“What will people say?” Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan — what makes a woman stay.

Aisulu Baibolova
Apr 29, 2019 · 21 min read
And so I stayed. Trailer.
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ABSTRACT

The practice of bride kidnapping (ala kachuu in Kyrgyz) is when a man abducts a woman he wishes to marry. Although this is considered to be an outdated custom in Kyrgyzstan, there are still some cases happening today, ranging from staged kidnappings for consensual marriages to violent non-consensual abductions. This research paper analyses the role of kinship and shame within Kyrgyz culture to better understand how these factors are correlated to societal views on virginity, marriage and divorce, which in turn influence a Kyrgyz woman’s decision to stay with her kidnapper. The paper discusses several factors that affect a woman’s decision, since every kidnapping case is different. The prime focus of this research is testimony of women who experienced the practice first hand during the Soviet rule in Kyrgyzstan (1970–1990) and who shared their experiences with me during interviews.

El Emne Deit? / What will people say?

“The family you get kidnapped to is the place where you should stay, and I won’t take you back. Taking you back would be shameful. You’d put us to shame, thus if you ever get kidnapped, stay in that family”. She would say that to us at a very young age and I thought that since I already got kidnapped and time has passed, I should stay[i]

Bride kidnapping (ala kachuu in Kyrgyz) is a practice in which a man abducts a woman he wishes to marry. Actions within the following custom range from staged abductions for consensual marriages to violent non-consensual abductions. All cases are different and happen under different circumstances and have different outcomes, but most take place in the same fashion: a young man and his friends plot to take a young woman by force to his parents’ home and there, other women from the groom’s side of the family try to force put a white headscarf on the kidnapped woman. Some abducted women agree to enact this ritual with their future husbands beforehand, meaning that the kidnapping is staged. However, in other cases the women do not give their consent or even know their kidnappers. In some instances, young women are forced to stay overnight and in extreme cases even raped. The custom has made headlines in the past, but it is still relatively unknown in the Western world.[ii] In Kyrgyzstan, however, the custom used to be commonplace during the Soviet period and there are still cases of bride kidnapping happening today. Although legislation approved in 2013 increased the penalty for bride kidnapping to up to ten years and made it officially a crime in Kyrgyzstan a lot of cases go unreported and barely any make it to court.[iii] In the winter of 2018, I had a chance to meet and speak to ten women who were kidnapped at different times during the late Soviet era (1970–1990), all of whom chose to stay with their current husbands. Drawing from personal narratives expressed in interviews conducted, I argue that the main sources of power and discipline within bride kidnapping are the notions of shaming and societal surveillance. In examining why women often agree to stay with their abductors, I claim that discipline through shame is central to what Michel Foucault has theorized in his studies of societal power and order.

Tribal mentality and shame in Kyrgyz society

Бөлүнгөнду бөрү жейт — The breakaway one will get eaten by a wolf.

- Kyrgyz proverb

Before the rise of the Soviet power in October of 1917, the majority of Kyrgyz tribes were nomadic, and only a small portion of them practiced a settled way of life.[iv] The nomadic way of thinking is still very much present within Kyrgyz culture. Back before the adoption of a settled way of life the only way to survive was through the cooperation of kinsmen in the same tribe. The feeling of belonging to a group that shares the same goals and space can be explained in one term and that is communality. The concept of communality is very evident in social interactions among Kyrgyz people. As a Soviet scientist-ethnographer, Turkologist, and specialist in Kyrgyz ethnology Saul Abramzon noted in one of his works on Kyrgyz people, “In the fifties and sixties of the nineteenth century interpersonal conflicts and wars with feudal lords from neighbouring countries forced people to unite into communities, and such communities appeared on a patrimonial basis.”[v] These communities would coexist together and move around as a group. Tough living conditions, and total dependence on nature made kinsmen depend on each other and understand each other other’s importance in mutual survival.[vi]

It is important to note that the tribal mentality is one reason why a such nation as the Kyrgyz one even exists. The unification of Kyrgyz people began around the fifteenth century when there were conflicts with neighboring foreign khanates, and since then all the way until the sixteenth century rapid formation of the Kyrgyz nationality took place. The nation consists of forty tribes and all of them united to create one single nation, and only through unity and close kin relations did the nation survive. The epic of Manas, a centerpiece in Kyrgyz literature and culture, is a poem about the unification of these tribes and the formation of the Kyrgyz nation. Manas — the epic hero, has become a symbol of unity for the Kyrgyz people. The seven commandments of Manas urge the Kyrgyz to be patriotic, united, cooperative, tolerant, harmonious, and hardworking.[vii] All seven are very present within Kyrgyz mentality, especially the communal mindset. The modern day understanding of communality, however, is skewed, especially when it comes to such practices as bride kidnapping. Since the arrival of democracy into Kyrgyzstan, people are free to stand out as individuals and not depend on their tribal communities as much. Nevertheless, people are still leaning towards clan mentality. This kind of mentality is directly correlated to the notion of shame within the Kyrgyz way of thinking. The biggest fear is to put yourself or your family through shame and make them a subject of discussion within their community.[viii]

There is a word in Kyrgyz language — uyat, which translates as shame, and it plays a major role in social interactions among Kyrgyz people. Arguably, the Kyrgyz people are still co-dependent upon each other just like during the nomadic times, but now, they are dependent upon each other’s opinions and validation rather than their need for material/physical support. Honour and respect are one of the most valuable things a Kyrgyz person can possess. Kyrgyz society itself has become its own guard to self-police and make sure that everyone acts within the norms and does not violate the honour code.[ix] If not, then there will be uyat (shame). It is not necessarily a bad thing, since public judgements of inappropriate behavior often serve as lessons for the public.[x]

As Nur. sat down I started attaching sound recording equipment to her clothes. She looked at me and smiled shyly; she was quite shy, but out of all women I interviewed she gave the sincerest and the most honest answers. To one of the questions I asked that was meant to open conversation about public shaming, Nur. responded:

El emne deit? This expression is in our blood; we are all afraid of exactly that — people’s opinions. Even now, we always say when raising our children — we say,” Why are you behaving this way, what will people say?”.[xi]

El emne deit? In translation from Kyrgyz means “What will people say?” and it is used by everyone, especially by one’s parents or relatives. It is a phrase that can stop bad behavior and end any argument. The way the phrase works is by warning a person about a possibility of being judged by the public and such expressions are used in many cases. I remember my mother telling me about my grandmother’s (father’s mother) passing, and how all women from her village came to her funeral in her husband’s village the moment they found out about her passing:

They had to be there since she is a member of their clan and they are her only support system, even in the time of passing. These women got here the second they heard the news because what will people say? They might think she does not have a strong support system and no one cared for her.

This phrase lets an individual know that there is a watchful eye that will judge him/her for disobedience, dishonour, and non-conformity.

Shame and kinship within the context of bride kidnapping

Уят өлүмдөн катуу — Shame is worse than death.

-Kyrgyz proverb

“All girls should wed in their early twenties,” said she and took a sip of her tea. She turned her attention to me and asked, “You, do you have a boyfriend, my dear?” I gave a vague answer, since I did not want any more questions addressed my way. It was an interview about her after all. In Kyrgyz culture, it is customary to drink tea with the host of the household before anything else and every interview I conducted began with tea. It was interesting and useful to share conversation with these women without cameras or sound recording equipment between us. Some of them opened up a little more, and felt a bit more at ease with me; others would stay quiet. This woman, however, named S.B. was not the shy kind. Aged fifty-two years old, S.B. had been kidnapped as a bride back in the Soviet times. By the time we spoke in January 2018, she had six children and claimed to be happy. She expressed her stance on bride kidnapping the moment we sat down at the table. “Bride kidnapping is a good thing,” she said, with pride in her voice, “How many girls remain unwed, because of being too picky and not being kidnapped before she is considered too old to wed.” Though I understood her spoken Kyrgyz without a problem, I felt limited in my own range of expression, and that is why I remained quiet, but I was already feeling the temperature rising within my body as she spoke:

Before, our parents used to raise us in a way, that it was forbidden to leave a place you get kidnapped to, and it was a big rarity to leave such places. It was considered shameful for the family. Only a few people would wed consensually. Almost everyone would get kidnapped. We were told to that if you step over someone’s doorstep — do not come back, do not put us to shame. We listened to our parents. We tried to live happily, and not embarrass our parents, brothers, and sisters.[xii]

I, a Kyrgyz young woman, did not agree with her, but again, I was not there to judge her or teach her morality. I was there to have her share the story of her kidnapping.

Women who get kidnapped undergo immense psychological pressure. The pressure comes from the kidnappers’ relatives and in some cases, from their own families. Because of clan mentality, women who get kidnapped feel responsible for their clan’s honor, and sometimes, if they come back to their homes, their families force them to go back to their abductors and marry them. It becomes a young girl’s duty to not embarrass her family, her brothers, and sisters, and obey the rules of the society she lives in.

Virginity in Kyrgyz culture.

There are numerous cultures and religions that emphasize the importance of a woman’s purity and chastity prior to her marriage. For instance, in ancient Kenya the bride-price was often considered a direct payment for a bride’s virginity.[xiii] In many parts of Central Asia the bride-price practice is still present, but within this context it is more about paying the bride’s parents for raising a child and having her join another family. As ethnologists and anthropologists point out, virginity is highly valued in cultures in which it is customary for men to “pay” for their brides in the form of bride-price.[xiv] However, it is important to state that there is no universal preference for virgin brides.[xv]

In Kyrgyzstan, virginity is still a very important factor when it comes to marriage. Hymenoplasty, the temporary surgical restoration of the hymen, has become a popular procedure for some young women in the country.[xvi] There are numerous stories about women who have voluntarily undergone the surgery due to the fear of being shamed for not having one and not being able to wed at some point in their lives. The plastic surgery is usually held at the request of the women. It is important to stress that hymenoplasty is nothing like female-genital mutilation and is not forced on women and is done voluntarily by women for various reasons, and thus the reason why women go under the knife is to ensure that they are not then humiliated by their relatives and their future husbands’ relatives respectively.[xvii] Some women agree with their husbands in advance to fake it to avoid embarrassment. Meergul, one of women who had to conspire with her husband after their wedding night told her story in an interview with Kanymgul Elkeyeva for the Radio Liberty article:

My husband could not forget our first night. For the sake of our relatives, he had to cut his thumb and stain the bedsheets. I tried to forget that day, when his relatives barged into our bedroom, and their friends who gathered outside. I always did whatever it took for him to forget that night; did everything as he said. Endured everything. My husband would mention that night every time we would argue, and then shortly after began dating other girls. We got divorced shortly after. He took our child and is not letting me see him.[xviii]

Blood stained bedsheets are considered direct proof that a woman was a virgin prior to her wedding night when her bedsheets are stained with blood. There was once a custom of hanging the bloody bedsheet outside the groom’s family house as evidence that their daughter-in-law was a virgin. This was considered a huge source of pride for both sides involved.[xix] The custom is no longer as widely popular, but there are still conservative families that practice it. The tribal mindset I discussed earlier plays a major role in this issue. Virginity is no longer seen as private but becomes rather a public matter discussed amidst the entire clan.

Virginity within the context of bride kidnapping.

Given the importance of virginity amongst the Kyrgyz, shame plays an important role within the framework of bride kidnapping, which helps to explain one of the reasons some women stay with their kidnappers. When a woman is brought into a house and is forced to cross its threshold she automatically becomes considered a married woman and leaving the house puts her dignity and virginity in question. For this reason, a lot of kidnappings occur at dusk. To some extent this is a strategic move — a woman is more likely to stay if she is induced to remain in the house overnight.[xx]

M. was the youngest woman I interviewed. The village she lived in was all the way up in the mountains and getting there was not an easy task. She, however, used to live in a city before she got kidnapped. Even though the city she lived in was not a capital, it was still considered urban. Understanding of the rural vs. urban divide is necessary, since culture is best preserved in a more rural setting. People from urban areas still follow traditions, but people from rural areas tend to be more conservative. M. never met her husband before the abduction, and she explained that she stayed with him for the sake of her children and for fear of being shamed by the public:

Earlier, it was considered shameful for the family if a girl came back after being abducted. There would be rumours that a girl has already been married. In our time, it was so. I did not want to dishonour myself and my parents, I forced myself to endure this all.[xxi]

Marriage and divorce

There comes an age in many Kyrgyz girls’ lives when their mothers and relatives begin telling them that it is time to get married. A friend of mine from Bishkek is twenty-two years of age and she began experiencing the pressure since the age of twenty. Most of her classmates and friends are married and/or have children and having her mother tell her daily how important it is to get married adds more to the pressure:

“My mom brought up the topic again”, a friend of mine said in her message. I knew right away what the topic was — marriage. “Why can’t I go to at least one family event and not be told by every person possible, that I need to get married?”[xxii]

One of the main tasks a Kyrgyz woman has is to be married and to bear children. Of course, she can have a career and be successful in the professional field, but marriage is still crucial. There is a certain age by which a woman is expected to be either married or at least getting ready for marriage, and the age is twenty-five years old. It has a become a norm, and in most cases, when the norm is not met, a woman is pressured to conform to it. A non-married woman is considered to be less successful in her life.[xxiii] The fear of ending up alone and not having a man by your side is instilled in girls’ minds from a young age. This pressure can make a woman stay with her abductor. As K.A. describes during her interview:

I got married when I was 26 years old. I was studying and working. We met once and that was it. I did not expect to be kidnapped. My grandmothers from both sides of the family were telling me that my time was ticking and it was time to get married etc. They would always remind me, that if I ever get kidnapped, I should stay… Yes, I did want to leave, but my grandmothers’ words stopped me. The age was right.[xxiv]

There is also the attitude towards divorced women in Kyrgyzstan that makes women stay. Divorce is not as frowned upon as it used to be, but it is still not favored within society. Women who divorce their husbands are often stranded alone and stigmatized by society. As A.U. explains based on her own experience, a woman who has been married before is not of the same value as a non-married one.[xxv] To be divorced in Kyrgyzstan means to experience the feeling of guilt for being imperfect in front of everyone: from your own children to colleagues at work. The woman who is divorced is blamed for not being good, since culture assumes her perfectly fine husband left her.[xxvi] Society does not sympathize with divorced women and since leaving a kidnapper’s house is equivalent to divorce, a lot of women tend to stay. After all, what will people say?

Shame in relation to panopticism

I, myself, grew up in a somewhat hybrid environment. Kyrgyz values and mentality were closely intertwined with western ones and that gave me an outlook on my own culture from a rather foreign perspective. After learning about Michel Foucault’s ideas and panopticism, I came to a realization that most societies are panopticons and Kyrgyz society is no exception. Every social group within the village, city, and country act as a panopticon, wherein society watches itself and exercises power on itself respectively. It is like a walled town, where people obey the rules of society and if they disobey, they are punished by being shamed publicly.[xxvii] As Foucault describes in his book, Discipline and Punish, the power lies within surveillance and control. The idea was an expansion on Jeremy Bentham’s idea, who was an 18th century philosopher. He designed the panopticon model, which he described as a circular structure to serve as a prison. The design of the structure allows inmates to be constantly surveilled and lets them know that they are being watched. Bentham’s idea was that constant surveillance could mould people’s behavior as a type of moral architecture, so to speak.[xxviii] Michel Foucault expanded upon this idea and discussed how the power dynamics of surveillance can apply not only to prisons but also hospitals, schools, and society in general. When applied to an analysis of Kyrgyz society and marriage customs it becomes apparent that shame is the main tool for ensuring stability and obedience and is one of the main reasons why women stay with their kidnappers.

Michel Foucault talks about discipline as an art of rank, that individualizes bodies by location, does not necessarily give them a fixed position, but circulates them within a network of relations.[xxix] By that he means that hierarchies exist for a reason and that they ensure discipline within society. Each individual has an assigned position and he or she should circulate according to their place. In Kyrgyz society, just like in any other, everyone is split up into ranks, or the so-called classes. There is an immense amount of respect for age and that explains why older people are at the top of the hierarchy, no matter what gender the older individual is. Men are considered to be heads of households, hence their rank is higher than a woman’s. A married woman is of higher rank than a non-married one and the one who is married and has a child is of higher rank than a childless one. The rank system is very evident in everyday practices of the Kyrgyz. Even the way tea is served at the dining table shows the rank dynamic. The oldest and the most respected one gets his tea first, then the next most respected one get his/hers, and so on. Rank is important in Kyrgyz culture. A Kyrgyz woman who gets kidnapped enters into the group whose norm is to be married. Thus, she is forced to stay out of fear of losing her possible ‘promotion’ from a single girl to a married woman. As I have discussed earlier, although modern Kyrgyz culture recognizes the success of women in the professional realm, it is still considered less important than familial success, such as the raising of children, being a good wife, and a proper daughter-in-law.[xxx]

Another concept that Michel Foucault introduces in Discipline and Punish is the notion of docile bodies. According to him, a body is docile and can be subjected, used, transformed, and improved with the use of power. There is an evident connection between this notion of docile bodies and the way Kyrgyz society works. People’s behavior and mentality is shaped by the power of shame. Women stay with their abductors, because the force of shame has shaped them into obedient figures. Their families force them to remain within their kidnappers’ homes, because shame has shaped them into compliant members of society.[xxxi]

Shame for good

Public shaming is not new. In the past, there were scarlet letters and public demonstrations that used to impose social norms upon women. While shame has some control over people in more individualistic societies, it is not as impactful as within the more communal ones. Some argue that public shaming is not such a bad thing after all. They say, that shaming ensures stability, public order, and even justice.[xxxii] It urges public accountability and makes people think twice about their decisions and choices. However, it is evident that public shaming often does more harm than good once employed as a manipulative and coercive tool for power.

Conclusion

K.A. was a woman in her mid-fifties. Her hands neatly folded on the table showed signs of hard labor and time. I remember noting in my mind that the orange scarf on her head matched her red dress perfectly. After interviewing her on how she got kidnapped, her opinion on Kyrgyz mentality, and public’s influence on her decision to stay we got to one of the last questions. “If your daughter gets kidnapped, what would you do?” my interpreter asked, and she did not even let him finish the sentence. “If they kidnap her, I am against it,” said she “I would take her back, if she doesn’t want to stay.”[xxxiii]

The majority of women I interviewed expressed the same kind of disagreement with the bride kidnapping practice and most of them stated that this custom should no longer take place in our modern day and age. All of them stressed that the youth is no longer going to obey the rules of the society, at least not as much as in the past. Even though there are still cases of bride kidnapping happening in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, this is an amazing change that is taking place. A society that solely consists of docile bodies and relies on opinions of relatives, friends, even strangers, leads a very questionable and unhappy existence.[xxxiv] Of course, it is important to stay united and continue having these strong bonds, but there should be exceptions and other more positive ways of reinforcing communal identity, and bride kidnapping is not one of those ways. I think it is time to break away from this dependence on each other’s opinions when it comes to such customs as bride kidnapping and finally encourage individuals to lead a life that she/he likes and deserves.

[i] N, A. “Interview with N.A.” 27 January 2018, Belovodskoye, Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[ii] Morton, Thomas. Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. Documentary. VICE Media. 19 June 2012.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Abramzon, Saul. The Kyrgyz and Their Ethnogenetic Historical and Cultural Ties. (Frunze, Kyrgyzstan: Turar, 1971), 27.

[v] Ibid, 79.

[vi] Tagaev, M. Dj., and B.T. Borchieva. Cultural-Lingual Archetypes of National Mentality as Regulators of a Social Behaviour of Personality. (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Messenger KRSU 17 (4), 2017), 165.

[vii] Yunusaliev, B. Kyrgyz heroic epic ‘Manas’. (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Elbilge, 1958).

[viii] Tagaev, M. Dj., and B.T. Borchieva. Cultural-Lingual Archetypes of National Mentality as Regulators of a Social Behaviour of Personality. (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Messenger KRSU 17 (4), 2017), 167

[ix] “6 People That Regretted Their Existence on the Kyrgyz Net,” Kaktus Media. 6 May 2017. <https://kaktus.media/doc/356861_6_chelovek_kotorye_pojaleli_chto_okazalis_v_kirnete.html> (5 April 2018).

[x] In the summer of 2013, a woman, whose name was Nazik Chodronova was violating traffic rules and fleeing the police. After stopping at her destination, she started arguing with the policemen and threatening them with the name of a well-known politician. All of it was recorded and posted on the internet, and after that society gathered together to reprimand this kind of behavior and coined the term to chodrone (borrowing from her last name), meaning to violate traffic rules, act rudely with law enforcement agency workers, and use names of well-known politicians to avoid punishment.

[xi] Nur. “I wanted to run away”. 3 January 2018, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[xii] S, B. “I am not against bride kidnapping.” 3 January 2018, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[xiii] Sambe, Ngutor, Moses Yandev Avanger, and Solomon Arumun Agba. “The Effects of High Bride-Price on Marital Stability.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science (2013): 67.

[xiv] Goody, Jack, and Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah. Bridewealth and Dowry. (Cambridge: University Press, 1973): 47.

[xv] Schlegel, Alice. “Status, Property, and the Value on Virginity.” American Ethnologist 18, no. 4, (1991): 719.

[xvi] Elkeyeva, Kanymgul. “A young woman’s pricey ‘honour.’” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 28 October 2015. <https://rus.azattyk.org/a/27330890.html> (30 March 2018).

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] ibid.

[xix] ibid.

[xx] “I got kidnapped for marriage. True stories.” News Portal. Kaktus Media. 4 August 2016. <https://kaktus.media/doc/342596_menia_ykrali_zamyj._nevydymannye_istorii.html> (29 March 2018).

[xxi] M. “M. — woman in a yellow scarf”. 3 January 2018, Issyk Kul Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[xxii] A, A. to Ice Baibolov, 2 March 2018, Instant message.

[xxiii] Zelenskaya, Tatyana. “’Female happiness’. A clip about social stereotypes and domestic violence.” Kloop Media, 13 February 2018. <https://kloop.kg/blog/2018/02/13/zhenskoe-schaste-rolik-o-sotsialnyh-stereotipah-i-semejnom-nasilii/> (3 April 2018).

[xxiv] K, A. “Interview with K. A.” 3 January 2018, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[xxv] A, U. “Mom was hiding my divorce from her relatives: a heart-cry about divorced women in Kyrgyzstan.” (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 4 June 2016). Sputnik Kyrgyzstan. <https://ru.sputnik.kg/columnists/20160704/1027323050.html> (29 March 2018).

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: A Division of Random House, 1975), 142.

[xxviii] Lyon, David. “Bentham’s Panopticon: From Moral Architecture to Electronic Surveillance.” Queen’s Quarterly 98 (3), (1991): 597.

[xxix] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: A Division of Random House, 1975), 146.

[xxx] Zelenskaya, Tatyana. “’Female happiness’. A clip about social stereotypes and domestic violence.” Kloop Media, 13 February 2018. <https://kloop.kg/blog/2018/02/13/zhenskoe-schaste-rolik-o-sotsialnyh-stereotipah-i-semejnom-nasilii> (3 April 2018).

[xxxi] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: A Division of Random House, 1975), 136.

[xxxii] Beres, Derek. “The Power (and Danger) of Public Shaming.” Big Think, 2017. <http://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/the-power-and-danger-of-public-shaming> (2 April 2018).

[xxxiii] K, A. “Interview with K. A.” 3 January 2018, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Personal Interview.

[xxxiv] Tagaev, M. Dj., and B.T. Borchieva. Cultural-Lingual Archetypes of National Mentality as Regulators of a Social Behaviour of Personality. (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: Messenger KRSU 17 (4), 2017), 168.

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