Bride Napping is not Kyrgyzstan

Recently the topic of bride napping has been coming up in the news more than usual (see the Washington Times, Telegraph). Now with the release of a five-part documentary from Vice, the topic is getting a wider audience. Having lived in Kyrgyzstan for more than a year, it’s a topic I’ve been exposed to many times already, either through heated debates with locals or other expats, hearing about the kidnapping of a friend of a friend’s relative, or, worse, getting involved in protecting one of my best friends from threats of kidnapping.

It is a real occurrence, but it is not what defines Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, the Vice documentary is doing just that for an audience with little prior exposure to Kyrgyzstan. Rather than bringing awareness to the practice, discussing initiatives to criminalize it and decrease it, and demonstrating that not everybody in Kyrgyzstan agrees with the concept of bride napping (as the online articles do), Vice focuses on the most basic theme of demonstrating the brutality of a what is portrayed as a dearly held tradition. The viewers get to gawk in horror at the backwardness of people in Kyrgyzstan and their peasant lifestyle of conspiring to snatch a girl as she fetches water from a communal pipe sticking out of the ground.

For people who are more familiar with Kyrgyzstan, or who have been lucky enough to visit and experience it for themselves, they can watch the documentary and realize that it doesn’t show the whole story. Not every marriage starts in tears. Not everybody believes that it is a true Kyrgyz tradition that must be honored. Some people actively protest the practice. Beyond the issue of bride napping, the imagery of the clips set a specific tone for the viewer about Kyrgyzstan and the people that live here (hospitality, yes, but also felt tents, gold teeth, rural poverty and violent forms of entertainment involving dead goats).

It didn’t strike me at first how these videos could affect Westerners’ perception of Kyrgyzstan until I scrolled down and read the comments that accumulated. Some people seem conflicted about what to think; on the one hand, it’s a piece of Kyrgyz culture, but on the other hand, it’s violent. Others are much more straightforward about how horrible it is. One woman says she would certainly kill herself if put in that situation, others take solace in how their own problems seem much less serious comparatively, and some are able to completely write off the entire country based on seeing this one video on one subject.

Kyrgyzstan, like any other place in the world, cannot be defined by one practice. The Vice documentary shows only a small part of Kyrgyz culture from the viewpoint of one family, interspersed with a bumbling host who seems more than willing to ask questions that are both idiotic and condescending, extrapolating every small event into generalizations about the entire country. Well, it seems the girl has agreed to marry her captor, but to make things worse, now the family is slaughtering a sheep right before my eyes! The horror!

The topic of bride napping brings out strong opinions in many of the people I’ve met in Kyrgyzstan. Personally, I don’t agree with the practice and I think the cultural aspect of it that some people fiercely stand by is a poor excuse at building a Kyrgyz identity that was lost during the Soviet Union. Another documentary I’ve watched on this subject was made by Petr Lom, called “Bride Kidnapping.” In an interview he gave to PBS, he explains a bit about the complexities of viewing the practice from a Western perspective, especially in some cases where the couple goes on to have a happy marriage:

Certainly, it is extraordinarily challenging to our understandings and beliefs in individuality, choice and our Western romantic conceptions of true love to see a groom kidnap a woman he has never met in his life, and then to see the couple happy 24 hours later. I did a follow-up with one of these couples four months later: The woman is now two months pregnant, and the couple is happy and very much in love.

Does this justify kidnapping? Of course not. But the practice certainly raises some challenges to how many people in the West think about love.

During my time living here, I’ve been able to barely scratch the surface at that elusive Kyrgyz identity (or rather, the identity of Kyrgyzstan that includes all ethnicities and cultures), but I can already tell that it is remarkably complex. Overall, Vice’s documentary seems to close off all of those complexities for the sake of shock value. It doesn’t set up the viewers to create their own opinion on bride napping or on Kyrgyzstan, but rather lets them sit back and congratulate themselves on living in a more civilized society. Bride napping is a serious issue, but the Vice documentary strikes me as cheapening the situation.

As with any issue, it is important to be as informed as possible. Watch the Vice documentary, but realize that there’s much more that can be said than would fit in five short clips. Research other sources of information, or for the truly curious, book a flight out to Kyrgyzstan and experience its complexities and wonders for yourself.

10 replies on “Bride Napping is not Kyrgyzstan”

  1. Hear, hear. I get fed up of the fact that the only things reported about Kyrgyzstan are the ones which sock or amuse the West, be it bridenapping, sacrificing sheep in parliament or whatever. I get that these stories are more eye-catching and ‘appealing’ to western readers, but it’s of no benefit to anyone and paints such a distorted picture of the country.

  2. Um….it isn’t just Kyrgyzstan. Most media stories in America are simplified rather than examined for complexities or subtleties…or, heaven forbid, conflicting realities. Look at the US political arena right now for a perfect example of simple sound bites over substance and thoughtfulness. That said, I think if one ignores the snarky commentary from the guy who made the Vice documentary, it is an interesting look at one specific bride kidnapping, where the bride and groom knew each other and were planning on getting married anyhow. I enjoyed some of the visuals of the wedding and the celebrations…

    1. True, but in the US you have enough stories on everything, especially politics, that some reports do eventually expand on the issue, where stories about Kyrgyzstan rarely make it to a wider audience. I think Kyrgyz marriage traditions are interesting to observe, and they are much more varied than this one specific case. One of my photojournalism students from this past semester spent a day at a Kyrgyz wedding hall, photographing all of the different outfits and traditions and ways that the families celebrated, and it was a really interesting story overall.

  3. Is the topic of sheep slaughtering even a concern in comparison to KIDNAPPING?! Oh my jesus, how screwed are peoples’ value systems?! I could care less that they slit the stupid sheep’s neck open. This act isn’t nearly as terrifying as when you compare it to your fellow “man” kidnapping you into some obscure vehicle and transporting you against your will to an unknown location, where your LIFE is about to flipped a full 180 degrees. Ancient traditions aside, this practice is ridiculous. Terrence McKenna said it best, “Culture is NOT your friend.” The moment you attach yourself to a “tradition” and or “ideology,” is the moment you relinquish all self reflection onto others and in turn limit yourself from becoming unique. Congratulations Kyrgyzstan, you’re now one of the sheeple.

    1. Everybody has cultures and traditions and ideologies though, you can’t escape it. I think to write off all cultures because of the parts we disagree with closes us off to all of the other interesting and fascinating traditions out there, and that’s a big part of what I was trying to get at with this post; Kyrgyzstan’s culture is soooo much more than bride napping, so whatever your view point on this one small sliver of Kyrgyz culture (which is something that not everybody in Kyrgyzstan agrees with or practices), it shouldn’t be the one thing that defines Kyrgyzstan for you, because then you’ll miss out on everything else about Kyrgyzstan that doesn’t suck.

      1. I have no idea what the life there is like either way. All I know, as a human being and as someone who’s constantly talking about cultures in academics, it’s never good when you force someone to do something. If slavery was the bee-knees then certainly it’d still be practiced today. Clearly, this isn’t the case. Furthermore, I don’t believe that bride napping is the only thing that defines Kyrgyzstan – not by any means. I’m sure they have other positive aspects about their culture. But goddam, it’s preposterous that you’d force anyone to do something against their will. There’s no way those chicks want that marriage; no woman wants some random male figure dictating their lives. Maybe the dumb blondes want that, but there’s no way you can convince me that any human being ENJOYS being forced to do something. From the vice doc, Kyrgyzstan isn’t exactly some vacation mecca – I certainly didn’t see a Starbucks looming in every village corner. Those people are raising cattle and living in villages – this place isn’t westernized by any means – I understand that they’re gunna have different traditions than say the USA. Your missing my point though. The notion that “you can’t escape it” is fundamentally rigid in a “business as usual” mentality. Anytime someone says that it’s impossible to go against the system, people inevitably prove the majority wrong. Human beings are capable of so much more, we’re not governed by our culture. We create culture. For example, Occupy Wall Street. Besides being a “protest” movement it’s become a collective, unified group of people who have nothing “immediately” in-common with one another, yet they’ve come together to form a unique “something.” Maybe you don’t call it culture, but it’s something; Suspiciously close to what a culture is though. I get that you live in Kyrgyzstan and you probably know more about the culture than I do, but it’s absolutely ridiculous that someone would force another human being to do something against their will. The one woman who went on to talk about how her daughter hung herself… did you hear that? I just googled a news story about two 20-something year old students who committed suicide in Kyrgyzstan. That’s real ish… granted, you can make the argument ‘but it’s only two people.’ Yeah, perhaps, but I still think that if someone is so UPSET that they’re willing to TAKE their own life, then that’s pretty significant in my opinion.

        1. I agree, it is extremely upsetting that some of these girls end up taking their own life because they’re kidnapped and forced into marriage. It’s just crushing! People are working to change it though, I just read this article about Russell Kleinbach and his efforts to educate people about bride napping and have people sign pledges not to kidnap their bride or allow themselves to be kidnapped. There were demonstrations in response to the death of those two girls, so it seems that it’s true that people aren’t accepting business as usual and want to escape this tradition and don’t accept that they’re governed by this piece of culture.

          This has turned into an interesting discussion, but I’d prefer not to do the back-and-forth through the comments (especially since it seems like we agree with each other), but feel free to email me if you’d like to continue! And yeah, no Starbucks here (yet?), but Bishkek is pretty Westernized and I think it makes a cool vacation spot.

  4. hello!
    I was reading your blog as part of research because I’m planing a trip to Kyrgystan this summer. I was wondering, since you seem to travel a lot and know special, interesting places, if you would know where I can catch a Buzkashi mach sometime around July or August..?
    You seem to really like it in Kyrgystan and know more not ” typical tourist places” so maybe, if you don’t mind, you can tell me about less toured, interesting places to visit? It would really help me to get some information from a local person.

    Thanks a lot,

    1. Cool that you’re planning a trip here! It’s kinda funny that your research led you to one of the least flattering posts on Kyrgyzstan that I’ve written. Unfortunately, I don’t actually travel a lot around Kyrgyzstan so I’m not sure I’d be the best person to ask about places to visit. But, the thing with Kyrgyzstan is that so few tourists actually come here in the first place, that to avoid the “typical” attractions would be to avoid the attractions. The whole country is a non-typical tourist destination. And I’ve only been to one buzkashi match (it’s usually called kok-boru here) and it was at the end of March to celebrate Nouruz, I’m not sure if there’s anything specific to be held in July or August, but there are probably websites for tourist companies in Kyrgyzstan that keep track of that sort of stuff much more closely than I do. Hope this helps and enjoy your trip!

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