The Violence of “Grab and Run” as a Ghostly Matter10 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Civil Society, Interview
Thousands of women in Kyrgyzstan are victims of bride-kidnapping every year. According to the report published in 2016 by the National Statistical Committee, about 10,000 cases of bride-kidnapping of girls are recorded annually in the Central Asian republic. The patriarchal Kyrgyzstani government only in 2013 approved the legislation that made the penalty from 3 years in prison to up to 10 years for forcing a woman to marry. Human rights organizations claim that the government is not doing enough to tackle bride-kidnapping and violence against women.

The practice of Ala-kachuu, or directly translated from Kyrgyz to English as “grab and run,” means getting married by abducting a young woman, which can be with or without the consent of a woman. Various scholars have pointed out that non-consensual bride-kidnapping is not inherently a Kyrgyz tradition or adat [traditional customary law]. Instead, they conclude that the practice of kidnapping increased in frequency during the Soviet period. This occurred due to the societal, economic and political shifts in the former colonized lands of Central Asia. There are no cases of bride kidnapping noted in the epic Manas, which narrates about the life and struggles of the nomadic people for independence.

Kalys’ story

In early 2020, as I was conducting research on women’s experiences of return migration in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, I fell upon an unexpected issue during an interview with Kalys. Kalys is a returnee who lived in Russia for more than 10 years as a migrant worker. She is one of the early birds who went to work in Russia due to financial struggles in Kyrgyzstan. From 2006 to 2018 she worked as a saleswoman for a Russian woman, Luba Andreevna, at a local market in Sverdlovsk.

One of my early conversations with Kalys, about women’s experiences after return migration from Russia to Kyrgyzstan proceeded in a way that was quite unexpected to both of us. When I asked her whether she would like to go back to Russia or whether it would be better to stay in Kyrgyzstan, she answered, that honestly she would like to go, because the job market there is better. However, she said that “these questions” make her remember certain things and think. I was about to propose changing the question, as I did not want to trouble her, but then she asked me: “do you want me to tell you why I think I became a person who cries a lot? Can you believe it, my life is a fairy tale, a fairy tale. I tell someone, someone understands, someone does not…”

Kalys was kidnapped in 1987, but she managed to escape from it. At that time she was a student, studying to become a teacher. Kalys told me that none of her many brothers reacted or came to get her from the house that she was brought to by the young men who abducted her. Instead she said some of them pressured her to stay there, as the family of the young man she was now to marry was quite rich.

Nonetheless, she managed to reach an “agreement” by lying to the kidnapper. “I had to lie to the guy out of desperation. I need to go to school, you need to give me a month, I said. I will go back to school, you can come and visit me, maybe I will fall in love with you, give me some time, I said. I told him not to threaten me, and they [his family] also agreed. He let me go.”

However, that was not the end of her struggles, rather the beginning of many others, where she was put in a situation of subjugation. When she arrived at her sister’s place, one of her brothers was not happy with her decision to leave the new house. Usually, as it became to be seen as a tradition, a kidnapped girl is supposed to stay and comply with the situation due to social pressure. Kalys did not desire to comply with the violence. It was about money rather than her desires and her consent. So she was between two houses and two men who were making decisions on her behalf. “Sister, they will make me marry him with violence. […] I said that I will go to school and run off jumping from the window.”

“When I went to the university the girls asked me: “you disappeared for two days, what happened”? I said nothing, I was ashamed of myself, and it was bad. Finally the girls told me that two guys came searching for me at the university. Then I told them what had happened and that I was kidnapped, that I did not like him, that I came back because I had to study. The girls agreed. Then I went to the class and tried to behave as if nothing happened.”

“But the thoughts would not leave me. I was worried because the ones in my family were the ones causing the violence. If I go home now, what if he kidnaps me again? All my thoughts were about this. Then I sat on a trolleybus, all in my thoughts. I was afraid, from which corner they are going to appear again, from where are they going to kidnap me again?”

In spite of it all, Kalys managed to find a way to escape the forced marriage. She left Kyrgyzstan with a new person she met. In order to keep her freedom she had to flee the country.

Later she tells me the story of her return from abroad, but this time with her newborn baby and a husband, back to her parent’s house. Inhabiting one big house. Kalys was once again being pressured by those around her to live how they wanted her to. She says: “The ones at home say: he needs to go, divorce him, do not live with him. It’s the same habit again, he is a thief. Ultimately, they portrayed him as a thief.”

She says that her then husband was allegedly accused of being a thief for stealing money from somebody in the house by the majority and they made him leave her and her newborn baby. Kalys says “Dagy bayagynday adat [It’s the same habit again]” when she was referring to the societal pressure to make a decision which was already made by the men of the family.

Recognizing the in/visible toxic patterns

Kalys knows perfectly well for herself that it was their habit. This presumes the repetitiveness of any habit. But we might ask what does habit have to do with the story of Kalys? When talking about toxic and violent traditions it is the long lasting habit of assuming that one person can make decisions for another person, that one person is fundamentally smarter than another person; is reiterated again and again without being questioned. But still, why? These violent traditions that Kyrgyz people still wish to somehow preserve as part of putative ancient traditions comes out of inevitability to define who you are and who Kyrgyz people are.

However the collective understanding of who “we” are as a group is constructed. There were times when people in southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, referred to themselves solely as Muslim and/or as somebody who is from the Ferghana Valley, among others. In order to make sense of these patterns, these repetitions that are occurring in present time, one should not be deceived by the habitual way of explaining it as tradition in opposition to the modern. Rather, it is important to critique this one-sided story and bring the silenced voices up.

The intricacies of Kalys’ story made me feel overwhelmed and yet I shared a feeling of anger at those who never reacted to her tears back in the day. Later, I realized that our talk was exactly about those very “hidden and unarticulated” realities as Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber writes about. At this moment, I confronted the problem of how to put her story in words. I was frustrated thinking that even today, even after so much time had passed since Kalys’ story had taken place, a long time had passed since she had to resist against being married by force, it still occurs. However, this woman’s story has not been articulated or acknowledged by other people that were involved in it: directly or indirectly. Instead she had to bury her feelings, her emotions and thoughts about the injustice somewhere within her body – swallow it together with her tears.

The fact that Kalys brought up this story and that she felt like it had to be “talked over,” even though initially our conversation was supposed to be about migration, shows that it is still there, it still hurts. In Avery Gordon’s words: “the ghost is alive […] We are in relation to it and it has designs on us such that we must reckon with it graciously, attempting to offer it a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice. Out of a concern for justice would be the only reason one would bother.”

Healing from the trauma

During our third call after we returned back to talking about how she felt about sharing her story, she mentioned in the middle of our conversation that she “dreamt” of organizing something like a round table so that people could talk about it. She wants to write a book about her life too. I think this desire within her that has not left her, even after so many years have passed is a strong urge, which can be explained by using Gordon’s formulation of haunting that permits “something-to-be-done” with it. I believe there is more to her individual story, of her will to be her own person, at the same time being careful and empathetic towards those around her. But I keep wondering how many women are there who did not have the chance to speak out about injustices that were done to them when they were young.

One can see through these stories, reasons for migration as well as return are much more complicated than they seem at first. It is not enough to analyze people’s migration by just applying certain theories in the field. There is a necessity to deepen this topic by providing the viewpoints of those who were silenced, pushed to behave in a certain way and to just listen throughout history.

In order to grasp the connections between the narratives of Kalys with return migration, it is necessary to understand that Kalys’ story played a huge role in her life and as she said in the beginning of our interview, she became a “crying person” as a result of these events. Bringing it back to the broader picture of labour migration, at the moment, Kalys has strong connections with Russia. Her daughters and husband are working there.

Colonial and Soviet masculinities that emerged at the crossroads of different practices, beliefs (be it shamanistic, Islamic, Buddhist) that were basically imposed on the population, should not be overlooked. Growing practices like bride-kidnapping and continued gender based violence in the country reveal that more research must be done on the topic of masculinity.

That is why this particular story has found its place on the pages of this article. I believe tackling these stories and finding refuge for unacknowledged stories can be an act of collective self-care and a form of resistance. I want collective self-care, speaking up about those issues that have been silenced, taking up space as we all deserve it by virtue of being born as human beings; and, again and again acknowledging that personal is political.

Featured image: Migrating birds / Joshua Hoehne
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