Grab and Run: Kyrgyzstan's Bride Kidnappings

A photographer captures the heartbreak and violence of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

They call it ala kachuu, or "grab and run." In Kyrgyzstan, as many as 40% of ethnic Kyrgyz women are married after being kidnapped by the men who become their husbands, according to a local NGO. Two-thirds of these bride kidnappings are non-consensual—in some cases, a "kidnapping" is part of a planned elopment—and while the practice has been illegal since 1994, authorities largely look the other way. Typically, a would-be groom gathers a group of young men, and together they drive around looking for a woman he wants to marry. The unsuspecting woman is often literally dragged off the street, bundled into the car and taken straight to the man's house—where frequently the family will have already started making preparations for the wedding.

Once the girls are inside the kidnapper’s home, female elders play a key role in persuading her to accept the marriage. They try to cover the girl’s head with a white scarf, symbolizing that she is ready to wed her kidnapper. After hours of struggle, around 84% of kidnapped women end up agreeing to the nuptials. (The rest manage to get back home.) The kidnapee's parents often also pressure the girl, as once she has entered her kidnapper’s home she is considered to be no longer pure, making it shameful for her to return home. In order to avoid disgrace, many women tend to remain with their kidnappers.

At one time, the majority of marriages among Kyrgyz women were arranged by parents. Today, bride kidnapping is frighteningly common, and—although some kidnappings do create happy couples—marriages resulting from such incidents are also thought to cause significantly higher rates of domestic abuse, divorce, and suicide. Photographer Noriko Hayashi spent months visiting villages throughout Kyrgyzstan, and was sometimes able to witness and document the practice.

Kidnap2 After forcing 20-year-old university student Farida (in pink) and her friend into the back of his car, 26-year-old Tyhchtykbek and his relatives march her into the family yurt. While in the vehicle—where she at first screamed at Tyhchtykbek: "I am not going to marry you!"—Farida was convinced by Tyhchtykbek's older sister to accept his proposal. Farida and Tyhchtykbek had met twice before he kidnapped her. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap3 Dinara, 22, struggles as an elderly relative of the man who abducted her tries to force a white scarf on her head; the scarf symbolizes that she has succumbed to his demands to be married. Three hours later, Dinara accepted the proposal and let her parents know over the phone that she was going to stay with Ahmat, the man who kidnapped her. Her parents, however, didn't want to agree to the kidnapping, and asked Ahmat's parents to propose to her in a formal way. Dinara went back to her home that night. The next day, Ahmat gave her an engagement earring and brought her to his home again. “I didn't know Ahmat well and didn't want to stay there. But I accepted because this is our tradition,” Dinara says. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap4 Tyhchtybek and an elderly female relative talk to Farida at his home, aiming to convince her to marry him. Tyhchtybek says: “I promise you that you will be happy in the future so please marry me,” to which Farida replies: “How come you kidnapped me? You know that I have a boyfriend. Even if I married you, there would be no love in our married life.” Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap5 Farida clings closely to her brother, who has arrived to rescue her. He tells the female relatives: “If my sister wants to stay here, I won't stop her. But look at her, she is crying and is saying that she wants to leave. So I will take her back home.” Eventually he was able to leave with her. A few weeks later, Farida married her original boyfriend. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap6 Aitilek, 18, stands in front of her husband, Baktiyaf, who kidnapped her the day after they met in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap7 Aitilek sits in a room wearing a white scarf, the symbol of marriage. After being kidnapped in Bishkek, she was convinced to accept Baktiyaf's proposal before leaving the city. She didn't know that she was being taken to a remote farm that lacked even a phone line. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap8 Dinara and Ahmat pray during the celebration on their wedding day. About ten days before the kidnapping, Ahmat and Dinara had met in a market, and he fell in love at first sight. Later, he proposed to her, but Dinara said no, because they didn’t know each other well enough. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap9 Ahmat kisses Dinara as she’s in the kitchen doing dishes after their wedding ceremony. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap10 After their first night together following their wedding ceremony, Dinara gets ready for the new day. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap11 Ahmat’s 13-year-old sister wakes up early in the morning during the week-long wedding party and looks down. "I don't want to be kidnapped in the future,” she says. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap12 Dinara takes a break from her housework in the kitchen during her wedding party. Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap14 This elderly Kyrgyz couple got married by kidnapping in September of 1954. Eshen, 83, and his wife Tursun, 82, said, "We don't like the modern way of bride-kidnapping. When we were young, it was consensual kidnapping. We knew each other well and exchanged love letters before kidnapping. Nowadays, young people violently kidnap women and this is not our tradition." Noriko Hayashi/Panos

Kidnap15 Elvira Kasymova, 26, holds her 2-year-old daughter, Adinay, while looking out the window at her parents’ home. Because of domestic violence, she left her husband's home with her daughter and now stays with her parents. In September of 2004, Elvira was kidnapped by a taxi driver. Although she resisted for two hours, she ultimately accepted his marriage proposal. "I had never met Azamat before and didn't want to get married. But his elderly female relatives kept telling me to stay … In order to avoid the scandal of rejection, I gave up. Now that I left my husband's home, I started to go to medical school. I want to get a divorce, and want to be a doctor in the future.” Noriko Hayashi/Panos
Kidnap16 Imonakunov Seitbek, 34, sits with head bowed and his hands cuffed at his trial. Seitbek kidnapped a woman named Kasymbay Urus, and although she was taken back home two days later by her family, she hanged herself in the backyard of her home the following day. Seitbek was sentenced to six years of prison for the crimes of kidnapping and rape. Noriko Hayashi/Panos
Kidnap17 At Kasymbay Urus’s grave, her mother (kneeling, right), sister (middle), and boyfriend (left) mourn her. Urus killed herself after she was kidnapped. Noriko Hayashi/Panos
Kidnap18 A mural of a couple in traditional Kyrgyz dress. Noriko Hayashi/Panos
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