Bride and Prejudice: the stolen wives of Muslim central Asia

Across this ex-Soviet belt, women are being kidnapped and forced into marriage. How has such a custo

A brilliantly produced and highly disturbing documentary, This World: Stolen Brides, aired on BBC2 last week. The programme investigated a very real prospect threatening young Chechen and other central Asian women -- being kidnapped and forced into marriage.

Termed in Kyrgyzstan "ala kachuu" (literally "to take a young woman and run away"), the practice of bride-stealing appears not so much a crime poorly policed, but an established and respected custom in certain pockets of central Asian society (that is, respected, at least, by the male population).

Surely such an act cannot be supported by the women of these ex-Soviet states that have to suffer such perversion of individual freedom?

But women either do not or cannot speak up, or do not speak up loudly enough for the international community to hear.

The culture of fear that rules Chechnya, for example -- its combination of Soviet-style state control and chauvinistic interpretation of Islamic law (in a supposedly secular state) -- muffles any dissenting voices.

Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Karakalpakstan (an autonomous region of Uzbekistan) all have lengthy histories of bride-stealing. Shocking though it may be, this appalling act is becoming more commonplace, rather than less so.

Silenced by a fearsome ruler, President Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's female population is seemingly beyond help.

Can the world do anything to impress on these societies some semblance of morality and equality to help these women? Led by the admirable Lucy Ash, the BBC took an important first step with last week's documentary.

Ash followed brides-caught and bride-catchers in both Chechnya and Kazakhstan and gained unprecedented access to the underworld of bride-kidnapping.

The process is as lurid as it sounds. Young girls are literally snatched, gagged and thrown into car boots. Friends of the groom act as henchman, overpowering the chosen one and holding her captive until negotiations can be conducted with the bride's family.

The "negotiation" aspect is perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole procedure.

At a "safehouse", the husband contacts the local mullah (if his marriage is to gain consent in the eyes of Allah), who acts as mediator between the families of bride and bridegroom.

This is seemingly an way of qualifying and legitimising what is a wholly illegal and immoral practice.

Negotiations are conducted in a decent and cordial manner, the bride's family rarely opposing the marriage.

This World: Stolen Brides was perhaps most shocking because it showed the relatively institutionalised aspect to bride-stealing. In a land where such injustice is somehow made to appear justified, the future for women's civil and social rights appears bleak.

If Chechen and Kazakh women are to enjoy freedoms of the kind that we expect in the west, there will have to be a major process of cultural uprooting in these backwardly patriarchal central Asian states.

 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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