For bravado, some Kyrgyz men still take pride in stealing women. Now, a new gaming app is trying to change such perceptions.
It’s a glitzy, comic book-like smartphone game designed for teenage girls in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan and is free for anyone to download. “Swallows: Spring in Bishkek”, which was released in late June, largely follows the story of a first-year university student who flirts with a handsome law student. She aspires to become an outspoken blogger and eventually wins an internship at a fashion magazine.
This young woman also crucially helps her friend who was abducted and forced into an unwanted, arranged marriage. The game is undoubtedly a trailblazing cyber effort to address the medieval custom of “bride kidnappings” that continues to plague the impoverished, politically unstable and increasingly authoritarian Central Asian nation of 6.5 million.
Some Kyrgyz men take pride in the traditions that once glorified raids on rival clans to steal cattle and women. Known as ala kachuu or ‘grab and run’, and suppressed in the Communist era, the custom of “bride kidnapping” is resurgent amid the rise of chauvinistic, male-dominated nationalism.
All a ‘bridegroom’ needs in order to obtain his “trophy wife”, is a couple of trusted friends to force the chosen woman into a getaway car and to then whisk her to his parents’ house. The parents talk the lady into covering her head with a white scarf, a symbol of marriage - all the while threatening her with curses, ostracism and ruined marriage prospects.
Ala kachuu is the reason for one in five Kyrgyz marriages, according to a United Nations-conducted survey, and officials estimate that up to 15,000 women are abducted annually. Some kidnappings are consensual elopements, but many more women never met the kidnappers or have already rejected historic proposals from the same man.
Once married, many women are forced by their husbands to disrupt university education, careers and romantic involvements with other men. They have to cope with violence, isolation from friends and family, as well as messy, conflicted relationships with their children.
“In such families, children don't receive enough love, because the mom wasn't loved, she can't love, can't pass love on to her children, can't be the right role model, can't teach how to value oneself,” Munara Beknazarova, who heads Open Line, an NGO in Bishkek that documents kidnappings and helps its victims, told TRT World. “She teaches them how to be obedient and tells them that hopelessness is normal.”
Beknazarova’s group developed and launched the app that has been downloaded more than 30,000 times within two weeks of its June 22 release – and prompted a squall of positive comments from users.
“I did not expect girls to write to us so much, our Instagram page is swollen” with comments, Maria Sereda, a rights advocate, told TRT World.
The information within the app is the most important part of the digital game, and players can receive extra points for reading and being quizzed on it. The developers made the information accessible and digestible enough so that it does not read like a boring pamphlet.
“We are surprised at how users like [the information], we were sure that they would have to swallow this part like a bitter pill,” the game’s co-founder Irina Leu told TRT World. “We were afraid that the social aspect will alienate them.”
Open Line says kidnapping victims are positive about the app.
"Let the game help women like me, let them understand it before their children are born," the group quotes as saying a 34 year-old woman who divorced her kidnapper husband and raises her two children alone.
Breaking the silence
A sheep thief gets up to 11 years in jail. A bride kidnapper, up to seven. Some still say it is too much.
“Harsher punishment for bride kidnapping may result in the incarceration of all men in Kyrgyzstan,” lawmaker Kojobek Ryspayev reportedly said in 2012, when parliament voted to increase the punishment for ala kachuu from three years in jail.
The biggest problem is that the majority of victims and their families prefer not to report these incidents to police fearing the rise of reputation-damaging gossip. Less than a hundred men received suspended sentences for ala kachuu, and only a handful went to jail – these punishments were handed out to individuals who badly injured their victims or forced them to commit suicide, according to official data.
In 2018, a man named Turdaaly Kojanaliyev decided against reporting the kidnapping of his 20 year-old daughter Burulay after she was released by her kidnapper. A month later, the kidnapper abducted her again and stabbed her to death with a dagger.
Burulay’s death sent shockwaves across Kyrgyzstan. The killer received a twenty year jail sentence, and his sidekick was given seven.
“This outrageous case shows that women in Kyrgyzstan are not protected by law,” said popular television personality, Assol Moldokmatova.
She organised a series of protest rallies and collected thousands of letters from the victims of ala kachuu. One of them described the horrors of living with an abductor.
"I spent 12 years of hell with my husband. I grew up in a city, and was kidnapped [to live] in a village. The mother-in-law humiliated me publicly. I have two children with broken mentality. Sometimes, I wanted to kill [my husband] at night. I divorced him, didn’t care about what others thought, and my parents still rebuke me. The husband beat me so badly that there isn’t a spot on my body without a scar.”
Jokes and attacks
The custom is so entrenched in the collective mentality that it has become a subject of jokes and adverts.
In late June, criticism forced a popular comedian to take down an online commercial in which a young woman calls a taxi for her kidnappers who can’t start their car.
A popular television series portrayed a woman who “provoked” her kidnapper by “flirting” with him – and then chose to stay with him. The series' female director rejected criticism claiming that “one or two out a hundred” kidnappings end happily.
“It's an ancient custom, and only now, with Western help, people began to see ala kachuu as something wild," Yrys Okenova told the Kloop magazine in 2019.
As Kyrgyz political elites mimic the Kremlin in denouncing “Western agents,” Western-funded groups that address ala kachuu face increasing pressure.
“That’s what I always hear: ‘The US State Department pays you to besmirch Kyrgyzstan, who are you to negatively portray Kyrgyzstan?’” artist and graphic designer Tatyana Zelenskaya, who developed the game’s visuals, told TRT World.