All her life, Feruza dreamed of her wedding day, when, hand-in-hand with her husband-to-be, she would ascend Sulaiman Too, the sacred hill in the center of Osh. A boisterous gaggle of snap-happy friends and a videographer would follow the couple. Atop the “holy mountain” she would ask for a blessing and good fortune, as local custom dictates, before descending in her white gown for the marriage ceremony and a wild two-day party.
Spring is a time for weddings in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. But in Osh, scene of ethnic violence last year that left over 400 dead, many Uzbeks say they are too afraid to hold a big celebration. Citing harassment and extortion by ethnic Kyrgyz bureaucrats, some are even avoiding officially registering their marriages. This reluctance to engage with officialdom can potentially deprive some Uzbek women of their rights in the future.
“My dreams did not come true because of the June conflict last year,” says Feruza, a 20-year-old ethnic Uzbek, who refused to give her full name because of security concerns. Married a month ago, her wedding was modest and, to her shame, didn’t even have music. Only 25 family members attended the muted ceremony at her home. If the event had adhered to tradition, over 150 friends and family members would have celebrated at a local restaurant, even if it meant that her parents would have to incur debt.
Osh authorities are billing 2011 the “Year of Interethnic Relations, Friendship and Peace.” But, complaining of continuing discrimination and harassment, ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are keeping low profiles. “Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are just scared to death and avoid attracting any public attention,” explains Munojat Tashbaeva, an ethnic Uzbek sociologist from Osh. “Nowadays the wedding ceremony includes only small numbers of relatives, and a mullah blessing the newlyweds.”
In Kyrgyzstan, it is customary for a groom – whether Kyrgyz or Uzbek – to collect his bride at home with a caravan of decorated luxury cars, which friends race around town in a high-speed game of cat and mouse. The party stops for photos at monuments and for the Sulaiman Too climb, honking to attract attention en route to the ZAGS, the government office known by its Russian-language acronym where weddings are officially registered. Even the traffic police usually overlook broken rules out of respect for the newlyweds.
“Now for us, Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan, the weddings we used to have are history,” says Feruza. “Each family videotaped such events for memory. In my case, there was not much to record.” Though her husband-to-be hired five cars for the caravan, his father said such a display of wealth was too dangerous and cancelled that part of the festivities.
Feruza says her Uzbek friends and family have stopped celebrating anything – weddings, birthdays, even religious holidays – in public. She describes anger and sadness when she sees young Kyrgyz celebrating their weddings out in the open. Afraid of dealing with authorities, even those at local ZAGS, Uzbeks are not registering weddings. In such situations, a woman has little recourse if her husband later chooses to leave her.
“There is a strong mistrust and barrier between the Uzbek community and the local authorities after the tragic violence. Therefore, ethnic Uzbeks try to avoid governmental agencies, which are comprised mostly of ethnic Kyrgyz,” says a local human rights activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
Not registering the marriages “will have consequences for women in the future in case of divorce or family disputes, since officially a couple that has not registered their marriage are not considered husband and wife by law, and their disputes cannot be heard in court. As a result, women will become legally fragile,” says respected Osh-based human rights activist, Sadykjan Makhmudov, director of Luch Solomona (“Solomon’s Ray [of Light]”), a human rights advocacy group.
But women’s legal rights are an abstract concern for many Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan at this point. Uzbeks’ first priority now is security, says Maksuda Aitieva, the director of the Osh Media Resource Center, a non-governmental organization. Local and international observers in southern Kyrgyzstan describe widespread police harassment, arbitrary arrests, and torture to extract confessions and property titles.
“Uzbeks are concerned that if they show they are doing well, and have good sources of income, they may be exposed to racketeering and extortion or violent acts of intolerance,” Aitieva says.