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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.