FILM: Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

Thomas B. Stevenson – WNN review

This is the first film to document the custom of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Recent studies estimate that about half of all marriages in Kyrgyzstan today are conducted through kidnapping, and that in half of these cases a woman is forced into a marriage. This documentary follows the dramatic stories of four non-consensual kidnappings.

Film poster - Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

While this theory of spouse selection is no longer accepted, marriage by capture or bride kidnapping is practiced in parts of Central Asia. That this custom has gone relatively unnoticed owes to its suppression by Soviet authorities.

Petr Lom’s superb documentary, featured at many festivals, illuminates and informs. Assistant director, Fatima Sarbaeve, is Kyrgyz and so the filmmakers have incredible access. Their subjects are open to cameras and questions enabling Lom to present this unusual, controversial practice in rich cultural detail.

At the same time, his presence may influence the authenticity of the film. Folk sayings introduce each of the documentary’s four stories. “Many tears begin a good marriage” anticipates the story of Ainagul. A family living in the mountains outside the city of Osh discusses kidnapping a bride.

Jamankul’s mother wants help milking the cows; he simply wants a wife.

In Osh, Jamankul and his brothers search for the girl whose looks appealed at the vodka shop where she works. Failing to learn her whereabouts from the clerk, Ainagul, the brothers kidnap her instead. The next morning Ainagul is in Jamankul’s house being urged by household women to accept the situation and let them tie a “wedding” scarf on her head. Ainagul refuses to give in. The kidnappers say this is normal and that she will capitulate. Despite the entreaties of five women, Ainagul is adamant in her demand to leave and does.

Jamankul’s family is ashamed; he worries he’ll never marry.

The women say they’ve cursed Ainagul. The message is that women who are not obedient will not have happy lives. Ainagul offers a different perspective. She says if she’d stayed and tended sheep, she’d have been a sheep too.

The adage “in love, a woman yields, a man takes” accurately describes the case of Nurkyz. After the men kidnap her, she is carried into the house and wrestled down by the women. When someone suspects she’s smiled, a sign of acquiescence, the women get her into a wedding dress and scarf. The next morning, a wedding dress hangs from a coat rack.

Nurkyz is interviewed about the wedding night. She says her family counseled her not to resist because she was older and might not get another chance. She didn’t want to give up her virginity, but her aunts told her to just lay there.

She explains her acceptance and the power of culture. A woman’s life is about kidnapping, accepting and moving on. The groom adds that they will get used to each other and love will grow.

“A girl stays where her stone is thrown” introduces the story of Kyal. The opening scene is of a wedding gown hanging high over a street of neat houses. A circle of bricks in front of one indicates a death. Kyal was kidnapped, committed suicide and her body returned.

Some people say Kyal and the boy went to the same school and had dated although the parents don’t know if this is true.

Kyal’s distraught sister says she met the boy who was nice and from a good family. Yet, instead of a wedding, the family had a funeral. The father, who says he would have given Kyal to the boy, thinks his daughter refused him, was raped and then hanged herself.

Kyal’s suicide suggests the pressure that kidnapped girls are under to marry their kidnapper. It is generally assumed that kidnapped girls are raped, and having lost their virginity, are no longer desirable. It seems that rather than risk rejection, many kidnap victims reluctantly stay with their captors. Kyal’s sister notes there is a rumor that Kyal lost her virginity and chose suicide rather than an unhappy marriage.

The question, “a young man admires himself, so who will admire him?”, introduces the final segment about Kairgul and Gulmira. Ulan’s family wants him to marry so he’ll stay home. Over a meal they discuss potential spouses. One girl is described as nice but fat. Another is a rich businessman’s daughter whom they worry will not stay. The family decides to kidnap the third, Kairgul, a girl completing university in three instead of the normal five years.

Later with his friends, Ulan, careful his shoes are clean, prepares to kidnap Kairgul as she heads to university. In the car, Kairgul complains tearfully that she’ll be late for class and that she won’t stay. At Ulan’s home, Kairgul’s sister apparently brought in to make her stay asserts the couple has not dated. She describes her own forced marriage as unhappy. Kairgul’s father arrives and demands a two-year delay before marriage. Kairgul’s family’s support enables her to leave and to marry a man of her choosing.

The next day, Ulan’s family kidnaps another girl, Gulmira. She says she chose to stay because she liked Ulan. She adds that she will love her husband because it is her duty.

Postscripts update the cases. Jamanakul was married right after Ainagul left. His wife is pregnant. Ainagul continues to work at the vodka stand and will attend teachers’ college. Nurkyz and her husband went to Russia after their wedding. Kyal’s family tried to take her death to court but was turned down. Ulan and Gulmira are expecting a baby. Kairgul remains with her boyfriend and is pursuing her degree.

Lines of text concluding the film raise questions about Kyrgyz culture and Kyrgyzstan’s government. “Bride kidnapping was made illegal in 1994 but the law is rarely enforced.

One in three rural ethnic Kyrgyz women is kidnapped and forced to marry. Twenty per cent of kidnapped girls refuse to stay.”

Critics have raised many questions about this documentary and its production. Some challenge Lom’s cultural relativism, especially his filming girls being abducted and not intervening. Others question if the seemingly peaceful kidnappings and subsequent urging of girls to become wives accurately portrays reality or is a product of the filmmakers presence.

Additional questions have been raised about the film’s failure to comment on human rights or the antiquity of this “custom.” Lom contends that by exposing these practices, the film contributes to efforts to enforce established law.


For more information about this film:

The Kidnapped Bride,” film by Petr Lom, FRONTLINE World, 2004.

Interview with Petr Lom: “Marriage by Abduction“, FRONTLINE World, March 2004.


This 3:35 min video production by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (Kyrgyz Service), gives more information about the lives of women who are forced to marry without their consent. According to the latest research done by Dr. Russell Kleinbach (Philadelphia University, PA, USA) and Gazbubu Babayarova (Kyz-Korgon Institute) in Kyrgyzstan, the rate of non-consensual bride-kidnapping reached up to fifty-one percent worldwide in the number of all bride-kidnappings. Bride-Kidnapping is a way of marrying young girls (aged thirteen and up) with or without their will. Many victims of bride-kidnapping feel ruined as they go through ongoing physical and psychological preassures. Torokul Doorov, correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Kyrgyz Service), shares the story of one of those victims, Kyrgyz journalist Ms. Karamat Toktobaeva.


Associate Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and film reviewer, Thomas B. Stevenson, has an M.A. in Anthropology from Kent State University and a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Wayne State University, Michigan, U.S. Stevenson has special interest in issues of social change, migration, kinship and social structure with an emphasis on Africa and the Middle East.

Stevenson, Thomas B., 2006, Review of Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Anthropology Review Database., August 08, 2006.


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