but to no avail,” she said. “Then the women came and put a headscarf and dress on me. I wept and told them I had a boyfriend, but no one listened.”
The kidnapper’s family pressured Elnura into cooperating.
“One of the women lay down on the threshold and told me that if I stepped over her, she would put a curse on me,” Elnura said.
Completely outmaneuvered, Elnura gave in. A mullah was called to bless the marriage, but her husband did not register the union with the authorities.
Elnura said if she had received more support from her own family, she would have left her husband at once. Instead, they told her to stay with him.
The Kyrgyz state prosecutor’s office says only 159 bride abductions have been reported to the authorities in the last 12 years. Not all these cases went to court, and few resulted in convictions.
The office of Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman recently raised concerns about one such case.
In a 17 July press release, the ombudsman reported that a resident of the capital, Bishkek whose daughter was abducted by strangers and taken to a neighboring region found district- and regional-level police departments reluctant to deal with her complaint. In the end, police in Bishkek dealt with the matter.
Some politicians who oppose Altybaeva’s bill argue that abductions are so common that tougher penalties will lead to prison overcrowding.
During a debate on the legislation, Kurmanbek Dykanbaev from the Respublika party advised against “very harsh measures for this issue.”
Another lawmaker, Esengul Isakov, argued that current legislation banning underage marriage was enough and that it was not for parliament to go into the matter any further.
Altybaeva’s first bill, submitted in January, went at the issue of forced marriage from a different angle. She called for fines for religious clerics who approved marriages that were unregistered with the state.
The bill would have penalized Muslim clerics who married couples without asking them to show a formal marriage certificate from the state.
Altybaeva says she has information showing that one in three women in the countryside, and one in four in urban areas, is in a marriage confirmed only by religious rites.
Her law would have ensured that all women who marry consensually enjoyed full legal protections, while bringing coercive marriages involving abduction to the attention of the authorities. It would have prevented underage girls from marrying and stopped clerics from blessing polygamous marriages, permitted by Islam but not by the state.
Even though the bill would merely have reinforced Kyrgyzstan’s current marriage law, it did not win enough support to pass, as many politicians were reluctant to take on the religious establishment.
Tokon Mamytov, also an Ar Namys parliamentarian, said that while he backed Altybaeva in principle, legislating on religious ritual would amount to unwarranted intrusion by the state.
“It was a good idea, but if we’d passed the law we would have mixed the secular with the religious,” he said.
Religious affairs analyst Kadyr Malikov said any legislation of this kind would be hard to enforce because much of the population had more regard for religious practice than for the law.
“Religious leaders now command more authority than all state institutions put together, and parliament in particular,” Malikov said, adding that state officials were often seen as “incompetent, corrupt, and unable to come up with laws that are more effective and improve the lives of ordinary people.”
Some clerics favor harsher penalties, including the death penalty, for bride kidnapping – a local rather than Islamic tradition. But they object to clerics taking the blame just for blessing marriages.
Nematulla Ajy Jeenbekov, an adviser to the mufti, Kyrgyzstan’s top Muslim cleric, said there was no need for a law requiring marriages to be registered with the state.
“If you’re a sensible person and you want to start a family, you will go and get an official marriage certificate of your own accord. You don’t need a law for that,” he said.
Altybaeva’s bill will go before parliament in September, along with some amendments proposed during the initial debate in June.
She will get support from the likes of Tatiana Levina, a member of parliament outraged at the stance of her male colleagues.
“I don’t understand their position,” Levina said. “They have daughters themselves. Surely they want them to be protected by the law and to enjoy the same rights as men.”