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6 September 2023

Kazakhstan’s Battle Against Bride Kidnapping and Gender Inequality

Bride kidnapping cases are growing in Central Asia, and Kazakhstan is no exception. Part of the society in rural areas explains that it’s part of the Kazakh tradition “Qyz Alyp Qashu,” while experts are looking into ways to toughen the penalty for the crime. 

Kazakhstan’s Battle Against Bride Kidnapping and Gender Inequality

Image: MikeDotta/Shutterstock

Women’s rights in Kazakhstan remain at a critical level. Whether domestic violence, sexual abuse, or bride kidnapping—women in the biggest country in Central Asia are never safe. Due to allegedly being connected to the nomadic traditions of the past, the practice of the latter is justified by the conservative part of Kazakhstan’s society as a way to honour the memory of their ancestors. Yet, as a constitutional state, Kazakhstan and its laws make it clear—bride kidnapping is a criminal offence in Kazakhstan today. 

Recently, the addition of Article 125-1, “Abduction of a person for the purpose of marriage,” to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan was a milestone for women’s rights in the country. Prior to this, bride kidnapping was only included in Article 125, “Abduction,” which made it hard to determine an accurate number of bride kidnappings as opposed to abductions for other purposes. Another flaw of bride kidnapping under Article 125 was the exemption from criminal liability in the event of the voluntary release of the victim by the abductor. However, besides the flaws in the law, it is the social consensus regarding this issue that is the most shocking. As stated previously, in conservative rural areas of the country, where these cases usually happen, the practice is not only perceived as permissible, but even the return of a victim to her parents' house after being released by her abductor is considered shameful. 

Shame and Modesty

In Kazakhstan, shame plays a significant role in the everyday lives of women. From a young age, a girl is told which actions are allowed, and which will bring shame to her family. The cage of the social disapproval and stigma on a woman’s role in patriarchal families is so standard that for many girls, being abducted is a will of fate that they must accept in order to not bring shame on their families. 

The videos of abducted girls crying after being brought to their abductor’s family are even more concerning as we see that it is the female family members who “calm down” the victim by telling her there is nothing she can do now but stay and be married to her kidnapper. The relatives usually are in high spirits, ready to “tie the knot” between the abductor and the victim.

Tradition Gone Wrong 

The tradition of kidnapping brides in Kazakhstan (Qyz Alyp Qashu) was never about kidnapping a woman without her permission or agreement, says Kazakh author Kanat Tasibekov. He explains that the name of the tradition itself is the answer—as in Kazakh Qyz Alyp Qashu means “to run away with a girl” and not “to kidnap a girl.” It was traditionally done when two people who were in love couldn’t get their parents’ permission to get married, so they would run away together. From a modern perspective, this was two people’s way to “elope.” Yet today, the origins of this tradition and its purpose were eradicated by violent patriarchal misinterpretation, and the difference between consensual and non-consensual marriage is being obliterated. The rise in abductors kidnapping random girls on the streets of different cities in Kazakhstan demonstrates a lack of understanding that the Kazakh tradition of Qyz Alyp Qashu and today’s cases of bride kidnapping are not interchangeable. 

New Bride Kidnapping Law

Experts believe that introducing an additional article on bride kidnapping will help “demotivate the kidnappers” by making them aware of the consequences. The topic of a special law against bride kidnapping in Kazakhstan has prevailed in the media space for a while now. However, with the Commissioner for Human Rights’ latest proposal to introduce article 125-1 with the support of the Prosecutor General’s Office, bride kidnapping penalties seem to toughen after all. The Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed concerns over the situation and explained that victims don’t report the cases due to the “existing gender stereotypes” as well as a lack of awareness among the young people of “the criminal liability for kidnapping a girl.” It is hard to predict whether an additional article in the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan is going to change matters. However, one thing is for certain, Kazakh authorities must focus on eradicating the return to “traditional gender roles” in the age when the rest of the world is striving for gender equality.