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ala kachuu
and adat:
non-consensual bride kidnapping and tradition in Kyrgyzstan

by  Russ Kleinbach and Lilly Salimjanova

Central Asian Survey, (June 2007) 26:2, 217 - 233

ABSTRACT:  The position of Kyrgyz adat (traditional customary law) on the practice of non-consensual bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has not been documented nor is there a consensus among the ethnic Kyrgyz on whether or not nonconsensual bride kidnapping is a Kyrgyz ‘tradition’. This paper provides a review of the historical and ethnographic evidence regarding the frequency and appropriateness (according to Kyrgyz adat) of non-consensual bride kidnapping in traditional Kyrgyz society before the political, economic and social changes of the Soviet period. The evidence presented by this research discredits the widely held belief in Kyrgyzstan, that non-consensual kidnapping is a Kyrgyz adat tradition that was widely practiced with general social approval in ancient times. The information provided in this paper can be used by educators, legislators and the media to demonstrate that non-consensual kidnapping is not legitimated by pre-Soviet Kyrgyz adat tradition.

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The position of Kyrgyz adat (traditional customary law) on the practice of non-consensual bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has not been documented nor is there a consensus among the ethnic Kyrgyz on whether or not non-consensual bride kidnapping is a Kyrgyz ‘tradition’. This is true despite the fact that the non-consensual kidnapping of brides, like other forms of domestic violence, is not permitted by Kyrgyz criminal law, Sharia (Islamic law), or by international standards of human rights.1 This paper provides a review of the historical and ethnographic evidence regarding the frequency and appropriateness (according to Kyrgyz adat) of non-consensual bride kidnapping in traditional Kyrgyz society before the political, economic and social changes of the Soviet period. [page 217]


A recently published Kyrgyz dictionary defines the practice as:

Kyz ala kachuu—‘Bride kidnapping’—is getting married by abducting a young woman. There are three different kinds

of custom: the first kind of bride kidnapping is abducting a woman without her consent and with the protest of her parents.

This kind of bride kidnapping was rarely used, because it could bring about tribal brawls and revenge.

The second kind of bride kidnapping is abducting a woman with her consent, but against her parents’ agreement.

This was mostly experienced during the patriarchy period as a struggle against the customs of those times.

The third one is the false bride kidnapping, when the parents of both sides agree to the wedding party, but

for the avoidance of spending much money, the young man kidnaps his future wife.2 

The prohibition against non-consensual kidnapping in Kyrgyz criminal law is found in Article 155 of the Criminal code which states that ‘forcing a woman to marry or to continue a marriage or kidnapping her in order to marry without her consent’ is subject to punishment by fine or imprisonment.3 Islamic law (Sharia) also prohibits marriage without the consent of both parties.4   This is noted because the majority of ethnic Kyrgyz are at least nominally Muslim. Furthermore, Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) both require the free and full consent of the intending spouses.5 Both conventions have been ratified by the Kyrgyz Republic. 

Previous studies have described the practice in detail,6 and survey research shows that as many as 50% of ethnic Kyrgyz women are married by the process of ala kachuu, with two-thirds of these being non-consensual.7 As many as one in five women kidnapped non-consensually did not previously know the man kidnapping her for marriage.8 The research also documents that in one village the rate of non-consensual kidnapping has been increasing over at least the last half century from under 30% for women married in the mid 1900s to over 60% for young women today.9 This is important because if the rate of increase over the last half century were projected backwards to the beginning of the 20th century, we could surmise that prior to the Soviet period, non-consensual kidnapping happened rarely.

 However, the position of Kyrgyz adat (traditional customary law) on the practice of non-consensual kidnapping has not been clearly documented nor is there a consensus among the contemporary ethnic Kyrgyz on whether or not non-consensual bride kidnapping is a Kyrgyz ‘tradition’. Results from unpublished research done in Jalalabat by Toigonbai Bakirov, show that approximately 40 per cent of the 61 adults interviewed (median age 55) believe that non-consensual kidnapping was considered a Kyrgyz tradition at the beginning of the 20th century. This is consistent with many conversations on the topic the authors have had with adults and students in the general population over the several years of researching this topic throughout all regions of [end page 218]  the country. This, however, contrasts with unanimous opinion of the 25–30 librarians, heads of university history and ethnology departments, museum directors and Manaschis (tellers of the Manas epic) interviewed for this paper, that non-consensual bride kidnapping is not a Kyrgyz tradition and was not common prior to the Soviet period (which began in the 1920s).

Evidence demonstrates that during the 20th century in Kyrgyzstan, a change gradually took place wherein, (a) the practice of kidnapping of brides increased significantly, (b) the practice shifted from primarily consensual to primarily non-consensual, and (c) many people in the general populace began to believe that non-consensual kidnapping is ‘our tradition’, i.e. it is approved by the traditional customary law of adat.10 Today many people do not know that the practice violates Kyrgyz criminal law and Islamic Sharia, and if they do know, they seem to grant higher authority to ‘tradition’.11 

It is this widely held legitimating function of the belief that non-consensual kidnapping is a Kyrgyz adat tradition that calls for a review of the evidence as to whether or not non-consensual bride kidnapping is, in fact, a Kyrgyz tradition and was common prior to the Soviet period. 

Research methods

The goal of this project is to provide a review of the historical and ethnographic evidence as to the pre-Soviet frequency of the practice, and whether or not nonconsensual bride kidnapping was or is approved by traditional customary law of adat. The authors began in a non-systematic way in 2005 to interview scholars and elders with whom they had contact, on the question of whether or not nonconsensual kidnapping was a pre-Soviet Kyrgyz tradition. To locate the literature that could answer this question, in the summer of 2006, we traveled to Bishkek, Jalalabat, Karakol, Naryn, Osh and Talas, six of the seven major cities in Kyrgyzstan with university libraries and museums, including the Manas Museum in Talas. We interviewed 28 librarians, heads of university history and ethnology departments, Manaschis and museum directors. With a very few exceptions, these people were very helpful in locating the resources they had available that provided information on pre-Soviet Kyrgyz marriage customs and laws, including those regarding bride kidnapping. While one annotated bibliography of 19th century sources12 shared by a history professor in Talas proved to be particularly useful, most sources were located in the National Library in Bishkek, and in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. 

All sources were critically evaluated using criteria of logical consistency within and between sources, factual accuracy when checked against each other and likely reliability of the sources, i.e. were the sources academic, were they writing/speaking from first hand experiences or testimony of people with direct experience, and were the sources likely to have a motive to bias the information in one way or another. With one exception (noted later), the academics, historians, museum directors, Manaschis, and ethnographers (pre-Soviet, Soviet-period and post-Soviet), were consistent on the position that prior to the Soviet period, [end page 219] non-consensual bride kidnapping occurred rarely, was not approved by adat tradition, was a source of inter-family conflict, and was prohibited and punished.

The pre-Soviet historians and ethnographers wrote descriptively, usually without evaluative tones that imply one practice to be more appropriate or moral than another. As non-consensual kidnapping today is quite commonly practiced and popularly accepted one might think that some contemporary academics, ethnologists, community leaders, white-bearded elders (aksakals) or Manaschis would defend the practice as an element of Kyrgyz nationalism or ethnic identity. However no source we could locate, past or present, attempted to legitimate the practice as ever having been an adat tradition, in the way that female genital mutilation is defended in areas of Africa.


Pre-Soviet Kyrgyz marriage practices Historically, prior to the Soviet period, there were several ways for Kyrgyz to marry. These included arranged marriages, levirate (a widow marrying her dead husband’s brother), sororate (widower marrying his dead wife’s sister), and consensual and non-consensual kidnapping. Most marriages, except levirate and sororate, involved payment of kalym and dowry.13

First, the large majority of pre-Soviet Kyrgyz marriages were arranged by parents. They could be consensual or non-consensual for those being married.14  As one scholar puts it, ‘Children could not go against their parents’ will. A father had the right to give his daughter to marriage without her consent.’15

Many sources say that even before Soviet times, the Kyrgyz were not ‘good’ Muslims, thus allowing for non-consensual arranged marriages and also paradoxically for more interaction between young men and women than would have been allowed in strict Islamic cultures.16 Abramzon, one of the most renowned ethnographers of the region, writing in 1978, also notes that before and during Soviet times there were ways for young people to meet and interact but they were shy and it was difficult for them to interact in a way that would include expressions of affection and proposals of marriage, and usually they were not free to select their spouses due to the control of parents.17

Marriages in the pre-Soviet period were arranged for those ranging in age from yet to be born children18 to young adults in their late teens or early twenties. Most girls by their early teens had their marriages arranged. Parentally arranged marriages, levirate and sororate marriages were the only ones approved by Kyrgyz customary law of adat.19  They were also approved by Islamic law if they were done with the consent of the couples getting married, although mullahs regularly officiated over non-consensual marriages.20

The second method of marriage, consensual ala kachuu (mock kidnapping or elopement), was infrequent but was the Kyrgyz method used by young adults who were in love, to avoid an arranged marriage to someone else or to bypass the consent of their parents.21 This means could also be used to reduce the cost [end page 220] of marriage as it was generally a faster process with fewer gifts and celebrations, as well as payment of kalym might be delayed. In some cases, when the groom had paid all of kalym, he was allowed to take the girl away secretly, in order not to spend money on the celebration.22 This method as it was consensual was approved by Islamic law but not by Kyrgyz adat as it was without parental consent. The inter-family conflict it produced could usually be resolved relatively easily with apologies and gifts, provided the families were socially and economically relatively equal.

According to Abramzon:

Bride kidnapping as a form of marriage was rather a rarity. According to our interlocutors in Tien
Shan, if a man seeking marriage did not have resources to pay kalym, he first paid a small amount
and then having agreed with a woman, kidnapped her. After that the father of the man had to visit

woman’s father and ask for forgiveness for his son. . . .. After reconciliation, the bride’s mother

visited the groom’s parents bringing dowry with her. According to Jumagulov A., a man

kidnapped in those cases when his relatives were influential people and could support him, or

a young man’s matchmakers were not successful, or a bride’s parents were against the marriage.

Kidnapping took place, as a rule, with the bride’s agreement . . .. People resorted to bride

kidnapping relatively rarely mostly due to conflicts that engaged a wide circle of relatives and

congeners from both sides, which resulted in tribal hostility often ending with severe


Mock kidnappings were uncommon as few girls reached the age where they could act so decisively with a young man, without having already been committed to or physically placed by their parents into a marriage arrangement. While not supported by adat or customary law, consensual ala kachuu had support in Kyrgyz epic lore.

According to Manaschi Talantaaly Bakchiev:

If to speak about the history of ala-kachuu, it has a beautiful legend. In Boom [Boh-om] gorge on
the way to the Issyk-Kul Lake there is a place called ‘Kiz-Kuioo’ (Girl-Husband). The story goes

back to the 17th or 18th century. According to it, the parents of a young couple were against their

marriage, but the young people loved each other so much that they threw themselves down into

the gorge in protest and died. Here we come to the idea of ala-kachuu that is: a man kidnaps a

woman because they love each other and they want to get married, but their parents are

against their marriage. So, the story serves as a proof to the thesis that originally the idea of

ala-kachuu involved the concept of consent.24


The third method of marriage, non-consensual ala kachuu (real kidnapping for marriage), was rare, as it was in opposition to adat, the will of the girl and her parents, and Islamic law. Furthermore, as it was done without consent and with force, it was a more serious offense against the girl’s family and relatives.

Ethnographer N. A. Aristov writes that,


In about 1863 a man of the Sayak tribe kidnapped a young woman, who was promised to the son

of a noble, named Djankarach, of the Salt tribe; even though the father of the young woman

offered to pay kalym back [to the family of the man to whom the woman was first promised]

along with the fine or to take another young woman, Salts started raiding Sayaks, with the

help of Sarybagyshs [another tribe]. Having lost all of their cattle and many people to captivity,

Sayaks had to flee to Chatyrkul lake, but they were followed even there.25 [end page 221]


Because kidnapping a woman could result in this type of serious inter-tribe conflict and violence, it was usually done only by men from wealthy and powerful families, e.g. when a less powerful family refused a marriage offer. Valieva et al., share this view, ‘Kidnapping (kiz ala kachuu) as form of marriage was rare with Kyrgyz people. It occurred mainly in manap-bai (rich) families, when a groom had influential patrons. As a rule, bride kidnapping took place with her consent. Usually it ended with reconciliation of both parties.’26


F. A. Fiel’strup was an ethnographer who collected material in Kyrgyzstan in the 1920s. Among his diary field notes are a collection of statements on kidnapping:

- In the old days bride kidnapping occurred rarely.

- When kidnapping a bride, abductors came in big numbers, tied her parents, took her and everything—household belongings, bed items, etc.

- Bride kidnapping was punished by fine. The person who was going to kidnap knew about it and was preparing the fine—that is full kalym plus 9 head of cattle in addition.

- Secret kidnapping of girls happened rarely. If it took place, the man was chased and the girl was taken away from him. If he managed to take her to his village then her family came and asked for kalym or for the girl back. If the man took her to his village, and if the village was weak and couldn’t make the people chasing him respect the village, then they fought. . . . There weren’t any ceremonies of reconciliation of parents of both sides.27


There is evidence from 1908 that in pre-Soviet law, kidnapping was punished by fines. For example, here are a number of clauses from a 1908 decree that apply to this issue:


Decree – Clause 7: October 5, 1908. We, the under signed honorary people of 11 districts have made the following decree (as enactment for leaders of Prjeval’sk (now Karakol, Issyk-Kul oblast’) session according to tsar’s law and Muslim Sharia) . . ..

Clause 12. The person who abducts a married woman must bring her back and pay 60 head of cattle.

Clause 13. For kidnapping a girl who is promised in a marriage—100 head of cattle and 100 rubles (in money); plaintiff can demand it from the father of kidnapped girl or from abductor . . ..

Clause 15. If a daughter of an honorable man is kidnapped, and the girl is not promised in marriage, 40 head of cattle and 1 camel.

Clause 16. If a daughter of middle class man is kidnapped and the girl is not promised in marriage—20 head of cattle and 1 camel.

Clause 17. If a daughter of a Kyrgyz from the lower social strata and not promised in marriage— 15 head of cattle.28

Kojonaliev, in material published in 2000, wrote that in prior centuries, ‘abduction was wide spread in Kyrgyz society’, and that these women often became wives in the captors’ households. These actions were an infringement of her parents’ dignity and insulting to the tribe. When possible, these actions called for [end page 222] retaliation and punishment. ‘It was one of the ways of forcing women to enter into

marriage, and one of the sources of big clan conflicts. “Abduction was accompanied by robbery, violence against persons, even killings,”—told an old man Sadybek, who lived in Chyrpykty village of Issyk-Kul region.’29 However in 1963 Kojonaliev wrote that in the rare cases when it happened bride kidnapping

was not approved by society and was punished. ‘According to the decision (ereje) of meetings of officials (biys) at the end of [the 19th] and beginning of [the 20th] century Kyrgyz people were prosecuted for crimes against life, health and dignity of a person (murder, physical assault, kidnapping women, and intentional spreading of false rumors’.30 

J. S. Tatybekova, also writing in 1963, did not believe non-consensual kidnapping was common:

There was no way to marry a girl other than with her parents’ consent, and any breaking of this

tradition was severely punished. Taking away of the girl without her consent and the consent of

her parents happened rarely because of the difficulty of the task and fear of revenge. Any forced

taking was considered an offence to the whole clan and resulted in raids (barymta) against the

clan of the kidnapper until the girl was saved and the offence was revenged. Marriages by

kidnapping (ala kachuu), with the agreement of the girl, which sometimes took place were

still a rare occasion.31

 N. I. Grodekov is an author who did a lot of work writing down laws and legal regulations of the Kyrgyz in the 19th century. In his book, Kirgizy i karakirgizy Syr-Daryinskoy oblasti. Yuridicheskiy byt, he describes various situations in the lives of Kyrgyz and their legal solutions according to adat. There is a section on family issues where Grodekov describes in detail various situations, such as the death of the husband, and the fate of the wife, children and property in that case. He also covers many different situations of payment of kalym, parents trying to get as much kalym as possible and situations when kalym is not paid for a long time. He describes these events in much detail. In all the descriptions there is only one sentence on kidnapping, ‘For kidnapping of the bride, before paying kalym, the fine apart from kalym amounts to one to three “toguz” [nines ¼ one to three sets of nine head of cattle.]’.32  From this we may conclude that the kidnapping of brides happened but was uncommon because the author did not devote much attention to its description and associated punishment. 

Evidence supporting the belief that bride kidnapping was not common in pre-Soviet times is also found in the testimony of non-government organization leaders working with ethnic Kyrgyz ‘refugees’ moving to Kyrgyzstan after living for several generations in Tajikistan. They state that these Kyrgyz did not kidnap brides when living in Tajikistan but have recently begun the practice. This suggests that Kyrgyz tradition did not support the practice before or early in the Soviet-period when many of these people were moved to Tajikistan, and that the practice did not develop and grow there during the Soviet period.33

This also still seems to be the case with the approximately 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz living in the autonomous region of Kyzul Suu in the People’s Republic of China. A local newspaper reported that, ‘In spite of the small number of [end page 223] people, they keep the traditions, customs and language unchanged. The custom of bride kidnapping doesn’t exist in the traditions of Kyrgyz people living in China.’34

Many other authors also describe pre-Soviet marriage customs, including consensual and non-consensual arranged marriages of children and youths in their teens, payment of kalym and dowry, and living arrangements of engaged and newly married couples. None of these accounts include non-consensual kidnapping as an appropriate practice.35 

Ala kachuu in Manas Epic and Kyrgyz literature

Manas is the epic father and hero of the Kyrgyz people. The epic of Manas is maintained in half a million lines of oral literature. Some of the epic is written but the oral tradition is maintained by tellers of the Manas Epic, known as Manaschis.  Three Manaschis with whom we spoke stated that non-consensual bride kidnapping does not occur in the Manas Epic and is not a Kyrgyz tradition. The two volume English translation of the Manas Epic contains no references to bride kidnapping. Manas, as a young man acquired two ‘wives’, albeit neither ‘legal’, as the first was a woman warrior (Karabe¨rk) Manas defeated in battle, and the second (Akalai) the daughter of a defeated enemy was given to Manas as a ‘prize’ of victory.36 At some point, Manas decided he should have a legal wife of appropriate status:

So he rode, and thought things o’er, ‘Bother my father Jakib once more?

Make him find a wife for me? Get me married legally?’

Such were the thoughts with which he played.

Ten days in one place he stayed, Then he returned to Jakib and said:

‘Father, I shielded your aging head, Your protector I’m used to be,

But you seem to know nothing of me! Father Jakib! What’s happened to you?

Find me a wife and marry me too—That’s your duty, my dear man!’37

This traditional role of a father is further supported in the line; ‘Father—matchmaking for his son—That was a custom by forebears done.’38 Approximately 80 pages of the epic then describe the long adventure of Jakib’s search for a wife, the kalym negotiations, Manas’ meeting of his intended bride and the marriage celebration.39 This ancient process of parents finding a spouse for their son or daughter, negotiating kalym and dowry, introducing the couple to each other and having a wedding is still commonly practiced in Kyrgyzstan today.

Talantaaly Bakchiev, a Manaschi and instructor in the ‘Cultural Anthropology and Archeology’ Program at American University – Central Asia, stated:

In the oral folk arts there are no elements of non-consensual bride kidnapping, nor in the majority

of written literature (Manas Epic). Though I can mention epic, ‘Oljobai and Kishimjan,’ where

the parents of two young people agreed their children should get married and they wanted the

man to kidnap the girl though without her consent. But, actually, there is no ala-kachuu as

such in this epic. 40 [end page 224] 

Rysbai Isakov, a Manaschi, interviewed in the USA, stated:

I differentiate between ‘ala-kachuu’ and ‘jula-kachuu.’ Ala-kachuu is an ancient tradition but

what they do today, I call it ‘jula-kachuu’ (grab and run away), mostly because it happens

without the girl’s consent. In early times ala-kachuu was practiced only with her consent. But

today it takes ugly forms and the tradition has become distorted. 41 

Anarbek Jumaliev, a Manaschi at the Manas Museum in Talas, Kyrgyzstan, was also adamant that non-consensual kidnapping is not found in the Manas Epic and that it is not a Kyrgyz tradition.42 

Satkynbay Momunaliev, Dean of the Department of Kyrgyz Ethnology (Philology) and specialist in Kyrgyz philology at Osh State University wrote in response to our questions:

‘Ala-kachuu’, bride kidnapping, was not an ordinary practice in Kyrgyz custom and tradition in

the old times. Before the 1917 October revolution those who kidnapped a lady were severely punished.

As an example we can take Kyrgyz national poems like ‘Oljobai and Kishimjan’ and

‘Aksatkyn’. The well known Kyrgyz writer Tologon Kasymbekov in his novel ‘Syngan

Kylych’—(Broken Sword) wrote about the life of Temir and Aizada, where it is shown how a

bride kidnapping grew into a big scandal that was stopped only with the involvement of many

people. The epic Manas shows us that Manas got married to Kanykey following all traditions

[without kidnapping]. Bride-kidnapping began to increase after the October Revolution, when

women and men came to be treated as equals and it was allowed for a woman to marry a man

whom she liked. Even without her parents’ agreement she could run away with the man.43 

The fact that non-consensual bride kidnapping is not approved of in the Manas Epic does not mean that it did not happen. However as oral tradition is one source of knowledge about ethnographic practice, and given that the Manas Epic is oral tradition with the status of scripture in Kyrgyzstan, it is evidence that it was not considered a traditionally approved practice in pre-Soviet times, as it is not among the many traditional practices recounted in this very extensive epic.

When speaking to scholars, university students or groups of villagers about bride kidnapping, one strong argument that can be made when presenting evidence that kidnapping a bride against her will is not an old Kyrgyz tradition, is to point out that non-consensual bride kidnapping is not found in Manas Epic. This is noteworthy because it illustrates the cultural influence that Manas still holds for the Kyrgyz people even after centuries of Islam, and decades of Soviet secular education. If the current practice of non-consensual kidnapping is to be addressed culturally, its place in the Manas tradition must be included in this discussion. 

Soviet period

The Soviet revolution significantly changed the social and economic conditions of the process for Kyrgyz people getting married. There were instituted ideological and legal prohibitions against all forms of non-consensual marriage (including arranged marriages and kidnapping), the payment of kalym and dowry, and marriage of young girls. [end page 225]

The criminal codes of the Soviet Union Republics contain specific articles about the responsibility for crimes based on the old local traditions. These crimes are categorized into four groups:

(1) Crimes committed against woman’s equality in marital relationships;

(2) Crimes committed against woman’s equality at work, her cultural and social life;

(3) Crimes committed against a woman’s life, health, and honor/dignity;

(4) Other crimes committed based on the old local traditions.

The first category includes: paying and accepting a bride price for a bride, making a woman marry or stay in a marriage, not letting a woman get married, or kidnapping her for marriage. The same category included marrying someone under age, or polygamy and bigamy. All these crimes are against the freedom and equality of a woman.44

In 1949 Abramzon recorded the popularity of a ‘new’ form of marriage. The date of this report by one of the most respected ethnologists of Kyrgyz culture implies that even consensual ala kachuu was not common prior to mid 20th century.

In recent years a form of marriage became very popular with young Kyrgyz people, it consists of a sort of a kidnapping, ‘taking’ the girl secretly, with her consent and without prior agreement of her parents. This ‘new’ form of marriage became the young people’s expression of protest against forced marriages that were common in the past. Independence and new Soviet worldview are expressed in that ‘new’ way. At the same time in this modern form of marriage its old form (bride kidnapping) was unexpectedly revived, moreover important features of the ancient/old wedding practice remained. For example, the practice of reconciliation with parents of the kidnapped young woman was accompanied by presenting them a gift, often a very valuable one.45 

Central Asian ethnic comparisons

Ethnographic literature demonstrates that the practices of consensual and nonconsensual bride kidnapping existed throughout Central Asia prior to the Soviet Period. In most ethnic groups where the practice occurred, it appears to be quite similar to the practice in Kyrgyzstan. A few comparisons may enhance our understanding of the practice and its history in Kyrgyzstan. A review of this literature also shows that non-consensual kidnapping was, from ancient times, consistently considered a violation of the woman, her family and approved tradition, i.e. it was not a practice that a family would have defined as a ‘good traditional way to get a wife’. 

On Kazakhstan, Nikolai Kislyakov, writing in 1969 states:

We mention another way of marriage, namely marriage by kidnapping. Over time we paid a lot of

attention to this type of marriage, proving its casual and sporadic character. In conditions of [end page 226]

Central Asia and Kazakhstan during the period of our study kidnapping the brides happened

extremely seldom. Usually it happened when the parents of the girl disagreed or when they

delayed the time of the wedding. As a rule, kidnapping occurred with the consent of the girl,

and ended with the reconciliation of her parents who were put in this situation, and with the

payment of kalym or its unpaid part.46 

It is likely, given the close proximity, and the similarity of the cultures and ecological environments, that Turkmen adat would have been similar to Kyrgyz adat. A pre-Soviet, 1897 written account of Turkmen adat on marriage limited kidnapping to its consensual form. Accordingly, ‘a bride-groom can abduct a full-aged girl and marry her with her consent, and the marriage is considered legal even without the consent of the girl’s parents or tutors’.47 Even arranged and approved marriages were sometimes carried out as kidnappings that might parallel Kyrgyz consensual kidnapping; ‘On the wedding day 5 women from the groom’s side come on camel back accompanied by 20–30 persons, to the bride’s home to abduct her (pretended abduction). This custom goes back to ancient times when the wives of the Turks and Slavs were obtained by force, abducted.’48

Lomakin provides further evidence of the required consensual nature of kidnapping when he points out that if there is an arrangement by parents for a girl to marry a particular man but she cannot, due to circumstances, e.g. ‘abduction of a bride with her consent, but without her parents’ consent, . . . kalym is returned back to a bridegroom or his relatives as it was paid, however no fine or penalty is imposed on the bride’s relatives.’49

Beyond this, the first condition listed by Lomakin for divorce is non-consensual marriage, suggesting that non-consensual kidnapped marriage was not a culturally acceptable practice; ‘Marriage is regarded invalid and is dissolved in the following cases: if married under compulsion (a girl or a widow) proves that during the marriage ceremony she didn’t consent to marry and was married by force.’50

From this information we might reasonably conclude that non-consensual and consensual kidnapping happened often enough to require rules and laws regarding it, but that non-consensual kidnapping was not an accepted ancient tradition among the Turkmen people.

The Karakalpak ethnic group has its own autonomous republic in the northern deserts of Uzbekistan. While A. Aminova does view kidnapping as an ethnic ‘tradition’, her description of kidnapping is similar to the practice in Kyrgyzstan. This includes her explaining how it has changed from an old consensual practice into its more non-consensual and coercive form. Interestingly she believes it was previously more common among the poor.

Kidnapping of brides was traditional in Karakalpak society before Soviet rule, because it saved the men especially those from poor families—from paying the high bride price known as kalym that is customarily required. The woman or her family would sometimes acquiesce, because the arrangement was convenient and saved face all round. [end page 227] Moscow frowned on the practice and did its best to stamp it out, but it has reemerged since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, although the raiding party is more likely to be in a Lada than on horseback. The tradition is entirely illegal and is a somewhat distorted version of the old custom because it frequently involves coercion and rape.  Local non-government organizations say that nowadays one in five brides in Karakalpakstan are abducted before marriage, and one in 20 have never previously met their future husband.51

In the Caucasus, H. M. Hashaev has recorded the 17th–19th century laws, policies and procedures of a number of regions in the Caucasus, including the Andalalskiy District, Keleb Villages, Karatin, Gumbetovski and Unkratl-Chamalalski Provinces, and Tarkovski and Mextulinski Khanates. The laws andpolicies include a range of fines and punishments for men and women who kidnapped brides (consensual and non-consensual) and those who assisted in kidnappings. These include fines, to be paid in such things as cattle, sheep, various amounts of money,52 and/or punishments including exile from the community or being made an ‘enemy of the community’ for a period of time.53  The severity of fine or punishment is generally higher if the kidnapping is non-consensual.54  Sh. Inal-Ipa in 1954 described bride kidnapping among the Abhaz, also an ethnic group of the Caucasus. Here as elsewhere, it was a practice that was always a violation of traditionally approved forms of marriage. ‘Bride kidnapping was one of the reasons which caused and sustained a cruel tradition of blood revenge. Many young people were killed because of it.’55  He goes on to explain:

If a bride kidnapping occurred then the relatives of the young woman would fight to take her

back. If a bride kidnapping was successful, then the groom and his family would be absolutely

ignored, unaccepted, and put down in an insulting way. The woman’s family would refuse to

interact and mingle with the groom’s family. The bride was no longer considered part of the

family, and she would be deprived of her rights and family support.56


As the title of Inal-Ipa’s book (Historical Vignettes of the Abhaz Marriage Tradition) notes, it is filled with illustrative vignettes, for example:

Djanim Ashuba fell in love with a woman named Kazirhan. She turned him down, and Djanim

kidnapped her. The woman’s brothers followed him. The younger sister Shamsia was out the

night her sister was kidnapped. The next day, armed and wearing male clothing, Shamsia

followed the kidnappers. Soon she got ahead of her brothers. At the mountain pass she got in

the middle of the road, and ordered the kidnappers to free the captured woman. The kidnapper

told her to get out of the mountain pass. She warned him that she would kill him. As an evidence

of her skillful shooting she told him to look for a hole on his hat. But the man kept moving toward

her. The second bullet killed his horse. He could not shoot at a woman, so he started to walk

toward her. The third bullet killed the kidnapper. The group of kidnappers gave up. Shamsia liberated

her sister. In order to avoid revenge she and her brothers had to go to live in the woods

where they stayed for 12 years.57 

Hashaev also provides a collection of laws and orders for Dagestan, including one approved in 1892 that ‘Cases of bride kidnapping and general assault are to be [end page 228] filed by victims, and could be closed by the reconciliation and agreement of two sides without a fine penalty’.58 The fines and punishments listed at length for Dagestan are similar to those noted above for Kyrgyzstan. Although in some cases they can be more severe and result in killing.

#93. If someone kidnaps someone’s fiance´e, girl friend or a widow with her consent_ then the

kidnapper and woman are seen as the enemies of the intended groom. . . . If the intended

groom kills/murders the kidnapper before he is forgiven then the intended groom is not

charged for a murder. If the intended groom forgives his bride’s kidnapper with the request of

the community then the kidnapper is to invite the intended groom over to his house, to meet

him at the doors, to bow, and to treat him generously. Afterwards, the woman’s father and her

kidnapper are to pay all engagement expenses in double to the intended groom.


#94. If someone kidnaps someone’s fiance´e without her consent_, and she does not wish to marry

her kidnapper then the woman is returned to her intended groom. The kidnapper is removed from

his community as an exile for 3 months. If he is killed during this time then there is no murder

charge. After the time expires the kidnapper, forgiven by the community, may return and must

treat the intended groom generously like it was said above.


#96. For kidnapping someone’s wife with her consent, the property of the kidnapper is looted

and his house is demolished by the community. The kidnapper and the woman are considered

the enemies until the end of their lives, of the husband and his brothers. In case the couple is murdered,

there is no murder charge against the husband. If later on after the exile, by the request of

the community the husband of the kidnapped woman forgives the kidnapper, and agrees to give a

divorce for money then the kidnapper has to pay a required amount of money, to treat the

husband’s relatives as if the kidnapper was forgiven for a murder, and then has to marry the


In addition it is clear that consent also usually determines whether or not the kidnapping results in marriage.60 These laws are further evidence that historically non-consensual bride kidnapping happened but was listed along with other offenses that were unacceptable and punished.

Tabasarantz (northeast Dagestan, Caucasus): B.M. Alimova states that bride kidnapping was very rare in Tabasarantz. When it was a non-consensual kidnapping, ‘The relatives of a bride were not convicted of murder if they caught the kidnapper and killed both of them. If it was a consensual bride kidnapping which happened very rarely, the parents of a woman often accepted the marriage but demanded a certain bride price from the groom.’61

The analysis and stories from these other ethnic groups, support the body of evidence that while bride kidnapping was practiced, non-consensual kidnapping was not common nor was it normatively accepted by most of the pre-Soviet ethnic populations. This seems to be true generally in the Caucasus and Central Asia. 


We have looked at the ethnographic, historical and folkloric evidence on the question of whether or not non-consensual bride kidnapping was common and approved by Kyrgyz adat (traditional customary law) before the Soviet period. [end page 229] We have collected opinions of cultural scholars and elderly people from around the country and examined information on adat traditions in similar neighboring cultures.

The evidence demonstrates that prior to the 20th century non-consensual kidnapping of brides happened infrequently in Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia and was not an accepted tradition or custom. When it did happen, it was often punished and was a source of conflict between families or clans. This evidence therefore discredits the belief, widely held in Kyrgyzstan, that non-consensual kidnapping is a Kyrgyz adat tradition that was widely practiced with general social approval in ancient times.

During the 20th century in the Soviet Republics, changes gradually took placewhereby, (a) the practice of kidnapping of brides increased significantly, (b) the practice shifted from primarily consensual to primarily non-consensual, and (c) many people in the general populace began to believe that non-consensual kidnapping is their tradition, i.e. it is approved by the traditional customary law of adat.

Several factors may help us understand the increase of non-consensual kidnapping in Soviet period. There was an ideology of male–female equality and the integration of females into the educational and productive aspects of the socialist economy. As a result the socio-economic status of young women increased and they were less willing to submit to the will of their parents or to early marriage. Young people now wanted equality and freedom in choosing their husbands and wives, and it seems likely that some began to imitate the ancient form of consensual kidnapping. If ala kachuu was done with the agreement of the couple, it would allow for freedom of choice and be legitimated by a traditional practice, albeit one previously not commonly used. Coincidently, it would also lower the cost of the wedding. The problem was that even a mock kidnapping has the appearance of being non-consensual. What likely happened was that as consensual kidnapping became more popular (also noted in 1949 by Abramzon62) some men and their families began to practice non-consensual kidnapping, and over decades, the practice increased along with the general acceptance of its legitimacy, even though it has always been illegal.

In addition, there are three cultural threads that are found woven through the pre-Soviet literature and ethnographic accounts which may also help understand the growing acceptance of non-consensual kidnapping by coercion and often violent force. The first of these is that often marriages arranged by parents were without the consent of the bride or groom. Second, the ubiquitous payment of significant kalym often had the latent function of buying and selling women, thus making women the property of men and families who owned them and could use and abuse them. Markov, in 1901, writes, ‘Kalym can serve as a sign of women’s dependency, it makes them into some sort of a commodity, domestic animals, which can be sold for money’.63 The third cultural thread is found in the accounts of ritual force being used by the new husband to obtain his new wife, even after the marriage had been arranged, kalym had been paid and the mullah had blessed the marriage. [end page 230] 

Levshin, in 1832, described the ritual use of force in a marriage ceremony:

When all wedding preparations are over, the bride and the groom, wearing the best of their

clothes, are taken to a yurt that was prepared for the ceremony. The mullah asks them to stand

in the middle, puts a bowl of water in front of them and prays; he then asks them whether

they both agree to this marriage and asks them to drink water three times. After this main

ceremony the young husband comes to the entrance of the yurt where the bride is and asks

permission to come in, but he is not let in for a long time. Finally, he bursts into the yurt,

takes his wife by force, carries her to his horse and takes her either to his village or to the yurt

prepared for them in that same village.64 

L. F. Kostenko in 1880 also describes how at the end of the wedding celebration, ‘sometimes the bride is not easily given to the groom and he has no choice but to take her by force’.65

Thus while there is no approved tradition of non-consensual kidnapping, there is a long history of coercion and force being legitimately used against women. 

Verification of how and why non-consensual kidnapping and the popular belief that it is an adat tradition increased dramatically in the 20th century requires further research.

However, in the meantime, the information provided in this paper can be used by educators, legislators and the media to demonstrate that non-consensual kidnapping is not legitimated by pre-Soviet Kyrgyz adat tradition. 

Notes and references

 1. Human Rights Watch Report, ‘Reconciled to violence: state failure to stop domestic abuse and abduction of women in Kyrgyzstan’, Human Rights Watch Report, Vol 18, No 9 (D), September 2006.

 2. Oljobai Karataev and Salaidin Eraliev, Dictionary of Kyrgyz Ethnography (Bishkek: Biyiktik, 2000).

 3. Article 155 of the Criminal code of the Kyrgyz Republic, ‘Forcing a woman to marry or to continue a marriage or kidnapping her in order to marry without her consent, also standing in the way of marriage (impediment) is subject to punishment as a fine in the amount of 100 to 200 minimal wages per month or to imprisonment up to five years.’

4. ‘The Islamic marriage contract consists of an offer (ijab) and acceptance (qabul) that occur at the same meeting. In order for the contract to be valid, the man and woman must both hear and understand the offer and acceptance.’ At http://www.expertlaw.com/library/family_law/islamic_custody-2.html#50 (accessed 15 June 2006).

 5. Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), states, ‘For the purposes of this Declaration, the term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.’

 6. Sarah Amsler and Russ Kleinbach, ‘Bride kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic’, International Journal of Central Asian Studies, Vol 4 (1999), pp 185–216; S. Lloyd-Roberts, ‘Plight of Kyrgyzstan brides who are kidnapped, raped, and abandoned’, The Independent, 6 March 1999; Petr Lom, Documentary Film, ‘Bride Kidnapping In Kyrgyzstan’, available at petr@lomfilms.com (accessed 15 October 2006); L. M. Handrahan, ‘Hunting for women: bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol 6, No 2 (2004), pp 207–233; Raya K. Osmonalieva, Jenshiny Kyrgyzstana: Vchera i Segodnya’ (Bishkek: Prosveshenie, 2003).

 7. Russ Kleinbach, ‘Frequency of non-consensual bride kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic’, International Journal of Central Asian Studies, Vol 8, No 1 (2003), pp 108–128.

 8. Russell Kleinbach, Mehrigiul Ablezova and Medina Aitieva, ‘Kidnapping for marriage (ala kachuu) in a Kyrgyz village’, Central Asian Survey, Vol 24, No 2 (2005), p 195.

 9. Ibid, pp 191–202.

10. Ibid; Osmonalieva, op cit, Ref 6, p 107.  [end page 231]

11. Kleinbach, op cit, Ref 8.

12. Z. L. Amitin Shapiro, Annotirovanniy Ukazatel literatury po istorii, arheologii i etnografii Kirgizii (1750–1917) (Frunze, Kyrgyzstan: Izdatelstvo Akademii Nauk Kirgizskoi SSR, 1958).

13. N. I. Grodekov, Kirgizy i karakirgizy Syr-Daryinskoy oblasti. Yuridicheskiy byt, T. 1 (Tashkent, 1889); A. P. Smirnov, Byt i nravy Kirgizov (St Peterburg: Tipografiya M. Akinfieva i I. Leontieva, 1897).

14. S. M. Abramzon, Kirgizy i ih ethnogeneticheskie i istoriko-kulturnye svyazi (Frunze, Kyrgyzstan: 1990), p 245; S. K. Kojonaliev, Obychnoe pravo kyrgyzov (HESP, Soros-Foundation, 2000); E. T. Smirnov, Sredniaya Azia (Tashkent: Tipo-Litografiya torg.doma F.i G.Br. Kamenskie, 1895), p 63; D. D. Semionov, Turketstanskiy kray (Moskva: Tipografiya E.Lissnera i Y. Romana, 1887), p 146; B. Soltonoev, ‘Iz drevney istorii Kirgizov’, in O. Karaev and K. Jusupov, eds, Kyrgyzy: Istochniki, istoriya, etnografiya (Bishkek: ‘Sham’, 1996), p 400; Smirnov (1897) in ibid, p 22.

15. R. Osmonalieva, ‘Krasiviy obychai (Umykanie nevesty)’, in Jenskaya ustnaya istoriya: Gendernye issledovaniya (Bishkek: Tsentr izdatelskogo razvitiya’, 2005), p 450.

16. L. F. Kostenko, Turkestanskiy kray. Opyt voenno-statisticheskogo obozreniya Turkestanskogo voennogo okruga. Materialy dlia geografii i statistiki Rossii, T. 1 (SPb, 1880), p 347; A. I. Levshin, Opisanie kirgiz-kazachyih ili kirgizkaysatskih ord i stepey (Almaty: ‘Sanat’ [SPb, 1832], 1996), p 314.

17. S. M. Abramzon, ‘Nekotorye storony byta kirgizskoy molodeji XIX–XX’, in Semya i semeynye obriady u narodov Sredney Azii i Kazahstana (Moskva: Nauka, 1978), pp 106–110.

18. Semionov, op cit, Ref 14, p 146; Soltonoev, op cit, Ref 14, p 400. ‘Among Kyrgyz, the parents arrange marriage for their children beforehand, considering the wealth of both families; if it happens that the groom dies, the right to marry the woman is given to his closest relative, if he also dies, then kalym is given back. Kalym, excluding the poorest, equals from 150 to 1000 rubles and includes a number of horses and other cattle. The bride, in return, takes with her a yurt, bedding, dresses, trunks, golden and silver jewelry, corals, pearls, etc., a sum often equal to the kalym. Bride and groom do not see each other beforehand, and their happiness fully depends on match-makers; in spite of this, their marriages are often quite happy. Arguments between husband and wife are very rare, but are more often in cases of polygamy between the wives’ (Semionov, op cit, Ref 14, p 146).

19. ‘Kyrgyz adat on family/marriage relations: gender inequality; superiority of husband over wife; father’s authority over children and other members of the family; caring for women and under-age unmarried sons; women’s non-participation in decision making on marriage—were given by their fathers, brothers, caregivers. Protest of the bride was considered to be against adat. The ceremony of the wedding was conducted by mullah (Moldo) according to all traditions and practices. Girls were considered of full age to get married at the age of 13–15, for young men it is 15–17 years.’ Osmonalieva, 2005, op cit, Ref 15, pp 449–450.

20. Smirnov, op cit, Ref 13, p 24.

21. G. Karimova, and A. Kasybekov, ‘Brides are keeping quiet’, Vecherniy Bishkek, 21 October 2003, p 8; Kojonaliev, op cit, Ref 14; A. Tabyshalieva, ‘Revival of traditions in post-Soviet Central Asia’, Institute for Regional Studies, 2003, http://www.ifrs.elcat.kg/Publication/Anara,%20Revival%20of%20 Traditions%20in%20Post-Soviet%20Central%20Asia.htm (accessed 1 June 2004).

22. K. P. Kalmakov, ‘Nekotorye semeynye obychai Kirgizov severnyh uezdov Syr-Daryinskoy oblasti’, in Kaufman, ed, Kaufmanskiy sbornik (Moskva: I. N. Kushnerev i K, 1910), p 226.

23. Abramzon, op cit, Ref 14, p 245.

24. Talantaaly Bakchiev, (Manaschi and faculty in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Archeology, American University–Central Asia), interview, 17 December 2004.

25. N.A. Aristov, ‘K etnicheskoy istorii kyrgyzov’, in O. Karaev and K. Jusupov, eds, Kyrgyzy: Istochniki, istoriya, etnografiya (Bishkek: ‘Sham’, 1996), p 379.

26. B. Valieva, F. Zaikov, A. Niyazova, Z. Chikeeva, A. Karasaeva, K. Mallinson, S. Osaulenko, A. Saralinova, L. Sydykova, B, Tugelbaeva and A. Cholponkulova, Women’s Rights in Kyrgyzstan: Muslim Traditions, Islam Values and Modern Law (in Russian and Kyrgyz) (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Press Association “Diamond”, 2001), pp 30–31.

27. F. A. Fiel’strup, Iz Obriadovoi Zhizni Kirgizov [From the Ritual Life of Kyrgyz]. (Moscow: Nauka, 2002), pp 16–17.

28. Kojonaliev, op cit, Ref 14, pp 297–298.

29. Ibid, p 141.

30. S. K. Kojonaliev, Sud i ugolovnoe obychnoe pravo Kirgizov do Oktiabrskoy revoliutsii (Frunze: Izatelstvo Akademii Nauk Kirgizskoi, 1963), pp 44–45.

31. J. S. Tatybekova, Raskreposchenie jenschiny kirgizki Velikoy oktiabrskoy revolutsiey (Frunze: Izdatelstvo Akademii Nauk Kirgizskoy SSR, 1963).  [end page 232]

32. Grodekov, op cit, Ref 13; several sources mention the fine of ‘three nines’ as the size of kalym—nine horses, nine cows, nine camels and a large number of sheep. Soltonoev (op cit, Ref 14, p 400) states that it is the size of fine for kidnapping a woman promised to someone else.

33. Interview with NGO leaders, organized by NGO Boruker-Urmat, 23 March 2005.

34. ‘Kyz uzatuu’ (Marriage of a Daughter), Kyrgyz Tuusu (newspaper), 8–10 February 2005, p 21.

35. Y. A. Rossel, ‘Sredneaziatskaya kultura i nasha politika na vostoke’, Vestnik Evropy, Vol 6 (St Petersburg: 1878), pp 592–598; Semionov, op cit, Ref 14, pp 146–148; E. Markov, Rossiya v Sredney Azii, Ocherki Puteshestviya po Zakavkazyu, Turkmenii, Buhare, Samarkandskoy, Tashkentsky i Ferganskoy oblastiam, Kaspiyskomu moriu i Volge (SPb: Tipografiya M. M. Stasiulevicha, 1901), pp 155–158; Kalmakov, op cit, Ref 22, pp 226–228; K. Sh. Diushaliev and E.S. Luzanova, Kyrgyzskoe narodnoe muzykalnoe tvorchestvo (Bishkek: Ilim, 1999), pp 42–43; ‘Finally, also bride kidnapping was practiced, with necessary agreement of the young woman. Kidnapping did not relieve the kidnapper from paying kalym. Size of kalym (payment of kalym in the distant past was done by the whole clan to which the groom belonged) varied, depending on the wealth of the couple’s families.’ (S. M. Abramzon, Ocherk kultury kirgizskogo naroda (Frunze: Izdatelstvo Kirgizskogo Filiala Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1946), p 49.)

36. Walter May, Manas, Vol 2 (Moscow, Kirgiz Branch of International Centre “Traditional Cultures and Environment”, and Publishing House “Door” of AIP, 1995), pp 82–84.

37. Ibid, p 83.

38. Ibid, p 87.

39. Ibid, pp 83–163.

40. Talantaaly Bakchiev, (Manaschi), op cit, Ref 24.

41. Rysbai Isakov, (Manaschi), interview, 6 March 2006.

42. Anarbek Jumaliev, (Manaschi), interview, 12 June 2006.

43. Satkanbai Momunaliev, unpublished written statement, 15 July 2006.

44. A. V. Avksentiev, S. M. Arutiunian and R. H. Djanibekova, Novyi byt – Novye obychai (Stavropol: Karachaevo-Cherkesskiy nauchno-issledovatelskiy institut ekonomiki, istorii, yazyka i literatury, 1977), p 78.

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