Excerpt from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir
Chapter 16: A Bride’s Farewell and Bride Stealing
The names of my students have been deleted for this online excerpt; I use a first initial only.
Not all brides glow on their wedding day.
I first heard about bride abduction during training when Mamluk wouldn’t let his adult daughters go into Almaty alone, and I’d asked my inevitable “Why?” Soniya had grabbed the front of her blouse, giving a pulling motion. When I didn’t understand, she took my dictionary and looked up the English word, “to steal.”
At the time, I chalked it up to an overprotective father and promptly forgot about it. Surely, men here did not steal girls off the street and marry them, the same street where I, or any woman, could flag down a passing car and negotiate the price of a lift. Turns out, they can; and they do.
A, one of my quieter students who sat in the back row of English 30 throughout the year, was the first of my students to be stolen. There would be too many. One Monday morning I remarked that she was missing.
“She’ll be back next week,” other students said.
“Where did she go?” I asked.
“She was stolen,” they said, matter-of-factly.
I was dumbfounded.
“Where were the girl’s parents? Why didn’t they go get her?”
“They were there,” my students assured me in their rudimentary English.
Surely I was missing something.
I brought the subject up in my stronger English 49 class, on a day when we had a smaller group than usual. I thought with both G and Y absent, the remaining female students might speak more freely.
“What’s bride stealing?” I asked them. “I just learned one of my students has been stolen. Why can’t I call the police?”
“That won’t help,” I heard repeated across the room. “She won’t complain.”
“She knows him,” a voice called out from the back row. “He plans it.” And I heard the disdain in her voice. “He decides who he wants, then plans how to steal her.”
The realization that bride stealing wasn’t random brought me little relief.
“Where are the boy’s parents?” I demanded, naively. My students assured me they, or at least his mother, were right there waiting at home for the man to show up with his stolen woman. And his grandmother if he had one, and aunts, and sisters, and all the female relatives that could fit in the house.
“A was stolen by her boyfriend’s friend,” came a voice from the front.
“Sometimes,” my students explained, “he’s an old boyfriend.”
“Sometimes she doesn’t even know him at all,” came another voice.
“How does he do it?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, he doesn’t do it alone,” someone off to the right said.
“Yes,” came a chorus of voices. “He always has friends.”
“Well, how does the poor girl get inside the car? Do they put a bag over her head?”
“Maybe. Sometimes. Usually she accepts a ride to a party. Then they go to his house.”
So it’s usually arranged ahead of time, under the guise of giving her a lift. And, once in the car, he drives to a party all right: a wedding party at his parents’ house. I was starting to get the picture.
“It’s like he takes her on a date,” called out a normally quiet student at the back.
Through the eighty minutes we had for our class, the story of how bride stealing was returning to Kazakhstan since independence came spilling out of the mouths of my students. But still I felt confused, numb.
“Where are the girl’s parents?” I asked.
“They are there.”
“From the beginning?” I was aghast. This was too much.
“They get called,” said one student.
“Sometimes they already know,” another added.
I was intrigued. I expected to hear that the parents were called, came, and took their daughter back home with them, irate at the least, and certainly filing charges with the local police. But I heard another scenario instead.
“The parents ask their daughter if she will marry,” one student reported.
“She has to say yes,” said another.
I couldn’t get past my post-women’s-liberation interpretation of this. Each of these young girls, generally not yet out of college, has lived her whole life with her parents. Now, she is faced with the choice of living with a man who has abducted her against her will or… Or what?
Too often, her parents won’t let her come back home to live with them. Where would she live? How would she live? No wonder these girls rarely say “no.”
“So what happens when she says yes?” I asked my students. “Does it mean there’s no kalym?”
This was no moneysaving venture, my students assured me. Once the girl has agreed to marry, it’s as though no one had stolen anyone. There’s still the kalym to pay and, though it’s very unusual, there may even be a farewell party given if the bride’s mother insists. It would, of course, come after the wedding.
English was pouring out of my students’ mouths, telling me stories of abductions they each knew about, when one of my more outgoing students, M, walked into the room, quite late.
Grasping the conversation while she strode to her desk—my students had finally stopped interrupting class with the customary and overly formal “may I come in” at the door—she made an announcement.
“If someone steals me, I’m outta there.” Thrilling to hear, but none of the other students believed her.
“You won’t leave,” said a chorus of female voices. If she went home to her parents, they insisted, she’d be a marked woman. “No one else will ever marry you,” they chimed.
“If my parents came to the man’s home and I said I didn’t want to marry him, my parents would say ‘bye, bye’ to me.” This was D, M’s best friend.
“I don’t care. I’m outta there,” M retorted. “My mother told me I don’t have to stay.”
So, this was something mothers cautioned their daughters about; that was encouraging. I turned back to my class, eager for specifics.
“What if a girl has a boyfriend who’s in Astana studying to be a doctor? They plan to marry but have decided to wait until he’s finished with his studies.” These were the details of A’s situation, as I understood them.
“She’s walking down the street, on the way to the store to buy milk. A car pulls up with a man who takes her and announces his intention to marry her.”
“How old is he?” someone called out, lightheartedly.
“He’s old,” I said, wanting this to be clear-cut.
“If he’s wealthy, I’m his,” someone shouted from the back and the class laughed.
“What if he’s poor?” I countered, adopting their lighthearted tone. “And,” I threw in for good measure, “ugly.”
To a one, even M, each of my students was convinced that once the girl was stolen, even if her parents took her back, her boyfriend in Astana would never marry her.
Surely, I’d misunderstood something.
Later that night, I searched the Internet from my laptop and did some reading. Apparently, in nomadic times, bride abduction was not unlike elopement. It was a way for young lovers to marry in the face of parental opposition, a way for a daughter to escape an arranged marriage she didn’t want, or a way for the groom to bypass paying the kalym. In any case, bride stealing in nomadic times was generally consensual.
Under the Soviets, the practice was officially banned, as were other Kazakh traditions. Marriage under Communist rule was a civil matter, accomplished with two simple signatures in a registry. Then, with independence, came a resurgence of Kazakh pride and the return of old traditions into everyday life. Unfortunately, this one had come back oddly mutated.
Consensual bride abduction, where the woman was willing but unaware of the when and where of her abduction, had existed below the radar throughout Soviet times. But non-consensual bride abduction—bride stealing, the term my colleagues and students used—was on the rise.
Old boyfriends, my students had told me, were generally the culprits, or those afraid they’d soon become an “old boyfriend.” According to a number of articles, abductors are often young men who are afraid they might become a rejected boyfriend. In any case, the man not only knows the woman, he knows who her ancestors were back seven generations. It is, indeed, planned.
Then I read interviews with abducted women who reported being happy now that they were settled in their new life. They may have fought and screamed at the start, but they insisted they weren’t screaming now. I found it all fascinating.
Stockholm syndrome? I read on.
The groom and his cohorts may do the initial abduction, but compared to what comes next, their job seems relatively benign. It falls to the women in the boy’s family to convince the girl to marry their boy, a task that often takes all night, sometimes days. It is her destiny, they tell her, her obligation to marry their son, brother, nephew, whatever he is. They need her to agree, for the Imam will later ask the woman if she’s entering the marriage willingly.
Once the girl consents, and I was beginning to understand that the odds were that she would, her family is contacted. Then things get even more bizarre.
The girl’s parents, I read, often believe the marriage is their daughter’s destiny, the will of Allah. In fact, in a survey of local people, most Kazakhs believe bride stealing in general should be illegal, but if the girl is taken, she should stay and marry. A few girls do refuse, but only a very few. Surely, whether they give in or stand firm, their lives are forever changed.
I closed up my computer and thought of A. Did she fight? Did she scream? Would she be happy?
I couldn’t imagine.