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24 August 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

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

By Tom Phillips

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.

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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.