Marriage or the joining of households is a common thread in many cultures; whether they are monogamous or polygamous; ancient or modern as with the Kingston Clan. There are many traditions that are entrenched in the beliefs and ideas of a culture, from arrangement to engagement and all the way to the wedding day and beyond. While some cultures hold on to traditions that have been a part of their beliefs, others examine their traditions and decide that the traditions may be retired, or in the case of marriage by capture, or bride stealing, are even made illegal. Examining many different cultures in many different geographical locations, anthropologists have studied the roots, implications, and reasons for traditions in regarding bride theft and, while different cultures may share the same tradition, the reasons for current bride capture can range from anywhere between mock-capture to illegal kidnapping.
Bride theft, also known as “marriage by capture,” “bride stealing,” “ala kachuu” or “bride kidnapping” is a tradition that seems to go back farther than any cultural group or tribe can remember. Barbara Ayres, in her article, “Bride Theft and Raiding for Wives in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” defines bride theft as “the forcible abduction of a woman for the purpose of marriage, without her foreknowledge or consent and without the knowledge or consent of her parents or guardians” (238). While the connotation of this statement seems rather ominous, it is vital to examine the reasons behind the tradition, as well as the varying degrees that bride theft exists in different cultures.
During ancient times of war and combat, raiding armies would capture women of conquered villages and take them back to their own home village for marriages or slavery (Pauwels). Over time, even after the constant raiding had lessened and then disappeared completely, the traditions of bridal capture were continued. In fact, there are fifty-three recorded cultures that still take part in the tradition of bride stealing (Ayres 240), although the separate cultures view the act very differently. The chart below shows the geographical locations and the number of tribes or villages that Ayres has reported to have historically or currently taken part in the bride stealing tradition. The large geographic range shows that there is a very wide spread of the tradition in a global perspective (Harris) and there are many different perspectives and distinctions among the different cultures.
There are several distinctions that need to be made when examining bridal theft; the first two being the difference between a “bride stealing” and a “raid” (Pauwels) An important difference between raiding and stealing a bride is that raiding denotes that a woman may be forced into a different village and her family would receive no compensation for her dowry (Bishai 1177). The family of a bride who has been stolen may receive compensation for the bride and also may be given the chance to foster a relationship between the families (Bishai 1177). A third distinction is actually a subset of bride stealing and is actually a form of elopement, where the marriage is mutually agreed upon and the couple marries; this is not considered a theft or raid but a way of announcing the “stealing away” of a young woman from her family (Ayres 241).
Another important distinction is the difference between a mock capture and a genuine capture. A mock capture can be a symbolic capture, where the young man may “trap” the bride while she is traveling or at home and he takes her to his “hideout” to keep her until she agrees to marry him. In Scott Westermarck’s book The History of Human Marriage he mentions his study of the people of New Guinea and of the Philippines who will stage a mock-stealing and even stage a mock-pillage of the home or shop owned by the bride’s family. In some tribes or villages, the family of the bride and the groom’s friends will clash physically, and, in some cases, consider injuries that bleed to be a good sign for the newlyweds, although the damage to property and people is generally not ruinous of anything of great value (Westermarck 247). In Serbia, the bride is stolen with the consent of the family, but not necessarily the consent of the bride, so when the bride is abducted, it is likely a frightening experience. The Slavic saying, “Laughing bride, weeping wife; weeping bride, happy wife” is demonstrative of the tears a bride may shed after she is kidnapped and many times the bride will wail and cry out even if she is aware that the theft was going to take place. Her mother and sisters will even join in, crying and wailing in public to show the worth of the bride and show what a loss she is to the family (Westermarck 248-252).
In the Andes, a young man may engage in a similar etic called robo, the word for stealing, by taking his bride without her family’s consent but with the consent of the bride. This may happen for a number of reasons: including that the bride’s family would not accept the marriage, likely because of the groom’s low socio-economic status (Balan 78). In the act of robo the young man takes the bride to prove his desire for the young woman and show an ability to start a marriage in a show of power and responsibility (Balan 76). In this circumstance, however, the bride is willing to marry the young man and the plan has been devised between the two of them. The two young people run off and cohabitate in a shared house and both refuse to return home until the bride’s parents agree to allow the marriage. After the agreement and dowry price has been decided, the young couple returns and they are married in the community at a celebratory wedding (Balan).
There are social reasons for young men to engage in bride stealing as well, and they arise from social and cultural pressures. In Bolivia, Balan explains the emic thought process, “A young man is expected to ‘steal’ the woman in order to deserve her. Otherwise, he is blamed for lack of courage or taken to be not interested enough in her” (81). If a young man does not steal her, he is showing that she is not as valuable as if he had stolen her. The bride also has a role in the bridal stealing as Balan describes, “Her responsibility is to be stolen by the right candidate” (81) meaning that if a woman has represented herself properly in a community she would only attract someone who was worthy of her.
A genuine capture can be terrifying for the bride involved as it involves, “a man who has stalked her like prey” (PBS) and may not be a man that she nor her family is familiar with. This case is usually that a man comes from a different village, selects a woman and the man and his friends abduct her without her or her family’s knowledge or consent (Nahar). Westermarck examines a case of marriage by capture, and quotes “Laws of Manu” where the Russian tradition was to carry out the act of a “forcible abduction of a maiden from her home, while she cries out and weeps, after her kinsmen have been slain or wounded, and their houses broken open ‘” (251). The groom would then take the bride back to his village and force her into marriage into his own tribe or village, never to be seen by her family again (Westermarck 252).
In the very roots of the tradition may lie the psychological reasons for bridal capture, in the ancient Spartan act escape and recapture was described as a response to the idea “that the young woman could not surrender her freedom and virgin purity, unless compelled by the violence of the stronger sex” (Evans-Grubbs 65). The overpowering strength of the man and the domination of his wife were important to strengthen the concept that a man must be a woman’s master and commander and as a show of masculinity. While the tradition may not continue for the same reasons, there are instances where a groom will drag the bride out of a tent or home by the hair to publicly display his prowess as a man (Westermarck 280).
While the global reach of marriage by capture is broad, the reasoning behind the act is fairly similar. Ayres found that in the cultures that shared the tradition of bridal theft the society’s had the following in common: the number of women available for marriage may be limited, the culture is one that practices polygyny, the price of the bride is more than the man can afford, the parents disagree with the choice of man, and the (lack of) wealth possessed by a young man. In her research, Ayres found that the most common reason that men engage in bride stealing is that the young man was of a different economic level than the bride’s parents and he could either not afford the dowry or the bride’s parents did not think the man financially stable. The other cause was a more demographical reason; there were more men than women and in an effort of a “survival of the fittest,” the man must claim the woman before she was claimed by another man (Evans-Grubbs 80).
All of the anthropologists and researchers are also adamant about a single fact regarding bride theft, that every culture and cultural group has criminalized the act of a genuine capture. The legal systems, governments, and communities are against the actions and have deemed the act a crime punishable by fine, injury, imprisonment, economic sanctions, social disapproval, or death (Ayres 245). Even some instances of mock-capture are criticized by the communities they occur in, as some cases involve an unwilling family or an unwilling bride and lead to legal issues and police involvement. Ayres notes that the seeking male faces great risk and danger in following the tradition of bride stealing and is seen as being a rebellious act in defiance of the society (245). Balan believes that the reason young men may still take part in the tradition is that it has been tied to machismo (manliness) and has, in recent years, seen an increase in occurrence.
However, other recent sources paint a very different picture of bride stealing in the modern-day. Radio Free Europe chronicled a story of two kidnapped brides in Kyrgyzstan, who, a few months after being genuinely captured and forced into marriage with men they did not know, the two twenty-year-old women both committed suicide. Here, the Kyz Korgon Institute notes that the tradition of bride stealing is illegal but, many times, the maximum penalty is a fine or short jail time. The organization, which established the Bride-Kidnapping Project in 2004, has found that “Approximately a third of Kyrgyz women (some as young as 14 years old) are married as a result of non-consensual kidnapping” (globalfundforwomen.org). Gazububu Babayarova, the founder of the Kyz Korgon Institute says that one reason the tradition continues is, “It is encouraged by parents of the boys… [because the boys are] afraid of asking the girls’ permission. They think it’s easier just to kidnap her because they are afraid maybe she will refuse” (rferl.org). While there are traditions behind the Kyrgyz bride stealing, the continuation of the tradition is being challenged by recent events, such as the deaths of the two young women and a change in the perspectives from the women of the culture. Their suicides are being used to bring awareness to the impact of bride-stealing, which, in the past few months, has continued to develop.
In an article posted by Restless Beings, a non-profit organization that supports marginalized individuals on a global scale, recently posted information that on:
January 28, 2013 President Almazbek Atambayev passed a new law which increased the maximum prison sentence for bride-kidnapping from three to seven years. Kidnappers abducting girls under the age of 17, which is the minimum legal age for marriage, now face a punishment of up to ten years in prison.
While this law is evidence that the majority of the culture has moved away from genuine bride-kidnapping tradition, the United Nation Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women cites that in Kyrgyzstan only a single case out of seven hundred is ever processed through the legal system, meaning that six hundred and ninety-nine women are living with the captured marriage. Combined with the statistic cited by UNWomen that there are at least “11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in Kyrgyzstan, with more than 2,000 of those girls reported being raped as well,” it is evident that bride stealing is still occurring and that different organizations are stepping in to curb, what the UN calls a “grave violation of human rights.” Modernity, however, is spreading across the Middle East.
While some Kyrgyzstanis agree with the UN on this point, there are families and individuals who are upholding the traditions, mainly the family and friends of the groom, who are the ones who help organized and carry out the capture. In the PBS documentary, a groom who is seeking a marriage explains from an emic perspective, “I went to several girls but had no luck. One seemed to agree, the other refused. Nobody wanted me. This one will stay.” He is referring to a girl that his friends have been talking to on the public street and his family joins in on why it is important for their son to get married. The groom’s father explains why they have decided to take part in ala kachuu, “We can’t afford the bride’s hand…they wanted too much money.” The groom’s mother is eager to have someone to share work with, “I need a bride to tend sheep,” she explains. The groom’s father has discussed the reasons that Ayres and other researchers have concluded as well, the price of dowry was too expensive and the young man had faced previous rejection.
The brides in the documentary also explain their reasons for accepting the tradition or rejecting it. The bride being discussed in the above paragraph was 25 years old, which is considered to be old for a woman to remain unmarried and, oftentimes, a bride’s mother will accept an agreement without the consent of her daughter. One mother described, “If my daughter was kidnapped by a man I didn’t want or she hadn’t dated, of course I’d suffer, but I wouldn’t go against it because it’s in our blood…it’s a custom, a mentality, that bride kidnapping is normal for us” (PBS). There seems to be a divided opinion among the nation’s modern generation, who are more likely to delay marriage to pursue an education. The documentary follows two young women who reject the tradition, Fatima describes her situation of her mother hoping she (Fatima) would be captured and leave behind her education and her American boyfriend. Aingul, another young woman interviewed in the documentary said that marrying the boy who had captured her would “be wasting my life.” In opposition to her mother’s beliefs Fatima continued her education and married her American boyfriend, after reflecting she responds, “I realize now how lucky I am, that these girls, they don’t have any opportunity.”
While many cultures have remained true to their traditions, bride stealing is one that has been facing increasing opposition by women’s and human rights groups. Since new laws have increased prison time or fines in the legal system of their home countries, some people are trying to find a balance between modern thought and tradition.
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