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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear