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A Candid Conversation About Kyrgyz Bride-napping


The thought alone of arranged marriages to me seems almost archaic, and that — at least — is done generally by the parents with the best interests of the bride or groom-to-be in mind.

Bride-napping is different.

Bride-napping involves a woman being taken sometimes at random — maybe when she least expects it. Imagine standing on the street corner, minding your business, maybe while waiting for a bus or taxi, when bam! A random car pulls up, 3 Kyrgyz men get out, grab you, pull you in against your will and drive off. You kick; you scream. They are too strong to get away. You are taken to the home of one of them and forced to stay overnight. You are forced to be married.

This article on CNN states that, “Nearly half of all marriages in rural Kyrgyzstan are a result of the practice.”

I can’t understand this practice. Not at all.

back of the car

In the back of the car, and asking questions.

“But isn’t bride-napping illegal?” I ask my English speaking car mates in Osh.

The more eloquent speaker of the two shrugs slash nods at the same time. “Yes… but it is tradition.”

The whole topic was brought up because the driver told our English speaking mate that he saw a bride-napping in Osh the day before. Oh, snap, I think. Just the juice I’ve been wanting to hear about. Our ears quickly perked up like attentive little puppies in the backseat, and questions spewed forth almost uncontrollably.

“Don’t they try to get away?” Pat asks.

With a slight chuckle, “Oh yes, of course. They will usually put up a little fight.” He pauses. “But the men are strong.”

wedding in bishkek

A wedding in Bishkek as we might know it.

I am in awe. I’ve heard about bride-napping, but always from the mouth of a young female, and always from those in Bishkek — the north and a much less traditional place. To hear the candid tales of a man in the south… it was pure gold.

And he has no idea that I plan to recount every detail on my blog.

After I mouth the words, “Oh my God,” to Pat, he continues.

“So does it generally happen by car these days?”

“Yes, typically by car. Traditionally it was by horse.” The two men laugh. “It still happens by horse in some villages.”

Boys outside the window of the car can be seen riding donkeys, and I can’t help but wonder if they were ever used to carry their newly plucked brides home before.

“And does the woman usually know the man beforehand?”

“Usually they will meet or see each other — sometimes only once. Friends will often know the girl. They will help to recommend women.”

“This one time, I helped my friend take a woman for him. He only saw her once. We went to the house for the girl, but she wasn’t there. Her younger sister was.”

He stops to remember and laugh.

“We took her instead. We’d heard she was more beautiful than her older sister.”

I am in shock — so much so that I can only laugh at the awkward and horrible luck of that woman, and of the absurdity of the story in general!

“But now they are married and have little children,” he adds.

I wonder what the idea of marital happiness is in Kyrgyzstan. I wonder if the woman sees it all very differently.

It’s my turn to take over the questioning.

“At what age do women usually get bride-napped?”

“Usually around 20-23. If a woman is not married off by age 25, that is bad.”

You could tell by the tone that they firmly hold these values as well.

“She is seen as wrong. We think there must be something not right with her.”

At the ripe age of 29, I’m basically a lost cause in Kyrgyzstan. We tell our mate that things are very, very different in Australia, with many people waiting until their mid-30s to marry.

pat listening attentively

Pat listening attentively.

I continue. “When is the last chance for a man to be married?”

“Age 27 for a man; 25 for a woman. If a friend is almost this age and not married, his friends will start helping to find a girl. If the girl says something like, ‘No, I need to worry about school,’ or something like that…” (Something silly he made it seem.) “…that is when she will be taken.”

Time to get personal.

“So… are you guys married?”

“Yes, of course. I am 28, and he is 27.”

And the million dollar question: “Did you kidnap your wives?”

Laughter. Chuckles. Almost like they hadn’t seen it coming.

“No… But we have helped our friends many times.”

They laughed, much like the way men would laugh if they are thinking of an inside joke.

“It did happen to my sister.”

Ooooh, sister. We could sense a small feeling of unease in the way he said it, so we had to push the topic.

“Was she happy about it?”

“At first, no.”

Seriousness entered his voice. This was his sister — things got different.

“But then his parents came to meet my parents and they negotia…” (trailed off) “…talked, and it became OK.”

The car swerves to avoid hitting a herd of animals — cows mostly — on the road.

“Are they happy now?” I ask.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Are many couples happy like this? Does it work out?” Pat adds.

“There are some that are not, and they divorce, but most… most end up happy.”

They both confirm this with each other.

Happy. I can’t imagine.

To the entire conversation, I end it with a simple and concise, “Interesting.”

What do you think of the Kyrgyz tradition of bride-napping?

I highly suggest watching this 5 part video series by Vice on Kyrgyz Bride Kidnapping if interested in learning more.


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53 Responses to A Candid Conversation About Kyrgyz Bride-napping

  1. Diane July 23, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    This was a fascinating read, something I didn’t even know existed. But is this more of a joke, like an aggressive way for the guy to go after the girl? and the woman just submits because she wants to get married? Or is this forcefully done and if the girl resists, she’ll get killed? Like what happens if a girl is kidnapped and then the next day calls her family and says I want to go back to my life? Is that possible or not? The guys you interviewed seem to make jokes about the practice so is this more of a cultural thing or a real kidnapping? Regardless, great post!

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Diane,
      Glad you enjoyed the read. I think it goes either way — some guys will kidnap for tradition even if they know a girl or they’ve dated, while others will do it to random girls. I think the thing is if a woman spends the night at the house of the man, even if they don’t do anything, she is considered a ruined woman (they are Muslim there)… so usually she is forced to just get married or never be wanted by another man after. If you click the link at the bottom of the post, you can see a great 5 series video set on the subject that shows many sides to the practice. Beyond this, I don’t have insight except for what I’ve been told. Cheers!

    • Janat November 21, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      I am from Kyrgyzstan. The women know that it is a tradition and usually do not run away but yes sometimes the women do run away. Sometimes, they are over the age of 25 and not married and they will choose to marry the man who kidnapped them because they probably will not have another chance to marry. And you are not completely forced because the man will talk to your parents and ask permission to marry you. If they say no, he will give a gift like money, cattle and things like that to try to persuade the parents. If the parents refuse, the bride is returned. Yes this is a real kidnapping but it is also a very well known traddition. No you will not get killed. If you want to leave, the groom’s sisters and mother will try to stop you, calm you down, and persuade you to marry the man and tell you that you will be happy. Usually the marrige goes well and they do become happy.

  2. Lisa Wood July 23, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    Oh gosh! I am not sure what I would do if that happened to me or someone I was close to? How can the women be happy? And how come they dont run away while waiting to be married? do they get taken and married the same day? Or do they keep them locked away until the wedding?
    It seems so weird and something that I cant imagine happening!!

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 10:12 am #

      The problem here is that the entire family of the man can be accomplices… they take her to their home and then all the women keep her in a yurt while waiting to be married. I would feel so powerless.

      • Lisa Wood July 24, 2012 at 2:38 am #

        Oh no! I am not sure about that idea? What about the women – are they scared? Or do they know its something that was going to happen (because they see it all of the time?) I am so not sure about any of it….I think I probably would try and get someone to help me run away 🙂
        Incredible to think this is happening in our world considering how far we have come from the dark ages!

  3. Sheila July 23, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    I remember watching this episode on Vice a few weeks ago. It was disturbing, and they all rationalize it saying it’s tradition. They’re saying there’s a high incidence of suicide because of this bride napping. Culture and saving face plays a big role. How families are often forced to agree with the idea because it’s proper to respect their “tradition.” It makes me angry.

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 10:10 am #

      It’s hard to stomach that’s for sure. I felt so bad for the woman talking about her daughter that committed suicide, and how she was taken the night the parents weren’t home. Ugh.

  4. Richard July 23, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Holy hell. And thanks for posting. I’d also be really interested to hear how the women rationalise it (if they do), so as not to leave. It seems bizarre that it should happen, but more so that the relationships should last.

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      I guess the women are raised to be obedient. I know, I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of marriage like this (and I never will).

  5. Audrey July 23, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    I remember seeing a documentary film on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan at a film festival years ago. There was a line in there about a common Kyrgyz phrase that was something about a woman’s tears on a wedding day but not for joy or something about marriage starting with sadness. Just so tragic.

    I heard that this happened less during Soviet times, but perhaps it is instead that it was reported less. Either way, here’s hoping to a new generation without bride kidnapping.

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 10:01 am #

      Yes, it is very very sad. The video series by Vice also has the men saying something about tears on the wedding day — something like a happy marriage must begin with tears, and they also say that a woman has to say no because she doesn’t want to be seen as desperate to get married. Uhmm… right. There’s no such thing as no means no over there I guess! Very sad and even more awkward to hear it justified as “tradition”.

  6. Cole @ Four Jandals July 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Wow I cannot believe this still happens. While it sounds as if they are joking while they are talking with you there definitely sounds like an undercurrent of maliciousness to it! Would be so interested to talk in person to the girls that have been bride-napped.

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

      I think the laughter that is being portrayed is more like how I respond when people ask if we eat kangaroo meat in Australia. They could tell we were shocked because of our tone, but they also know it is common over there. I know… weird… I think the south and the villages are very different from Bishkek which always seems so modern and Western to me. Having this conversation really proved it. It’s a topic I’ve been wanting to research more over there, but… it’s also a place where I don’t want to stick my nose in any of the wrong places.

  7. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy July 23, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    Wow, that is shocking. Reading this, I was wondering, do they ever bride-nap foreigners? Were you potentially in danger?

    • Brooke July 23, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

      I don’t think so unless they are also of the same type of culture. To us, it would not be tradition and just plain kid-napping… I would hope the police would also agree 😉

  8. Gina July 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Wow, this is crazy. I can’t believe they’re so lackadaisical about it. It’s hard to believe that bride-napping is still accepted in parts of the world. Really enjoyed your account of the conversation you had about it.

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Gina,

      It is very hard to wrap your head around, right? I guess they are just raised to know and accept this. Strange.

  9. Alexa Hart July 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Didn’t know about this… How interesting! I am a huge fan of VICE, so I’m definitely going to watch the series now. Thanks for sharing!

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Enjoy the videos! I found them to be insightful from all sides.

  10. Reg of The Spain Scoop July 24, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    Wow, I can’t imagine many of those women would end up happy. This is much worse than an arranged marriage. Thanks for sharing – I didn’t know anything about this! Could a foreigner get bride-napped, or is it just local women?


    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      HI Reg – I think only local women that share the same cultures and belief would be wanted/napped.

  11. D.J. - The World of Deej July 24, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Wow…what a candid interview about something I didn’t know even existed. How can it in 2012? So hard to imagine….

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      I think it actually happens in parts of Africa, too. And I think I heard about it happening in the Caucuses occasionally. Yes, but still hard to imagine. Thanks for reading

  12. bilbo July 24, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Hum. Obviously shocking for us. But it would be shocking for them also to know how many people are lonely in our culture, jumping from relation ships to relation ships, searching for the perfect combination, and eventually end up alone. Loosing a lot of time instead of getting someone (random) and think it is like it is and work on with it.
    Sometimes, the better roommate is the one you find in the newspaper… and with the best friend it just goes wrong.
    I’m not sure if they have more divorces than we do, ok, maybe fear of being divorced is stronger. I..
    I, of course don’t want to promote Bride-naping in our society bur just wanted to point out, that our system of “love marriage” can also be seen as absurd for people with a different culture and that I’m not sure what is best at the end.

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:54 am #

      Hi Bilbo – You are much more open-minded than myself so kudos to you! I can totally see what you mean. When you are raised to know that you will be married by age 25 or whatever, then it might seem strange that we are potentially alone at 35 and so on. It’d be like a kid not being enrolled in school at age 5 or something that we think MUST happen. Thanks for the feedback and sharing.

  13. Candice July 24, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Matador posted the Vice video not too long ago. I was shocked, as was the author, but some of the commenters sided with the tradition. It’s a super conflicting series…I can’t help but feel like the men aren’t BAD people, and in the end, the girl almost seems happy….but damn. The others…the suicides, the violence….unreal. Can’t believe you actually got to sit through this conversation.

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:56 am #

      Yeah I don’t think they are bad either, just raised under different understandings and cultural norms… The frustrating part of this is that so many of the women say they feel humiliated by the process — and that, you would think, would make the men change their minds though, right?

  14. EmAli July 24, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    What happens if someone picks a random girl and she happens to be already married?

    • Brooke July 25, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Ah well when I say random, it might be random to the woman. Usually, from what I was told, is that a man will have friends that know the girl, or who find out beforehand if they are married or not. However, having a boyfriend still means you are fair game.

  15. Brian Schoenman July 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    It’s not such a novel idea. Historically, men stole their brides from neighboring villages, mostly as a method to ensure genetic diversity. In fact, this tradition in Northern European culture is carried over in our modern day grooms having groomsman and a bestman. You stole a girl, and when her male relatives came to break up the wedding, and likely your neck, the groomsman and bestman were there to have your back.

    Kind of romantic really. Why settle for a guy for a couple of nice dinners and maybe a piece of jewelry when you can have a guy willing to face death at the hands of your male relatives ’cause he REALLY freaking likes you that much? Yeah, I’m a troglodyte, but I’m an educated, romantic one at heart, lol.

  16. Sarah July 25, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    I know I’m more typical of a US girl than a Kyrgyzstan, but if a man kidnapped me, with his family collaboration and then forced me into a sanctioned rape relationship, he or his family better never eat anything i cook, EVER. Because it would be poisoned. And my first chance, I’d be killing the whole family and wouldn’t feel any guilt over the death of my captors and rapist. I’d rather live alone, than in a life where sanctioned rape is considered marriage. And shame on the mother’s for helping do to their daughters what was done to them. “tradition” is a great way to hide all sorts of horrors. Wrong doesn’t become right just because it’s been done enough. Those poor girls who think that their only worth is their ability to attract an idiot with the Y chromosome.

  17. Jeremy Branham July 26, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    The idea of bride-knapping is horrible. I think anyone in the western world (aka not a part of Kyrgyz culture) would agree with this. However, I think there is something we can learn from this. Seems like most of them do work out. Why is that? Our divorce rates are near 50%, we wait until later to get married, and we generally suck at relationships in our culture. As horrible as this is, is there something we could learn from them despite our horrors at the practice?

    We can be quick to judge other cultures but maybe they can teach us something too.

  18. Larissa July 27, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    I don’t know what can be learned from stealing a woman’s freedom against her will, but I have often thought about the benefits of arranged marriages considering I’ve met a few Indian success stories and the staggering statistics Jeremy mentions above.

    So interesting that you got to sit through this conversation – but what did the young females in Bishkek have to say about the matter? Maybe you’ve posted something on it before. I wonder how difficult it would be to talk with girls who this has actually happened to…there must be some women’s rights group trying to do something about this. And if not, should we start one?

    • Brooke July 30, 2012 at 10:16 am #

      I believe there are a few groups in K-stan that are trying to help the females that get into these relationships and can’t cope. There are some, but it is very hard to get around and help the women who want it because of the surrounding “traditional” values being pressured by friends and family.

  19. Diana Edelman July 27, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    Oh, wow. I don’t even know what to say. To them, this is a normal thing; it is a part of their culture. Do I agree with it? Absolutely not. The more I am exposited to things like this, the more I wonder what I would do in that situation. Of course, I would fight. But then again, these women, who only put up a little fight, makes me wonder if this is just very accepted.

  20. Suzy July 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    How horrible! I had no idea something like this takes place. It is very hard to imagine a world where you are forced into a relationship, let along kidnapped into one.

    • Brooke July 30, 2012 at 10:18 am #

      I know, right? I keep trying to think that if I grew up with this around me if I would care as much?

  21. Audrey July 29, 2012 at 2:22 am #

    Wow! That is insane. I couldn’t imagine just standing on a street corner one day, maybe waiting to catch the bus to go into town, and next thing you know you are being dragged to your own wedding. That’s a nightmare! Can they pretend they are married then? Perhaps wear a fake ring, or lie about being in a relationship?!

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      Hey Audrey, Just caught your comment in my spam! But the relationship does NOT matter in K-stan. I’ve written about this before how it is you’re married or nothing. The videos on Vice also mention girls having boyfriends when they get napped, but that doesn’t matter. Usually the man’s friends will do research beforehand to make sure the girl is not married.

  22. July 31, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    Those women need to be packin’ some heat. A Ruger SR9 or a S&W .40 cal. that’d put a stop to this nonsense.

  23. Jessica Peter July 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Wow, fascinating post! I had no idea something like this still happened these days (and that it accounts for about half the marriages!!)

    • Brooke August 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      Shocking numbers, hey?! Thanks for reading.

  24. Rease August 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Wow, this is fascinating! I had no idea this stuff happened still! I don’t know if you read The Game of Thrones series, but it mentions a group of people called The Wildlings and they often kidnap their wives. It’s a fictional thing, or so I thought. I cannot imagine being happy! Being grabbed by a group of men and shoved into a car sounds terrifying.

    • Brooke August 1, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

      I haven’t read the books, but I’ve watched the first 2 seasons — and they do talk a lot about arranged marriages and being sent away to marry vs finding someone they love. Strange concept, but it all still happens today. Thanks for reading!

  25. Tom @ Waegook Tom September 1, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    I can’t help but wonder if this happens abroad, too – as in, Kyrgyz brides are kidnapped and sold to husbands abroad. I remember reading an article not too long ago that the market for Kyrgyz brides in my adopted homeland of South Korea is HUGE now, and that there are a lot of Kyrgyz women in the country.

    As for the post, this is crazy. I can’t believe it’s seen as normal practice. It sounds like it belongs on some kind of comedy sketch but clearly it’s a real-life problem and one that I knew nothing of before.

  26. Indie gandolfi September 25, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Brooke, whilst I get that this is the conversation you had about bride knapping, I’ve had some that are very different. With women who see them more as secret elopements to enable young couples to be together despite their parent’s disagreement – once a woman has spent a night away from home under the roof of a man, she is shamed. So whilst yes, some are horrible and forced and the woman has no choice, some are very, very different from that. I think maybe this could benefit from being a little more balanced rather than just jumping to conclusions that this one conversation represents what happens across the country. I’ll grant you though, isn’t good that this is the view amongst some young men, that it is okay to take a woman against her will. Like the way you tell the story though!

    • Brooke September 25, 2012 at 8:11 am #

      Like you say, this is a real conversation and my personal experience/feelings – not a piece for an academic journal or news article. I never say it happens to everyone, but I do insert a stat about it happening in rural communities and I tell what it could entail. I also give the link to the Vice videos for people to learn more, which happen to talk about the elopement aspect you mention.

    • Brooke September 25, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      And I realize that what I wrote just now sounds really defensive. Sorry, long day! Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear more about your experiences with these other women/stories. I thought it was finally so interesting to hear it from the mouth of a man!

      • Indie gandolfi September 25, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

        And I was just about to say, mine sound SO accusatory!! Which it wasn’t meant to at all .Just wanted to make sure that people don’t think all Kyrgyz men are total tossers!! Because so many aren’t. I’m an anthropologist by training so I guess I HAVE to jump to the defence of traditional practices that are facing such heavy criticism by all your readers!! But still, I’m so sorry it sounded so aggresive!!

  27. Lidia April 21, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I think your Jyrgyz friends in the car ‘forgot’ to tell you one very important aspect of this napping – THE RAPING. Which actually happens almost always. I find it shocking that even Kg women here are ‘explaining and justifying’ this as a tradition.


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