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.