Kidnapping Custom Makes a Comeback in Georgia

In some rural parts of the Republic of Georgia, an old custom is experiencing a revival. Women are being kidnapped and held for a night by men who want to marry them, thereby making eventual nuptials a necessity, according to local traditions. Some families say they fear letting their daughters go out into public, lest they be "forced" into unwanted marriages. Activists are speaking out against the "tradition," but they concede it may be hard to change attitudes.

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In some of the more remote parts of the former Soviet Union, there's been a resurgence of bride kidnapping. The ancient custom is being practiced in Kyrgyzstan and in some parts of the Caucusus Mountains. Women's groups in former Soviet Georgia are trying to draw attention to the kidnappings and to use new laws to curb the practice.

NPR's Lawrence Sheets has this report from Georgia.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

In the remote mountain villages of the Javaheji(ph) region, the fall of communism led to a revival of the old ways, even in courtship. Lea(ph) Meidseradi(ph) had seen her husband-to-be Gia(ph) only once or twice, when he and some of his friends grabbed her off a village street, shoved her into a car and took her away to his relative's house.

Ms. LEA MEIDSERADI (Kidnapped Bride): (Through translator) I told him I loved another boy, but he told me, even if you had five kids I wouldn't leave you alone.

SHEETS: That time, Gia relented and he let Lea go. But Gia was persistent. He kidnapped Lea a total of four times, chasing her down a ravine in one case. Finally, Lea says, most people in her home village found out she'd been kidnapped and, thus, she had lost her honor.

Ms. MEIDSERADI: (Through translator) He kidnapped me so many times and everyone knew. I started to be afraid that people might say I wasn't a virgin. So I just gave up, even though I wanted to run away. My family told me, there's nothing you can do now. You must marry him, otherwise you'll shame your brothers.

SHEETS: After village elders celebrated by slaughtering a pig, Lea and Gia were married. She said she cried through the entire ceremony. Most so-called bride kidnappings -- called Motsatseva(ph) in Georgian -- are actually part of elaborate local courtship rights. Brides often give their consents to the so-called kidnappings as a way around parental opposition to the marriages. But locals estimate 20 percent or so are real kidnappings, done against the wishes of the would-be bride.

Taquiv Aranan(ph) is a civic activist in the Javaheji region.

Ms. TAQUIV ARANAN (Civic Activist, Javaheji Region): (Through translator) According to our mentality, after that kidnapping, even if she doesn't want the guy, she's forced to marry him. And they live without love. The woman becomes a slave and in these families there are many fights and beatings.

SHEETS: Taquiv Aranan says that in Soviet times, bride kidnappings were very rare. But over the past decade there's been a big increase. She attributes the rise to post-Soviet poverty and the lack of ways for young people to interact in this highly conservative mountain region.

Ms. ARANAN: (Through translator) When I was growing up in the Soviet period, there was a theater, places to meet, a youth club. Now there is nothing. We have to create new places where young people can meet.

SHEETS: Until three years ago, kidnapping a woman for marriage was considered only a relatively minor infraction under Georgian law. It even fell under a separate statute. That law was scrapped and bride snatchers now theoretically face 15 years in prison, as any kidnapper would.

Fifty mile away lies the predominantly ethnic Armenian town of Ahakalagi(ph), tucked under 10,000-foot high mountain peaks. Bride kidnapping is rarely discussed here, but a group of women is meeting to talk about the problem. Some of them are openly talking about it for the first time.

Lawyer Anita Hoganisian(ph) encourages bride kidnapping victims to press criminal charges. But she says almost no young women do because of pressure from their families in this closely knit society to keep quiet.

Ms. ONITA HOGANISIAN (Attorney): (Through translator) There are very many cases where the authorities blame this on our traditions. Young women have no social protection in our society and their families don't understand the problem. They see their daughters as having been shamed.

SHEETS: Hoganisian says only five legal cases were opened in this region over the past year, though she believes the real numbers of bride kidnappings to be many times higher. And four of those five cases were dropped after the young women victims refused to cooperate. Hoganisian represented the only young woman who took her case all the way to a judge.

Ms. HOGANISIAN: (Through translator) This girl was kidnapped by a distant relative, held for 48 hours and raped. But the guy was only given a suspended sentence because the girl's family evidently put pressure on the girl not to demand that he be punished.

SHEETS: Hoganisian says the young girl now has been shamed into isolation. She refuses to even come out of her parents' house.

(Soundbite of chatter)

SHEETS: And although this women's forum is discussing ways to raise social awareness about bride kidnapping, not all in the room agree that the custom can be stopped.

Ana Naktaktian(ph) is a 62-year-old former accountant.

Ms. ANA NAKTAKTIAN (Former Accountant): (Through translator) It's a bad thing that this happens, but this has been going on for hundreds of years. There's nothing anyone can do about it. These are our traditions.

SHEETS: Lea Meidseradi agrees with that. She's now been with her husband Gia for 15 years, since she was bride kidnapped. Lea says she hated her husband at first, but that things worked out fine in the end.

Ms. MEIDSERADI: (Through translator) I got used to it. He's a very good husband and I quickly came to love him. Gia fought for his love. The main thing is for a boy to love you. The woman will love him later.

SHEETS: Lea and Gia now have three children. Lea says she hopes her now 12-year-old daughter will get married by mutual consent one day. But Lea, an Orthodox Christian who now teaches religion in a public school here, says that if her daughter is bride kidnapped, so be it. It will be the will of God, she says.

Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Georgia.

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