Abduction, Often Violent, a Kyrgyz Wedding Rite

Published: April 30, 2005

ISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - When Ainur Tairova realized she was on her way to her
wedding, she started choking the driver.
Her marriage was intended to be to a man she had met only the day before,
and briefly at that. Several of his friends had duped her into getting into
a car; they picked up the would-be groom and then headed for his home.

Once there, she knew, her chances of leaving before nightfall would be slim,
and by daybreak, according to local custom, she would have to submit to
being his wife or leave as a tainted woman.
"I told him I didn't want to date anyone," said Ms. Tairova, 28. "So he
decided to kidnap me the next day."
Such abductions are common here. More than half of Kyrgyzstan's married
women were snatched from the street by their husbands in a custom known as
"ala kachuu," which translates roughly as "grab and run." In its most benign
form, it is a kind of elopement, in which a man whisks away a willing
girlfriend. But often it is something more violent.
Recent surveys suggest that the rate of abductions has steadily grown in the
last 50 years and that at least a third of Kyrgyzstan's brides are now taken
against their will.
The custom predates the arrival of Islam in the 12th century and appears to
have its roots in the region's once-marauding tribes, which periodically
stole horses and women from rivals when supplies ran low. It is practiced in
varying degrees across Central Asia but is most prevalent here in
Kyrgyzstan, a poor, mountainous land that for decades was a backwater of the
Soviet Union and has recently undergone political turmoil in which mass
protests forced the president to resign.
Kyrgyz men say they snatch women because it is easier than courtship and
cheaper than paying the standard "bride price," which can be as much as $800
plus a cow.
Family or friends often press a reluctant groom, lubricated with vodka and
beer, into carrying out an abduction.
A 2004 documentary by the Canadian filmmaker Petr Lom records a Kyrgyz
family - men and women - discussing a planned abduction as if they were
preparing to snatch an unruly mare. The film follows the men of the family
as they wander through town hunting for the girl they had planned to kidnap.
When they do not find her, they grab one they meet by chance.
Talant Bakchiev, 34, a graduate student at the university in Bishkek, the
capital, said he helped kidnap a bride for his brother not long ago. "Men
steal women to show that they are men," he said, revealing a row of
gold-capped teeth with his smile.
Once a woman has been taken to a man's home, her future in-laws try to calm
her down and get a white wedding shawl onto her head. The shawl, called a
jooluk, is a symbol of her submission. Many women fight fiercely, but about
80 percent of those kidnapped eventually relent, often at the urging of
their own parents.
The practice has technically been illegal for years, first under the Soviet
and more recently under the 1994 Kyrgyz criminal code, but the law
rarely has been enforced.
"Most people don't know it's illegal," said Russell Kleinbach, a sociology
professor at American University in Bishkek whose studies of the practice
have helped spur a national debate.
The few prosecutions that do occur are usually for assault or rape, not for
the abductions themselves. There are no national statistics on how many
kidnappings go awry, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest
that some end in tragedy.
Four days after the sister of one of Mr. Kleinbach's students was kidnapped
a few years ago, her body was found in a river. The family that abducted her
was never charged with murder.
In Mr. Lom's film, a family mourns a daughter who hanged herself after being
kidnapped; they too were unsuccessful in bringing the abductors to trial.
Families use force to keep the women from leaving or threaten them with
curses that still have a powerful impact in this deeply superstitious land.
Once a girl has been kept in the home overnight, her fate is all but sealed:
with her virginity suspect and her name disgraced, she will find it
difficult to attract any other husband.
Brutal as the custom is, it is widely perceived as practical. "Every good
marriage begins in tears," a Kyrgyz saying goes.
In Kyzyl-Tuu, a village not far from the capital, even the head man, Samar
Bek, kidnapped his wife, Gypara, after she rejected his marriage proposals
16 years ago. She was a 20-year-old university student in Bishkek at the
time and he, nine years older, was under family pressure to find a bride.
Once at his family's home, she resisted for hours.
"I stayed because I was scared, not because I liked him," Gypara said as the
couple's four children played around her. Her husband said he would not
object if one of his daughters were kidnapped.
"If the feelings of the man are stronger than the feelings of my daughter,
I'll let him take her," he said. "Love comes and goes."
The threat of abduction begins to haunt women once they reach their teenage
years. Some women attending universities wear wedding bands or head scarves
to fool men into thinking they are already married.
For Ms. Tairova, the anxiety began on the eve of her high school graduation
when a friend confided to her that a man named Elim, eight years her senior,
planned to kidnap her at the ceremony the next day. She attended the
graduation but was terrified, unsure of whom she could trust. The would-be
abductor never materialized.
"I think this happens to all young women when they turn 16," Ms. Tairova
said, sitting in an empty room of the American University, where she now
She enrolled in the university in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad but
soon learned that another family from her village was considering her as a
bride for their son. Strangers began asking people at her school what she
looked like.
Then one evening there was a knock at the door of the apartment she shared
with her sister. Outside were 10 men, including the would-be husband. For
six hours, Ms. Tairova refused to step outside her apartment. Finally the
men gave up and went away.
Ms. Tairova went back to live with her parents and began working as a
bookkeeper in a tobacco plant. One day a man came in and introduced himself.
They spoke for about 20 minutes, but Ms. Tairova told him she was not
interested in seeing him again.
The next day she was kidnapped. She was waiting with two friends for the
company bus to take them home when a car pulled up. The two men inside
offered all three women a ride. One of her friends knew the men, so they
agreed. But when the driver took a detour, she became worried. When he
stopped to pick up the man from the day before, she started to scream.
She grabbed the driver's neck and began to choke him, but the second man
pulled her hands away. Desperate, knowing her only chance was to stop them
before they reached her abductor's house, she blurted out in Russian that
she "was not a girl anymore," a euphemism meaning she was no longer a
virgin. It was a lie, but it worked.
The driver pulled over and the men got out to discuss what she had said.
They climbed back in, silent, and the driver made a U-turn to return the
women back to their village.
Ms. Tairova said her life in the village changed after that. Men showed no
interest in her. People at the factory openly mocked her. Her father, angry
that she had told such a damning lie but worried for her safety, escorted
her to and from the bus stop each day.
Finally her friends introduced her to a suitor willing to overlook her
questionable past. She told him right away that she did not want to be
abducted; he promised that he would not. After several months of dating, he
asked her to marry him. She demurred.
Then, one balmy September evening, she again found herself in a car filled
with men, ostensibly on their way to a restaurant to meet other friends. But
the car drove into the countryside and soon arrived at the farmhouse of her
suitor's parents.
By then Ms. Tairova was hysterical. The men dragged her from the car and
carried her kicking into the house. She swore at her future mother-in-law.
She ducked and struggled when the women tried to put the jooluk on her head.
Close to midnight, she broke free and ran outside into the darkness, but the
men caught her.
Back in the house, Ms. Tairova refused to eat, drink or sleep as the night
wore on. The next day her parents arrived and urged her to consent.
"I was angry and I felt betrayed," Ms. Tairova said, adding that she had
cried the whole day.
But as with many Kyrgyz women, she eventually accepted her fate. She since
has reconciled with her in-laws and says she is happy with her husband now.
"He says he had to kidnap me because he heard someone else was trying to
kidnap me first," she said. "He's a good man."


Muslim Converts Face Discrimination

Published: April 30, 2005

Richard Patterson for The New York Times
Khalid Hakim, a Muslim, refused to take off his kufi for an identification


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Immigrants Wary of Complaining of Bias, Advocates Say (April 30, 2005)

1.Op-Ed Columnist: 'What, Me Worry?'
2.Op-Ed Columnist: A Private Obsession
3.Abduction, Often Violent, a Kyrgyz Wedding Rite
4.Rock, Paper, Payoff: Child's Play Wins Auction House an Art Sale
5.Op-Ed Columnist: Swindler on a Gusher
Go to Complete List

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
From left: Gladys Muchammad, Stephanie Lewis and Malikah Alkebulan are suing
the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over an order to remove their head
scarves. They were given different assignments.

n the wake of 9/11, Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Egypt and other
countries have found themselves living in a newly suspicious America. Many
of their businesses and mosques have been closely monitored by federal
agents, thousands of men have been deported and some have simply been swept
away - "rendered" in the language of the C.I.A. - to be interrogated or
jailed overseas.
But Muslim immigrants are not alone in experiencing the change. It is now
touching the lives of some American converts: men and women raised in this
country, whose only tie to the Middle East or Southeast Asia is one of
faith. Khalid Hakim, born Charles Karolik in Milwaukee, could not renew the
document required to work as a merchant mariner because he refused to remove
his kufi, a round knitted cap, for an identity photograph last year. Yet for
nearly three decades Mr. Hakim's cap had posed no problem with the same New
York City
office of the Coast Guard.
In Brooklyn, Dierdre Small and Stephanie Lewis drove New York City Transit
buses for years wearing their hijabs, or head scarves, with no protest from
supervisors. After 9/11 the women were ordered to remove the religious
garments. They refused, and were transferred, along with two other Muslim
converts, out of the public eye - to jobs vacuuming, cleaning and parking
buses, said the women, who are suing the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority and New York City Transit.
"I'm a U.S. citizen and I'm supposed to be protected," Ms. Lewis, 55, said
with tears in her eyes. "On 9/11 I was scheduled to take policemen to that
site. I felt compassion like everyone else. And now you're singling me out
because I'm a Muslim?" New York City Transit officials said they would not
comment because the case is in litigation.
Regardless of how their cases play out legally, Mr. Hakim, Ms. Lewis and
other converts have come to view America after 9/11 through a singular lens.
An estimated 25 percent of American Muslims are converts. Some came of age
as Americans first and discovered Islam as adults. In the years since 9/11,
many have faced a contest of loyalties they never imagined: between their
nation and their faith.
They have watched events up close and from afar - the raids of mosques, the
deportation of Muslim immigrants, the incendiary language from abroad and
the threats made against their American homeland - with a special, if
complicated brand of anger and loyalty, affection and worry.
Straddling two worlds came naturally to Ms. Small, who grew up in East
with a Christian mother and a Muslim father. But she spent more
time in mosques than in churches.
It was the daily expression of Islam and its emphasis on the "oneness of
God" that won her heart to the religion, said Ms. Small: the five daily
prayers, the way sentences are capped with words like inshallah, which means
"God willing."
At 12 she became one of the few girls in her neighborhood to wear a hijab.
If this called for bravery, Ms. Small shrugs it off. She has worn the scarf
ever since, growing used to the occasional stare that multiplied after 9/11.
If anything, she is drawn to daring.
"I always wanted to drive a bus because it's big, it's huge," Ms. Small, 36,
said as she picked through a fried shrimp sandwich on a recent lunch break.
"My own personal conquest, I guess."
Ms. Small joined the transit authority in 1998, at 30, after her fourth
child was born. She was assigned the B44 route, a loop of two and a half
hours from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay and back. "What really got me the
most was when you're sitting in that seat, how far you can see - how many
blocks," she said. "It was like a sea of vehicles."
From the beginning, Ms. Small wore a navy blue hijab to match her uniform.
No one objected, she said, until after 9/11. The first trouble came with a
more recent hire, Malikah Alkebulan, who said she was asked to wear a
transit authority cap over her scarf after starting work in March 2002.
By chance, Ms. Alkebulan stepped onto Ms. Small's bus one day that summer.
They began talking, and Ms. Alkebulan told Ms. Small about the order,
explaining that she was scared to disobey it because she was still on
"I said, 'Let them mess with me because I've been here, and I'm willing to
fight,' " Ms. Small said.
By the early fall, all three women had been transferred from their passenger
routes to jobs parking and cleaning buses. Ms. Small now spends her days
waiting for buses to pull up inside a drafty, cavernous depot in Flatbush,
near where she grew up. She parks the buses and vacuums them, clearing them
of coins. On good days, she drives empty buses to other locations, taking in
the view with a new longing. She always makes sure to be in uniform. That
way, she says, people don't think "a Muslim woman stole a bus."
Equal to her frustration, however, is a deep and very American conviction:
that justice will be served in court, she said.
Decades ago, when Khalid Hakim was still Charles Karolik, the only faith he
knew was Catholicism. Every Sunday, Mr. Hakim dutifully attended Mass in
Milwaukee with his parents and two sisters. He sang in the choir and served
as an altar boy.
While in grade school, he came upon Shackleton's "Valiant Voyage," the true
tale of an expedition to the South Pole. "That was the seed," Mr. Hakim, 57,
The book did two things: it drew Mr. Hakim into a lifetime of seafaring,
and, with that newfound love, severed him from the Catholic Church.
Mr. Hakim's first job was to wipe down the engine room of an iron ore
carrier that traveled the Great Lakes. But he wanted to be at sea, so a year
later, in 1974, he headed to the harbor in New York City and began a nearly
30-year career riding oil barges, eventually as a captain, from the Maine
coast to Norfolk, Va.
By the early 1970's, he had met Dianuthra El Is'vara, a Trinidadian Muslim,
who told him to read the Koran. On his first reading, he found the Islamic
holy book "boring," he said. But after another try, he said, "I knew that
this was filling the empty space that I had inside, the spiritual longing."
Ms. El Is'vara instructed Mr. Hakim to wear a kufi at a Brooklyn mosque in
February 1975, when he was officially converted by reciting the Shahadah,
the declaration of faith in Islam. The cap reminded Mr. Hakim of cartoonish
characters from his childhood who wore beanies with propellers, he said.
But after the ceremony, he said he never removed the kufi again, except to
sleep. At first, the men on the barge teased him, almost coming "to blows"
with him a few times, said Mr. Hakim, who changed his name in 1978.
"He prayed on the barge," said Charles Chillemi, president of Mr. Hakim's
union, Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, who worked
with him in the early 1980's. "He's religious to a fault."
Mr. Hakim eventually married Ms. El Is'vara, and while he continued to work
out of New York Harbor, they bought a house on Nevis Island in the
Caribbean. She died in 1993; he remarried and now lives there permanently
with his wife, Francine, and two young sons.
Before 9/11 Mr. Hakim never had trouble explaining the round, knitted cap to
Coast Guard officials. But when he went to renew his merchant mariner's
document that served as a license last year, Coast Guard officials in New
York City
pointed to a federal code requiring applicants to be photographed
with their heads "uncovered." The code has been in effect since at least
"That law is hard and fast," said Lt. Commander Paul E. Gerecke, chief of
the Coast Guard's regional examination center. "It applies to everybody, and
we enforce it uniformly. Whether you are wearing a kufi or a Mets' cap
you've got to take your headdress off to have your photo taken."
Mr. Hakim refused to remove the kufi and was denied the document: a year
later, he is out of work, despite attempts by Mr. Hakim's union and Senator
Charles E. Schumer to question the decision. He is looking for a lawyer to
take his case, he said. "I love my country," Mr. Hakim said. "He's asking me
to choose between my country and my God. I can't do that."