Uzbekistan: No love lost in Karakalpak bride thefts

Tashkent Women's Resource Centre
Gulzabira Toreshova doesn't believe in happy marriages. She saw her husband for the first time at a friend's birthday party — by the end of the evening she had been abducted and forced to become his wife.
"I didn't know him at all. The only thing I knew was what my friend told me — that he was a market trader," recalled Gulzabira. "After the party his friends grabbed me and dragged me into a car. They took me to the home of my future husband, Amanbai. I didn't even suspect what they were about to do."
Gulzabira, 32, is a Karakalpak, an ethnic group which has its own "autonomous republic" in the northern deserts of Uzbekistan.

Her prospective husband and his friends knew very well that Karakalpak social customs would make it well-nigh impossible for Gulzabira to return home if she was kidnapped, leaving her little choice but to marry their friend.

In these wife-stealing cases, there are many reports of the future husband raping the abducted woman as a way of making the "marriage" rreversible. The victim will then have little chance of marrying anyone else in a tightly-knit community such as the small town of Chimbay from which Gulzabira comes.

Kidnapping of brides was traditional in Karakalpak society before Soviet rule, because it saved the man — especially those from poor families from paying the high bride price known as "kalym" that is customarily required. The woman or her family would sometimes acquiesce, because the arrangement was convenient and saved face all round.

Moscow frowned on the practice and did its best to stamp it out, but it has re-emerged since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 — although the raiding party is more likely to be in a Lada than on horseback. The tradition is entirely illegal and is a somewhat distorted version of the old custom since it frequently involves coercion and rape.

Local non-government organisations say that nowadays one in five brides in Karakalpakstan are abducted before marriage, and one in 20 have never previously met their future husband.

According to Klara Utepbergenova, who heads the local organisation Woman and Family, many young men do not even realise it is a crime, "If they knew that forcing a woman into marriage is punishable under Uzbek law they probably wouldn't use this method."

But Kairat, a captain in the police, indicated that in practice, local tradition took precedence over the law. "I've seen girls abducted more than once, " he said. "But I've never intervened because I know that in most of cases both sides have agreed to it. And if that's not the case, they might think you were complicit [if you intervened] in it."

In many cases the girl's parents — who may or may not have agreed to the abduction — raise no objections afterwards. Abducted "brides" often put up resistance but are generally unable to extricate themselves from the wedding as it is difficult for young women to challenge accepted traditions.

Mirgul Zaripova from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, was abducted by one of her fellow college students, but — unusually — refused to stay with him. When she returned home she tried to have her "husband" prosecuted, but her parents forced her to go back to him and get married.

Mirgul's marriage lasted two months. She eventually tried to commit suicide by swallowing acetic acid and, although she survived, her parents refused to take her back. She now lives with her brother.

Prosecutions for kidnapping in Karakalpakstan are rare and according to the chief judge at Nukus city court, Gulnara Bazarbaeva, those who are convicted pay only a small fine.

"This type of crime is not classified as very dangerous here," explained Bazarbaeva. "The girl usually consents to the marriage and everything is sorted out between the families without the authorities intervening. What's more, kidnapping saves the cost of a wedding ceremony."

Local women's groups say the economic factor is key to the growth in kidnappings, as a conventional wedding is increasingly beyond people's pockets.

Karakalpakstan has been hard hit by the shrinking of the Aral Sea and accompanying environmental problems, and the largely rural population is impoverished even by Central Asian standards.

A full Karakalpak wedding can cost the groom anything between 1,500 and 5,000 US dollars, a price which include the kalym and numerous gifts for the bride's relatives. Marrying a university graduate is more expensive because of the investment her parents have already made in her education.

Jumagul Yermanova seemed to be one of the luckier "stolen brides" since the kidnapper was her boyfriend and both families were involved in the arrangement. But things went wrong when she proved too costly an acquisition for the groom's family.

"I dated my boyfriend Aydar for half a year, and my parents insisted that he marry me as soon as possible by stealing me," she recalled. "He did so, but after bringing me to his parents' home he sent me back after half an hour. When his mother found out that I was a fee-paying student she wouldn't let him marry me. Later I learned that Aydar brought home another bride the same day who had already finished higher education."

Bride-theft marriages are "legalised" at the local registry office, often without the necessary documents or the consent of the bride, who may be pregnant by that time.

When Karakalpaks marry, they normally perform the Muslim marriage rite as well as the obligatory official ceremony. Murojon-khoji Abdiev, a representative of the official Muslim body for Karakalpakstan, is critical of bride-stealing, which is not sanctioned by Islam. He explained, "People are committing a great sin when they steal a girl, because after the kidnapping the couple lives for some time without the 'nikoh' or sharia blessing. It is a great sin which the two families try to ignore by calling it a custom."

Organisations working on women's rights in the region see little hope for change because neither the law nor religion seems able to challenge the tradition.

Gulzabira Toreshova eventually managed to leave her husband, and now takes care to warn her younger sister to watch out for kidnappers and avoid a similar fate.

Alena Aminova is an IWPR contributor in Karakalpakstan.