Stealing Brides in Kyrgyzstan: Why Multiculturalism and Women’s Rights Make Such Uneasy Bedfellows

by | May 20, 2013

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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Liz Fouksman uses the case of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan to delve into the uneasy intersection of culture and women’s rights highlighted by the debates at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) meetings this spring.  

Kyrgyzstan is a small mountainous country which once formed the edge of the Soviet Union, wedged between China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is a place of rich traditions, including felt making, yurts, and – according to some Kyrgyz  –  kidnapping women in order to acquire a bride.

This past winter, legal penalties for bride-napping in Kyrgyzstan provoked divisive parliamentary debate. According to Women Support Centre, a Kyrgyz women’s rights organization, there are at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women every year in Kyrgyzstan, and more than 2,000 of these women reported being raped. At the time of the debate the maximum sentence for kidnapping a bride was three years in jail. The maximum sentence for stealing a cow is eleven. And the main argument in parliament against toughening the sentence on kidnapping? The practice is Kyrgyz tradition.

This ‘tradition’ of kidnapping women to pressure or coerce them into a marriage is a microcosm of the debate at the 57th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) this spring. The Commission, charged with creating a non-binding conclusion document on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, quickly ran into dissent. A number of countries, including Iran, Egypt, the Vatican and – startlingly – Russia objected to the document’s stance on reproductive rights, sexual orientation, or sex education. The main justification for such objections? Tradition.

How justified are the appeals to “tradition” in these discussions on women’s rights? In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the wide-spread belief that Kyrgyz bride-napping is tradition is not in fact rooted in historical reality. Before the Soviet period, non-consensual bride kidnappings were extremely rare. It was only in the mid-20th century, in response to the modernization policies of the Soviet Union, that kidnappings started to occur more frequently, and only over the last six decades has coercive bride-napping gained the reputation of ‘tradition.’ This is the bottom line: tradition is a fluid, changing and constantly recreated thing.

One can see the same process occurring in Russia – one of the countries that reacted strongly to efforts to strengthen women’s rights protections in the CSW57 meetings.  Russia once saw itself as bringing equality for women to the Soviet Union’s Central Asian Republics. Now not only does Russia not consider domestic violence technically a crime, but is using the excuse of religion to imprison politically-active punk bands, and the excuse of  culture and tradition to put  sovereignty and exceptionalism in the path of international agreement.

As Susan Okin pointed out in her controversial 1997 article Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, purporting to protect culture and tradition has long been a stumbling point for efforts to protect women’s rights. Protecting multiculturalism can ignore within-group inequalities of power, representation and voice – and thus act as an excuse to allow gender-based violence, discrimination or coercion.

The Commission on the Status of Women did (just barely) avoid including the loophole of cultural exceptionalism in its concluding document. And the Kyrgyz parliament did increase the penalty for bride napping to ten years behind bars (still a year short of stealing a cow). But the debate on culture and women’s rights is not going away. This is not a question of one culture imposing on another, but rather the recognition that tradition is a constantly evolving phenomenon, ever-shifting to accommodate a myriad of ideas and practices – including those of justice and rights. Only with this recognition can we move beyond the multiculturalism stand-off, and continue the global conversation on women’s rights.

 Liz Fouksman is a DPhil in International Development at the University of Oxford, currently based in Kyrgyzstan for field research.

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