Having spent the last 8 years of my life in the US, I had forgotten the grandeur of the 8th of March (the International Women’s Day), a day of celebration, expression of appreciation and respect towards our mothers, sisters and daughters. Even though a working day in Albania, classrooms and offices were flooded with gifts and flowers for teachers and female co-workers celebrating this day and cutting work hours in half. It was great business for restaurants and flower shops. But none of this was happening in the streets of NY for the years I spent there. As in most post-Soviet countries, or post-Communist Eastern Europe, I found the same 8th of March grandeur in Bishkek, upon moving to Kyrgyzstan this past January. There were flowers, a day off work, dinner organized by male co-workers and all of it felt very much like home.
However, not everyone in Bishkek thought it was appropriate to celebrate the 8th of March with just flowers and gifts when skyrocketing numbers of domestic violence, rape and forced marriage abductions plague the daily lives of thousands of women throughout Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, a group of young activists advocating to bring feminist values and an end of all forms of oppression against women, LGBT, ethnic minorities (and the list goes on) was doing just that. For this year’s 8th of March they wanted to bring back the political nature of this day and revive the historical meaning behind the International Women’s Day. “This is not a celebration. We didn’t want to romanticize the day, we wanted to politicize it,” says Sumsarbek Mamyraliev, one of the co-founders of Bishkek Feminist SQ since 2009.
“We don’t want flowers during the day and punches at night” or “A woman’s place is at home,” a Kyrgyz proverb in this case used as a metaphor to promote more women leaders at the Kyrgyz White House (the main parliament building at the center of Bishkek), were some of the messages on the banners they were carrying, protesting a day before the holiday. This is among the many advocacy activities Bishkek Feminist SQ has implemented through over 100 supporters (all volunteer-based) coming from different ethnic backgrounds, ages and countries in the region. They have held awareness raising campaigns on domestic violence, Vagina Monologues, V-Day One Billion Rising, to shed light to discrimination against women and alarming numbers of bride kidnapping, which according to the UN Women office in Bishkek, suggest that over 11,800 thousand young girls are abducted every year to marry against their will–some resulting in rape–as a way to follow a ‘tradition’ that for many is believed to have ancient roots in the country’s history.
Last year the conversation on bride kidnapping took over the national stage when the parliament challenged the severity of punishments already in place for non-consensual marriage abductions. The rhetoric used by some reflected the level of negligence among government ranks that have allowed these numbers to go as high as they have when comparing an abduction of a woman with that of a sheep: ” One of our parliamentarians said that it would be unfair to jail boys for 7 years when stealing a bride, when we don’t have that sentence when stealing a sheep. ‘At least you can eat a sheep, but can’t eat a woman.’ We were the first organization to publicly respond to government officials’ sexist remarks and hold satirical campaigns through social media channels.”
The practice of non-consensual bride kidnapping is illegal and just this past January the President of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, approved a new law that would increase the sentence of forced bride kidnapping up to 10 years in prison.
But at the end there was one question I wanted the answer to, a question that forced me to dig much deeper into the issue of bride kidnapping even before arriving to Bishkek: what is this ‘tradition’? What’s the story behind it? From an e-mail conversation with Russell Kleinbach, Professor of Sociology at the University of Philadelphia, researcher and co-founder of Kyz-Korgon Institute (advocacy organization to end bride kidnapping) the evidence that this practice has historical roots is very little:
“Ethnographic research of the 19th century, testimony of Aksakals and Manaschi’s and research on the increase of non-consensual kidnapping over the last 50 years all demonstrate that non-consensual bride-kidnapping was uncommon prior to the mid-20th century and not commonly believed to be a ‘tradition’ until late in Soviet period. During the Soviet period Kyz Ala-kachuu changed from rare consensual elopement (as found in the Boom Gorge legend) to a primarily non-consensual forced marriage supported by a new ideology”.
The interpretations on bride kidnapping are varied and I hear a lot of different versions every time the topic is discussed among local friends or the students I teach. Yet, the evidence lacks in their explanations when I ask them of origins of ideas and traditions.
“As an activist I try to talk to people and change their views, but I can’t change my family’s views. I have three strong sisters and a strong-minded mother and I saw how they suffered from domestic violence. I am proud of my country, but I want my country to be more open. If they want tradition they should live in a yurt, but they can’t pick and choose for their own interests,” says Sumsarbek.