Some 200 people took to the streets in a northern Kyrgyz province earlier this week to protest the longstanding practice of bride kidnapping.
The custom -- in which single young men kidnap their bride of choice and pressure them to agree to marriage -- is not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan.
But bride kidnapping has recently come under sharp criticism in the Central Asian country after two kidnapped brides committed suicide in a matter of months.
The site of this week's rally, the northern Issyk-Kul Province, is home to the two suicide victims -- Venera Kasymalieva and Nurzat Kalykova, both 20-year-old students.
The rally, dubbed "Spring without Them," was organized by local women's NGOs and other activists and held in the town of Karakol. During the protest participants called on authorities and community leaders to put an end to the old tradition.
Bride kidnapping is officially a criminal offence in Kyrgyzstan, where the criminal code stipulates a maximum three-year prison term for bride-kidnapping.
In reality, however, few cases reach the courtroom, and those who are tried for bride-kidnapping usually walk away after paying a small fine.
"Once bride-kidnapping was characteristic mostly to rural areas, but it has become widespread everywhere, including the capital, Bishkek," says Gazbubu Babayarova, founder of Kyz Korgon Institute, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns to eliminate the tradition of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
"Our researches indicate that between 68 and 75 percent of marriages in Kyrgyzstan take place with bride kidnapping."
Babayarova says economic hardship is one of many reasons behind the recent rise of bride kidnapping, as many families try to avoid paying dowries and wedding expenses. But it is by no means the only motivation.
"It is encouraged by parents of the boys," Babayarova says. "And sometimes, boys are afraid of asking the girls' permission. They think it's easier just to kidnap her, because they are afraid maybe she will refuse.
"Another reason is that even if there is a law, it's not being implemented. Since the kidnappers go unpunished, bride-kidnapping is happening again and again."
How It's Done
According to the tradition, when a Kyrgyz man, usually in his twenties, wants to get married for the first time, he picks a bride and starts to arrange her kidnapping.
The man and his friends seize the young woman in streets, sometimes using violence, and forcibly drive her to the captor's family home. The rest is left to female relatives of the man, who try to persuade the kidnapped woman to marry her captor.
The woman is put under enormous pressure, including physical violence, but in the majority of cases, the captor refrains from rape, Babayarova says.
If the woman finally agrees to marriage, the family of her potential husband puts a white kerchief on her head, and asks her to write a letter to her parents. They take the letter to the bride's family to ask their daughter's hand in marriage and arrange a quick wedding ceremony.
While the groom's relatives take part in "choosing" and arranging the kidnapping of their future daughter-in-law, the potential bride and her family do not usually know the captors or their intentions until after the kidnapping takes place.
Many brides follow tradition and simply accept their fate. But some of the marriages born from bride-kidnapping fall apart and for some -- like the two young students in Issyk-Kul -- this can bring a tragic end.
"She Wasn't Ready for Marriage So I Kidnapped Her"
Kalykova's acquaintance, Ulan, once asked her if she wanted to marry him. Kalykova and her parents refused the marriage proposal but they didn't predict Ulan would not take no for an answer.
Late one evening in November 2010, Kalykova 's parents came home from a dinner party to find their daughter had gone missing. Days later, they found out that Kalykova has been kidnapped by Ulan, who was now asking their permission to conduct a marriage ceremony.
The parents brought Kalykova back home. But under constant pressures from relatives, Kalykova and her parents eventually accepted the marriage proposal.
The marriage didn't last long -- Kalykova committed suicide just four months later.
Despite the outcome, Ulan sees nothing wrong in his approach to marriage.
"We were friends with Nurzat for three years before our marriage. I wanted to marry her, but she always postponed it. Perhaps she wasn't ready," Ulan told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
Ulan doesn't hold himself responsible for his wife's suicide.
"We lived alright, we were friendly," he says. "To this point, I don't understand what possibly could have gone wrong."
Authorities say they have launched a probe into Kalykova's case but it is unclear whether Ulan will be charged with kidnapping.
Organizers of today's rally in Karakol called on authorities to enforce existing laws to punish men who opt for kidnapping as a means of finding a wife.
In a tearful address to participants, Venera Kasymalieva's father, Oken, said his daughter's kidnapping ruined his family's life.
I call on young men to refrain from kidnapping, he said. "I don't wish any young girl to commit suicide in the future. My wife died suddenly five years ago, and that's why my daughter [Venera] was like a mother to my younger kids."
Abaz Jyrgalbekov, a 20-year-old man who also joined the rally, says not all Kyrgyz men support the kidnapping tradition.
It's a way for insecure men to get girls, Jyrgalbekov says. "Who usually kidnaps a woman? Guys with no self-confidence; who are afraid that a girl doesn't like him."
"I want to marry in a normal way," he adds.
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