In Kyrgyzstan it’s common to kidnap your future wife

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In Kyrgyzstan it’s as common to kidnap your future wife as it is in America to meet her on a dating app

By Sevindj Nurkiyazova

Late one May evening in 2018, 19-year-old Burulai Turdaly kyzy stepped out of her house on the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Just out of the shower, and wearing white pyjamas and flip-flops with a towel wrapped around her head, she went to the shop next door to buy airan, fermented cow’s milk. As she left the store, a man jumped out of a car and bundled her into it. The shopkeeper heard her scream, but by the time she ran outside the only trace of Burulai was her flip-flops.

Two hours later, a policeman called her father. Burulai was safe and her abductors had been caught. When her parents arrived at the police station to pick her up, an officer told them to wait in the car. An hour passed, then another. They started worrying that Burulai would get cold in her pyjamas. Finally, the police chief called her father inside. In a few curt sentences, he explained that Burulai’s abductor had slinked into the waiting room at the police station and stabbed her. Burulai was dead.

News of the killing spread fast on social media, sparking a hashtag, #ForgiveUsBurulai. People in Kyrgyzstan were shocked by the murder – less so by the fact that Burulai’s killer had snatched her from the street only the day before, with plans to marry her.

In a Kyrgyz government survey conducted in 2016 and funded by the UN, some 22% of the country’s women reported that their marriage had begun with an abduction, known as ala-kachuu, or “grab and run”. The researchers broke this figure down into those abducted “without consent” (6%) and those “with consent” (16%). Yet the idea of consent is difficult to parse in a country where half of Kyrgyz men and a third of women say that it’s OK to beat your wife in at least one of the following situations: she burns the food, neglects the kids, argues with her husband, goes out without telling him or refuses to have sex. The upshot is that, in 21st-century Kyrgyzstan, it’s as common to have kidnapped your future wife as it is to have met her on a dating app in 21st-century America.

According to legend, the tradition of grab and run originated in a small village named Kyz-Kuioo – which translates as bride and groom – 100km south-east of the country’s capital. In the story, which dates from long before Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire in 1876, a wealthy young woman falls in love with a poor man but her father forbids her to marry him. When the couple run away, the girl’s father sends a party of locals after them. Chased to the edge of a gorge, the lovers join hands and jump.

Over the past half-century, ala-kachuu has come to describe a range of situations. Some are like the myth, where sweethearts elope in defiance of their parents’ wishes or to avoid the cost of a wedding. Other versions are more sinister: men kidnapping ex-girlfriends who’ve refused to marry them; abducting women whom they’ve grown up around but barely spoken to; even men grabbing complete strangers whom they hope to coax into staying with romantic promises, emotional terrorism or rape.

The shopkeeper heard her scream, but by the time she emerged the only trace of Burulai was her flip-flops

Kyrgyzstan was once a caravan stop on the Silk Road. Like many Central Asian countries, it declared independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Though corruption remains rife, the country has a robust civil society and a relatively free press. Yet bride abduction persists, both in the cities, as in Burulai’s case, and in rural areas, where it is even more common. A female grappling champion who lives in the capital told me that her coach let her return home to rural Talas only once a year because several of her sisters were kidnapped there; he’s afraid she’ll be next.

Marriage is still seen as the pinnacle of a woman’s life, even in progressive families like mine. My grandmother had a PhD in history and published a scholarly study of feminism in the Soviet Union, yet I remember her being dismayed when, as a teenager in the 2000s, I joked about staying single. I say “joked” because I couldn’t imagine that as an option: the average woman marries at 23; if you’re unwed at 25, you’re thought to be on the verge of spinsterhood, pretty much the worst failure imaginable.

Despite some expansion in girls’ education in recent years, and more women in government, there is evidence that, if anything, ala-kachuu is on the rise. In an in-depth analysis of bride kidnapping, conducted in 2004, 27% of women over 76 said they had been abducted “by deception or force”. For women aged 16 to 25, more than half had been abducted against their will.

No such study has been repeated. But bride abduction continues. In a horrific case in 2012, a 20-year-old committed suicide after she was kidnapped and raped; for the first time in 30 years, an abductor was imprisoned for the crime. There were national protests against the custom. In response, the Kyrgyz parliament raised the maximum sentence for bride kidnapping from three to seven years. From one perspective that marked progress, from another it was a dark joke. At the time, any other form of abduction could lead to ten years behind bars, while car theft carried a maximum sentence of eight years, cattle rustling 11 years.

Burulai lived in a working-class neighbourhood of Bishkek. She was one of six children, all girls but one: her name, which means “turning moon”, is supposed to increase the chance that the next baby will be a boy. The naming tradition didn’t work: Burulai’s parents had no more children.

In the early 2000s Burulai’s family had moved to Bishkek from a village in south-west Kyrgyzstan, hoping for a better life: many Russians left the capital after the Soviet Union fell and opportunities for ethnic Kyrygz improved (three-quarters of Bishkek’s population is now ethnic Kyrygz, compared with less than a quarter in 1989). Burulai’s home was opposite an informal bus terminal for marshrutkas, or “minibuses from hell”, as the packed jitneys are sometimes referred to. Burulai’s father, Turdaly, worked as a jitney driver for a while. Later the family opened a canteen; his wife cooked, his daughters served. Two of the girls met their future husbands there.

Unholy union Opening image: Nineteen-year-old Burulai Turdaly kyzy was murdered by her abductor. From top to bottom: People around Kyrgyzstan paid tribute to Burulai. There is evidence that bride kidnapping has become more common in Kyrgyzstan. Marsbek Bodoshev stabbed Burulai in a police station. Her father regrets not taking Marsbek’s threats against his daughter seriously

With her long black hair, heart-shaped face and large brown eyes, Burulai was a favourite with patrons, according to her parents. “She was calm and spoke softly,” her father said. “She was a very tender girl.” Her mother, who had laid out pastries, sweets and salads for my visit, pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her eyes.

By the time Burulai was a young teenager, she had almost a dozen nieces and nephews. She was the adored and adoring aunt, the one who actually liked babysitting. Burulai decided to turn her love of kids into a living, and enrolled in Bishkek Medical College to train as a nurse and then study to become an obstetrician. To pay her tuition fees, she stitched on buttons at a small sewing workshop close to home.

She met Marsbek Bodoshev at the family canteen. Nine years older than Burulai, he was a stocky, taciturn man who wore a tracksuit and baseball cap and drove a jitney, like his father and two brothers. Burulai kept the relationship secret – only her sister, Aiperi, knew about it. Burulai’s next-door neighbour, a close friend, said that whenever she asked Burulai about her love life she gave the same response: “Nothing is going on right now.”

From what I could piece together, over the course of three months in the summer of 2017, Burulai and Marsbek occasionally went to the cinema or out for a meal. The relationship ended around the time Burulai began her second year of medical college, when she started dating a young man she met at the sewing workshop. She didn’t tell her friends about him at first, either.

One day in May 2018, Burulai returned home from university with a bunch of red roses from Marsbek – and an engagement ring. Crying, Burulai told her sister and mother that she loved someone else; though she’d made it clear to Marsbek that she didn’t want to marry him, he refused to take back the ring. Her mother said that was untenable: she had to find a way to give it back.

A few days later, Burulai was in an obstetrics class when she got a phone call and left the room. Within a couple of hours, Burulai called her friend and classmate Umutai, and asked her to bring her stuff outside. There, Umutai found a man she’d never met before, who said he’d give Burulai her things. When Umutai refused to hand them over, Burulai appeared around the corner. With tears in her eyes, she told her friend that Marsbek had abducted her. “She looked as if somebody had frightened her,” Umutai said in her police statement. But then Burulai returned the way she’d come.

Many Kyrgyz say it’s OK to beat your wife if she burns the food, neglects the kids, argues with her husband or refuses to have sex

By the time Burulai’s family heard what had happened, she was halfway to Marsbek’s native village, hundreds of kilometres from Bishkek. Burulai’s father knew Marsbek’s older brother Zholdoshbek from his days as a driver. He called to demand the return of his daughter, but Zholdoshbek instead suggested meeting. He arrived with a contingent of family members – who were there, he announced, for achuu basar (“suppressing the wrath”), a ceremony in which messengers for the abductor offer money and gifts to appease a kidnapped woman’s parents. “If my daughter agrees, I will give her into marriage,” Burulai’s father said. “But you should come in two months, when Burulai finishes the school year, and marry her properly.”

It was too late, Zholdoshbek said. The family had already slaughtered a sheep for the feast.

Marsbek’s mother insisted that Burulai wanted to marry her son and said the girl had even asked for a wedding robe, size 46. Burulai’s parents didn’t believe her – the size was wrong, for a start – and demanded to speak to their daughter. They finally reached her by phone, but she was on speaker: “Shall I stay?” Burulai asked meekly. “OK, my dear,” said her father, trying to keep things calm, “you can marry him, but this abduction wasn’t right. They should take you in two months.” He again demanded her return.

Six hours later, Burulai was dropped off back at the family’s home, and she confirmed their suspicions: when she’d met Marsbek outside the school to return his ring, he and another man abducted her. A photo on his phone shows Burulai squinting and grimacing, wearing a baby-blue chemise, black jeans and dark-red trainers; Marsbek is hugging her, a big grin on his face. He planned to send the snapshot to her boyfriend, he said, to prove that she’d been with another man.

Her father threatened to report Marsbek to the police, but when Marsbek’s brother promised on his behalf that Burulai wouldn’t be abducted again, her father relented. Why ruin a man’s life? After all, he was young and in love.

A couple of days later, however, Marsbek arrived at Burulai’s home with his parents, who begged that their son be allowed to talk to Burulai. The two went to her room, while Aiperi listened from the hall. “What’s wrong with you? Why did you say you didn’t want to marry me?” Marsbek asked angrily. “You knew I didn’t want to,” Burulai replied. Marsbek stormed out: “I will get you, even if I end up rotting in prison.” He repeated the threat to her father. But nobody took him seriously.

Lifting the veil (from top to bottom) Nurlan Akunov abducted Boldukan Isaeva when she was 16. Akunov had been searching for a bride who could tend to his livestock. The couple have four children and live in Naryn, the largest and poorest province in Kyrgyzstan

Except for Burulai. Fearing what Marsbek might do, she moved in with Aiperi, who lived on the other side of town. She wouldn’t go to class unless her boyfriend drove her. When he proposed to her, Burulai said yes, even though she’d originally hoped to marry after she finished her studies. The couple performed an engagement ceremony called soiko saluu, “putting on the earrings”, and the wedding was scheduled for the end of August, a couple of weeks after Burulai would turn 20.

Connubial theft appears in Mayan legends, the Indian epic of “Ramayana”, Homer’s “Iliad” and in the founding myths of Rome: Romulus and his followers abducted 30 women to create the city’s first families. The average Kyrgyz will tell you that bride abduction in the country emerged from the harsh conditions of ancient nomadic life. Yet there is no mention of the practice in the 500,000-line epic poem about a ninth-century mythological warrior called Manas that constitutes the centrepiece of Kyrgyz literature.

Arranged marriages were the norm for Turkic tribes that roamed the Silk Road. As elsewhere, families chose their children’s spouses for economic and political reasons – love was a lucky accident. In the early 20th century, when the Soviet Union absorbed Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours, women were given the right to vote, divorce, terminate a pregnancy and, at least on paper, to choose a spouse. Consensual civic unions became the only legally recognised form of marriage.

References to ala-kachuu first appeared in ethnographic documents in the 1940s. Two sociologists, an American and a Kyrgyz, theorised in an academic paper in 2007 that ala-kachuu gained traction to help people move from an arranged model of marriage to a consensual one. It was a nod to old ways – an imitation of a traditional but rare practice – yet still based on the wishes of a couple.

Other scholars have speculated that ala-kachuu became more common after the collapse of the Soviet Union when, after 120 years of Russian and communist rule, the newly independent republic sought to reclaim its Kyrgyz identity. All kinds of traditions, or supposed traditions, were revived, including men wearing ak kalpaks, peaked white felt hats that represented the region’s snow-covered mountains; sports such as kok boru, in which teams on horseback battle to grab the carcass of a dead goat; and a fermented drink made of grains called maksym. Was ala-kachuu another such tradition?

Most kidnappings begin with the woman being shoved into a car – you can see grainy videos of it on YouTube

The economic and political chaos sparked by the shift to a market-based economy probably played a part, too. In 1992 inflation in Kyrgyzstan reached 2,000%; within a few years a quarter of the population was living below the subsistence line. Bride abduction takes place in a context of widespread violence against women in Kyrgystan. In a Georgetown University study in 2021, 13% of Kyrgyz women reported being subjected to violence by their partner in the previous year, among the highest in Central Asia. “Marriage is a sort of a contract,” Altyn Kapalova, an artist and anthropologist, told me. “If you don’t have the means to come to an agreement, you can just go and take what you want. The state bodies cease protecting people because everything is in ruins.”

Kapalova visited scores of villages in Kyrgyzstan during a decade of fieldwork. Did she, I asked, ever worry about being kidnapped? “Abducting some crazy researcher is just useless,” she said. Men choose their victims pragmatically, as labour units. A classmate of hers, the daughter of a shepherd, was kidnapped soon after graduating: “She studied art history but could milk nine cows in an evening.” Eventually, the former classmate escaped from her abductor-husband with her young daughter. When she returned to Bishkek, Kapalova said, “She recalled how, when he was hitting her and chasing her around the yard, her father-in-law would yell at his son: ‘Don’t touch her! If you kill her, who will do the housework?’”

The largest and poorest of Kyrgyzstan’s seven provinces is Naryn, a harsh region with more sheep than people, where winter temperatures drop to -30°C. There I met Nurlan Akunov, who abducted his bride, Boldukan Isaeva, when she was 16; they have now been married for 17 years.

The couple talked to me both separately and together over endless cups of tea with cream and strawberry jam in their kitchen-cum-bedroom. Boldukan was slender and tanned, with wide, freckled cheekbones and black hair tucked beneath a bright-red headscarf. Nurlan was even skinnier, and had countless burn-scars on his arms and legs, a tribute to his trial-and-error method of fixing his ageing tractor and two cars he used for his local taxi service.

Nurlan told me that he had spent almost a decade searching for a bride who could tend the livestock, cope with the rough, remote conditions and care for his ailing grandfather. Boldukan lived on the next dirt-road over from his, but he didn’t consider courting her, largely because she was nine years younger than him.

Most kidnappings begin with a woman being shoved into a car – you can see grainy videos of such abductions on YouTube – and so it was with Boldukan. After being plied with vodka, a distant relative of Boldukan’s agreed to lure her out of her house. Soon she was heading off in a car with five drunk men. A terrified Boldukan hoped her older brother would rescue her. “If you get married very young, you won’t see or learn anything. I really wanted to study.”

When the party arrived at the home of Nurlan’s uncle in Bishkek, 400km away, the older man put several copies of the Koran on the floor by Boldukan’s feet. To leave she’d have to step over the Holy Book and stain her soul. One of the men intoned a Kyrgyz proverb often used on kidnapped brides – “The stone is heavy in a place of falling” – in essence imploring her to go with the flow, to stay where she was. As Boldukan knew, many Kyrgyz considered it shameful to return home after being kidnapped, akin to losing your virginity.

Marriage of inconvenience (from top to bottom) Burulai’s family had hoped for a better life in Bishkek. In 2021 Aizada Kanatbekova was abducted in broad daylight on the outskirts of Bishkek and later killed. In Kyrgyzstan, marriage is still seen as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. Altyn Kapalova, a researcher, doesn’t worry about being kidnapped

She also worried about her family’s future. Her mother had died when she was 11, so she lived with her grandparents and her older brother’s family. Her brother had offered to sell his only cow to pay for her to attend the local teachers’ college, but she didn’t think the family could survive without it. When her brother turned up two days later, he told her she could make up her own mind – which is how Boldukan ended up graduating not from Naryn Teachers College, Nurlan joked to me, but from “Women’s Kitchen University”. Within a year, she gave birth to their first son; they now have four children.

Boldukan recounted her kidnapping dispassionately, as though telling someone else’s story. But when Nurlan went outside to repair one of his vehicles, she confided that she wanted her two girls, then aged five and nine, to marry men they loved and who they found themselves. “Even if it would be the end of me, I won’t let them be married off because somebody else wants it,” she said, her voice suddenly firm.

Yet, later in our conversation, she sounded less sure about the benefits of choosing your husband. A close friend of hers had married a man she loved, but he ended up cheating on her and abusing her. Boldukan’s husband was sober, they didn’t fight, and her children were safe and by her side. She was happy with her life, she told me. Did it really matter how her marriage started?

Among the dozens of abductees I spoke to, the woman whose circumstances differed most from Boldukan’s, at least superficially, was Zarima Koichumanova. Zarima worked at an organisation aiding rural women and young people, and her mother had spent the past decade helping women found small businesses and participate in local politics.

In 2003 a family from a nearby village contacted Zarima’s parents to arrange a marriage with their son Aidin. Though Zarima’s parents told her they didn’t want to force anything on her, at 23 they thought it was time she found a mate. After meeting her potential husband, Zarima declined the proposal; she thought Aidin seemed sullen and brusque. When he asked to meet her again, her parents urged her to give him another chance.

Following some desultory small talk, Aidin told Zarima he’d drive her home. Instead, he speeded over to his family’s place. There, about a dozen people surrounded her and forced her inside, kicking and screaming. Her would-be mother-in-law, along with some other women, pinned down Zarima’s hands and forced the white scarf of a newlywed onto her head. She ripped it off. They tried again and she again pulled it away. Eventually, she gave up, exhausted. She was sure her father would come for her.

She was happy with her life. Did it really matter how her marriage started?

About three hours later, Zarima’s uncle arrived instead and handed her a letter from her mother. Despite being an advocate for women’s rights, in two short paragraphs her mother instructed her daughter to marry Aidin. Her grandfather had added a postscript requesting the same. “My grandfather’s plea destroyed all my hope,” Zarima told me, her voice cracking, “because I never turned him down.”

Though Zarima felt she had no choice but to go ahead with the wedding, she naively assumed that she wouldn’t have to have sex with her husband, she said. Aidin tried to wrestle her into bed, leaving her arms covered in bruises, until she threatened him with a kitchen knife. “He stopped, but every night I went to bed fully clothed and couldn’t sleep because I expected he might rape me.”

Aidin’s mother berated Zarima for not performing her wifely duties. When that didn’t work, she asked Zarima’s parents to intervene. Her father had initially felt powerless to defy his own father, but now asked his wife to find out what was happening. The newlyweds met up with their mothers and Zarima’s mother chastised her counterpart: “Since when does a bride’s mother put her daughter into a groom’s bed!” She asked to speak privately with her daughter, but after only a few minutes Aidin’s mother barged in, grabbing the young woman by the arm to take her away. Zarima’s mother had seen enough. They were going, she told her daughter.

For months afterwards, Zarima said she had nightmares in which she begged Aidin to let her go. But she didn’t tell anyone. After she returned home, the family never discussed her abduction. Zarima’s mother had once been one of the women in her village who was regularly tapped to urge kidnapped women to marry. “They call women who know how to persuade others: skilled psychologists who understand the right words to make a bride stay,” she told me. “They ask: ‘Please put a scarf on her so that she will be a good daughter-in-law like you.’” Zarima’s mother considered the requests a token of respect, and if she’d refused, “people wouldn’t have understood”. She had been abducted, aged 19, though she considered it an elopement because she had been dating her future husband for two years.

It took her daughter’s traumatic experience for her to appreciate the cruelty of ala-kachuu. She started talking to local women about the abusive and pseudo-traditional nature of the practice. My own mother, an academic and women’s rights advocate who once brought Zarima’s mother to speak at a panel on violence against women in New York, explained her contemporary’s blind spot to me: “She wasn’t even conscious that she followed those patriarchal values. If Zarima’s abductors had, say, told her that they planned to sell Zarima into slavery, the whole family would have run to save her. But this was about marriage – something good.”

It’s still something of a mystery how Marsbek Bodoshev managed to kill Burulai when there were police officers all around. An hour after Marsbek and his friend dragged her into his car outside the grocers, traffic cops caught up with them 60km from the capital. The officers took the three of them to a police station and informed Burulai’s family that they’d found their daughter. The two abductors were left in a yard by the building, with one guard and no restraints. Burulai waited inside for her parents.

Groomed (from top to bottom) A lawyer represented Burulai’s family at the trial in which Bodoshev was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Bodoshev kidnapped Burulai with the help of a friend. Some had hoped that her death might signify a turning point in attitudes towards bride abduction

A little after midnight, a detective heard a piercing shriek. The guard and detective ran into the station, but the door to the room where Burulai had been was locked from the inside. They could hear her screaming. By the time the detective kicked down the door, the room was silent. Burulai lay on the floor, blood dripping from her mouth and a burgundy stain spreading across her chest. Marsbek was beside her with blood all over his stomach, having apparently stabbed himself.

The murder of Burulai attracted so much attention that Kyrgyzstan’s president instructed the prime minister personally to oversee the investigation. In December 2018 Marsbek, who had survived the stabbing, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for abducting Burulai twice and murdering her. His defence was that he’d blacked out: the last thing he recalled telling Burulai, he said during his trial, was “Hey, tell your father that you came with me by choice.”

Burulai’s father, who still castigates himself for ignoring Marsbek’s threats, told me he’d been buoyed during the trial by a lawyer’s suggestion that his daughter’s name, the “turning moon”, might signify a turning point in the country’s attitude towards bride abduction. He lost faith after the policemen were let off so easily. At best they were sloppy in their dealings with Marsbek – not only did they allow him to slip their grasp, they later reportedly lost the videotape of the yard and failed to collect fingerprints from the knife and crime scene. Though five officers were fired, none faced criminal penalties.

Marsbek’s conviction seemed to herald no larger change in handling such cases, nor in attitudes. A Kyrgyz legislator proposed building a monument to Burulai in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but another official questioned the project: “In my opinion, the responsibility for the murder is also shared by her parents because it wasn’t the first time she was abducted.” No statue was erected.

Though the sentence for bride abduction is now the same as that for other kinds of kidnapping, the criminal-justice system remains lax. An investigation conducted in 2021 by Kloop, a news site based in Bishkek, found that only 14 of the 233 abductions reported to Kyrgyz police in 2019 went to trial. The following year even fewer did so: 11 out of 210. Although the law now classifies bride kidnapping as an “exceptionally aggravated” criminal offence, which means cases must be pursued even if the parties reconcile, police and court officers often let victims change their statements, a lawyer told Kloop. That way, abduction complaints can be reclassified and dismissed.

“Without ala-kachuu, our girls will remain spinsters. They will become prostitutes”

Most ala-kachuu cases that do go to court end in fines or suspended sentences. The exception tends to be if a woman dies, in which case the news goes viral. This happened again in April 2021 when a 27-year-old was kidnapped on her way to work in the capital. A man had stalked her for months, and she had decided to move to Turkey to escape him: her ticket was for the following week. When she disappeared, police officers told her mother not to worry, that she’d soon be dancing at her daughter’s wedding. Instead, a shepherd found her in a car parked in a field outside the city, raped and strangled to death. Her abductor lay next to her; he had killed himself.

In a minibus terminal just outside Bishkek I tracked down Marsbek’s brother Zholdoshbek, whom Burulai’s father had called after she was abducted. A wiry man in his late 30s, he eventually agreed to talk to me in the canteen while waiting for his next fare. Marsbek was one of six children, five boys and one girl – the mirror image of Burulai’s family – all of whom married through ala-kachuu, Zholdoshbek told me. He assumed his father had abducted his mother as well. This was an old tradition, he said. “A girl and a boy meet, and he doesn’t abduct her like a sheep. They get to talk. Then, if they hit it off, he abducts her.” He added: “Sometimes, the girl doesn’t agree, but if her parents agree, she stays. Men rarely abduct complete strangers.”

The Kyrgyz language doesn’t have a word for “dating”. Zholdoshbek said he abducted his wife a decade earlier after a year of “talking”, a word that can mean anything from exchanging text messages to going to a party together or even having sex. Too much talking isn’t the norm in his community, he added: “Say, if my sister-in-law introduces me to you and I like you, that’s enough: I can take you.”

Before I left the canteen, I met Ainura, the receptionist who assigns drivers their rides. A short-haired spark plug of a woman in her 40s, she told me she was kidnapped at 18. “When I got married, I didn’t know my husband. The second time I met him was in bed.” Bride abduction is acceptable, Ainura had decided, because it worked out for her.

At a neighbouring table, several drivers snacked on pastries while listening to our conversation. “I abducted my wife too, and she doesn’t complain,” a tall, bald man chimed in. He hadn’t been keen to marry, he said, but his mother insisted and personally found a woman for him to kidnap.

“I did it too,” another driver interjected. “It’s all fine now. We have five children.” I asked why he didn’t simply ask his wife to marry him. He paused briefly: “I didn’t want to bother. You just go, kidnap her, and that’s it.”

A third driver complained that courting was a waste of time and money: you date a girl for five years, take her to restaurants, shower her with gifts and expensive holidays, and then she dumps you. Abducting is more practical. “Today’s girls – of your age – became more selfish,” the driver said, wagging his finger at me. “They live for themselves. After they give birth they don’t even need a man anymore.”

“Now that it’s been prohibited, how will our girls find husbands?” Ainura burst out. “Who will marry them? Without ala-kachuu, our girls will remain spinsters. They will become prostitutes.”

When I was ready to go, Zholdoshbek arranged for me to catch the next jitney back to the city. The driver was a man in his 20s who’d sat quietly by himself the whole time I was there. I followed him outside. “Now you will get abducted!” one of the other men called after me. He chuckled and waved goodbye.

Sitting in the front row of the bus, I noticed that my driver wore a wedding band. After a moment of hesitation, I asked whether he had kidnapped his wife. “Of course not,” he said calmly, keeping his eyes on the road. “I asked her to marry me. Abducting is savage.”

Sevindj Nurkiyazova is a freelance writer and film-maker who lives in Bishkek

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