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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.