The truth about bride kidnapping: An insider interview on Chechnya

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Jessica Buchleitner- WNN Interviews

Bride kidnapping image from 1870

A bride kidnapping in process shows a woman pointing her horse’s whip in the direction of the men who want to take her away. This 1870 photo image is thought to have been taken in or bordering the Chechnya/Asia region. Image: Library of Congress

(WNN) San Francisco, California, U.S., AMERICAS: The practice of Bride kidnapping has occurred throughout history around the world and continues to occur in countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus region, and parts of Africa.

In most countries bride kidnapping is considered a sex crime, rather than a valid form of marriage.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union the Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia regions in the Northern Caucasus have witnessed an increase in bride kidnappings. Yet in 2010 Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov publicly declared the practice to be illegal imposing a fine of up to 1 million rubles for perpetrators. This was a move that gained the attention of numerous prominent media outlets and women’s rights groups, as many of them tie the increase in kidnappings to a deterioration in the rights of women under his rule.

In an interview with aid worker Anya L. who works to bring community development and education to women and girls in Chechnya through a collaboration of NGO partners, WNN – Women News Network human rights journalist Jessica Buchleitner sets out to dispel the myths surrounding the practice of bride kidnapping as it currently stands in the North Caucasus Republic of Chechnya.

To protect the sensitive political situation in the region Anya’s name and the name of the association she is tied to has been changed in this interview.

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Jessica Buchleitner for WNN – Women News Network: It is unclear why bride kidnapping became illegal in Chechnya so suddenly in 2010. Why then?

Anya L.: This practice was always illegal, the questions here is whether or not existing kidnapping law was enforced. During the Soviet Union, we saw a lot of enforcement by the Russian state. Crimes between people were investigated more often and people were punished for kidnapping.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the wars in Chechnya, the local clans started to rule since the state turned a blind eye to what was happening in the North Caucasus, so enforcement of existing laws fell to the wayside.

It is important to note that before 2010, when the Chechen government officially declared it to be illegal, it was already perfectly illegal. Yet they suddenly introduced a fine that was 1 million rubles, (about the equivalent to $30,000 at the time).

How that fine was collected was not necessary a direct process. It was also not clear how the fine would be imposed. Because the republics can’t change the criminal code of the Russian state, the fines were mostly collected by semi-governmental religious institutions. The result is that the practice has not disappeared, rather gone underground. It’s come to a point where powerful, well connected men can do it and get away with it and ordinary mortals can’t.

Most like to say that the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, made it illegal, but that is simply not the case as it was already illegal in Russia. One journalist even wrote in an article that this kidnapping practice officially became “illegal” when someone accidentally kidnapped the sister of a powerful man. I don’t doubt that is the case, since it was never a primary area of focus.

JB: Media has covered Kadyrov as being a progressive leader since he received a lot of press for his public dissidence against bride kidnapping and for making it “illegal”.

AL: That is true and that is what most would think if it was all the information they had. First he can’t outlaw anything because he does not have the prerogative to do so. Technically it was already illegal under Russian law. He did not outlaw it; he imposed a highly dubious fine. Yet, he has done it. In 2013, he requisitioned himself a 17 year old girl from a mountain village.

The story goes that a beautiful young village woman came to Grozny, went into a fashion house and was caught on the security cameras. This video was sent to him and he decided to make her one of his wives. There was allegedly a video circulating of him raping her.

So…outlawing bride kidnapping? Powerful men do it all the time and out in the open with their motorcades. No one will question these men because it would be dangerous for them to do that.

JB: When would you say these kidnappings were at their peak? It is a common belief that these kidnappings were a tradition in Chechnya. Is that the case?

AL: They appeared to peak at the end of the Soviet Union. Though there were a combination of factors that contributed to that. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the wars happened in the late 90’s/ early 2000’s a situation of relative lawlessness occurred in Chechnya and in this period it was very common. The state had melted away and other forms of social control were not very functional. When the Soviet state melted away, a lot of the Russians who lived there left, but not the locals.

In all of the post-soviet republics there was a nationalist type of cultural revival because most wanted to shake their ties with Russia and the best way to do that was to assert their own culture.

Some would say that it was a Chechen tradition but many others would argue against that. It was always a practice, but many did not approve of it. I would say that the majority of Chechens were very ambivalent about bride kidnapping and did not approve of it.

Young men really accepted it as a tradition and around that time a majority of them were able to get away with it given the political situation the republic was caught in. I think it was sort of a “fun thing” for them to do. They would get their buddies together and kidnap girls, shoot video and post it on the internet. This is far less common now. Parents of young women and the young women themselves feel safer.

Yet underneath the kidnapping issue, there exist many others issues that are very grave. There is certainly no protection against forced marriage for young women nor is there regarding other marriage cultural factors that are demeaning to women.

JB: It is also a common belief that fundamentalist Islam was introduced to Chechnya after the wars of the late 90s and that the practice of bride kidnapping is a consequence of this. Is that accurate?

AL: You have to look at the history of the region. Chechens were not always Muslims, but Islam does go back about 200 years in the republic and in that of Ingushetia. In Dagestan, it has over 1,000 years of history. Chechens have always been spiritual people. Even before the wars, spirituality was much engrained in their culture as superstition was. It was not until the Soviet Union’s collapse that North Caucasus neighbors started to really explore religions and customs observed in the republics since there was no longer a unified system.

Religion became more open because these republics were seeking to piece together their own identities, especially minority groups. Religion became intermingled with the rise in ethno nationalism across former soviet republics.

The current Chechen government has been vigorously, loudly and explicitly oppressing women’s rights for years now and they do use Islam for that purpose but we see many young female activists who are traditional Muslims that are educated and empowered. They study the religion vigorously, but in a way that is empowering for them because they research scholarly information and actively engage in conversations about it.

Yet, the act of kidnapping was more a cultural element and not a religious one. In fact, it is contrary to Islamic beliefs to take a person against their will.

Numerous girls the same age as this displaced Chechen girl in the Village of Shatili commonly face bride kidnapping when she reaches the age where she is expected to marry. Image: Ivan Shlamov/Reuters

As grandmothers, mothers and older sisters convey and share the stories of their own bride kidnapping experiences, numerous girls like this displaced Chechen girl in the Village of Shatili, Georgia, on the border of Chechnya, commonly know that someday “they too” may face the practice of bride kidnapping as they reach the expected age to marry. Image: Ivan Shlamov/Reuters

JB: Russia ratified the CEDAW ordnance. Do NGOs in Chechnya have this to assert?

AL: Russia does take multilateral legal obligations quite seriously, if they sign a convention they will pay attention to it. But Russia can’t just interject federal power to protect women very easily in the region. Enforcing these laws is very difficult because of those in political power in the North Caucasus. Everything is local there and there is a lot of corruption and lack of accountability.

Also the fact that most governance is run by local people means that they have their own biases. Some of our partners who conduct programs in mountain villages tell us when you go into the 11th grade, graduating year, half of the girls are not there anymore because they have already gotten married and dropped out.

Many marry at 16, the legal age of consent, but some of them get married much earlier, around 13 or 14 years of age. Coming into villages and trying to enforce these policies are very difficult since the culture is so interconnected. A girl’s high school teacher may even be her relative.

In fact, early marriage was only recently outlawed, yet still people find ways around laws and rules. Oftentimes Chechen marriages are not formally registered and are religious ceremonies, which also makes prosecution of a perceived offense difficult.

Essentially, while CEDAW exists, it may not be very useful for that purpose or carry much weight.

JB: Could bride kidnapping be considered a foreign policy issue?

AL: In Chechnya it is definitely not a foreign policy issue. In Kyrgyzstan it is more a policy issue as it is happening all across the country. There international grant makers to NGOs and donor governments play a huge role in dealing with this issue.

In regard to Russian foreign policy and Chechnya it is not, as there are a small minority of cases. On Russian foreign policy agendas you would not be likely to see anything about bride kidnapping. Fundamentally, this is an issue about educating communities. You can add it to your list of talking points in a diplomatic meeting all you want; you can adopt policies all you want, but unless the community is educated and engaged it is not likely to make a difference.

It is also an issue of enforcing laws. If people see men in their own communities going to prison for these offenses, then they will think twice about it. Educating communities is the root of making all change.

One of our biggest projects in the region is educating teenage girls. Often the girls, themselves, are the ones who believe marrying young is something they want to do. It is a cultural aspect. They are told all their lives that their wedding day is the most important and amazing thing they will ever do. They have a culture of marriages in Chechnya. Weddings are very lavish and extravagant, and the girls get dresses and gifts.

JB: Describe the “run of show” of a common Chechen wedding.

AL: The family of the bride has limited involvement. A limo will arrive at the bride’s house from the fiancée’s family to acquire the bride from her family. In fact, that is the last time they will see her. She is ferried to the wedding in the wedding dress. All day she stands in the corner with her gaze cast down and people throw candy over her for good luck.

They also yell abuse at her to prepare her for married life.

To many of these teenage girls, this will be the most exciting day of their lives. Most of the work we do with teenage girls is to show them that so many other possibilities exist. Believe it or not, Russia is still a place where with handwork and dedication, you really can change your life.

The path just needs to be opened to these girls. The problem is not always that parents force these girls into marriage; it’s that the girls elect to this path themselves because they don’t know better.

We have groups of NGO partners working on a girls program in the schools.

We teach them everything from self-empowerment to classes on bodily and reproductive health. Also on developing their talents and expressing their opinions about how they can be citizens and play an active role in the community.

JB: You mentioned previously that bride kidnapping is not an issue by itself, rather it’s an overarching concept where many other issues persist.



AL: That is accurate, bride kidnapping in Chechnya is a misnomer now yet the issues that underpin it are still very much there. The notion that women don’t have control over their bodies, the systemic violence against them, and that their consent is irrelevant are still very much a reality.

The notion of a corrupt government is there where ordinary mortals can’t participate in the ritual, yet powerful men have unfettered access to any woman’s body that they want. The main underlying factor is that men still feel entitled to women’s bodies and that their consent it irrelevant. Women in the North Caucasus have very few resources to protect themselves; it’s safer often to go along with tradition.

Child marriage and even honor killings are two other persisting problems. On a bride’s wedding night, if she does not bleed properly then the groom can hand her back to her family. When this happens there is a stain on her and the only way for her family to preserve their honor is to quickly marry her off or to kill her.

Honor violence, in my opinion, is a much bigger issue than the actual kidnapping acts. And it is very hard to get local law enforcement to prosecute these crimes. In most cases if a woman is murdered no one will go press charges because they want to cover it up. During a construction boom after the wars, workers would come across graves of people and relatives of missing persons would drive up from all over Chechnya to identify family members. When they came across a woman’s grave, no one would show up. They knew then that it was an honor killing.

Even women themselves who are kidnapped often do not report the crimes for several reasons. First, they don’t want to dishonor their families. Second, they don’t want the kidnapper’s families to react violently and finally they don’t want to be tainted for having been in the same home as another man. This would make them a less viable woman to marry.

There are many issues contained in one.

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Eyewitness Studio, as part of Go Group Media from Tbilisi, Georgia, reports on the situation with bride kidnapping throughout the region including Chechnya’s border region. Here in 2010 women advocates and women’s rights experts outline the hardship, violence and human rights abuses that women and girls face under the tradition of bride kidnapping throughout the Caucasian and Slavic region. GoGroupMedia is cosponsored by the European Union (EU) with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Confidence Building Early Response Mechanism (COBERM) working to empower women and girls throughout the Caucasus region.
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WNN – Women News Network journalist and reporter Jessica Buchleitner is also the author of the “50 Women” anthology series, a two book anthology that covers the personal stories of strength and perseverance as told by 50 different women from 30 separate countries. In addition to her work for WNN, Buchleitner’s work can be seen on the San Francisco Chronicle and The Western Edition- San Francisco. Jessica also serves on the Board of Directors for Women’s Intercultural Network, Women’s Intercultural Network, a consultative NGO with the United Nations. You can follow Jessica on Twitter @50womenproject, visit her website or purchase her book HERE.

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©2015 WNN – Women News Network
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