Madina, the one Kazakh among the three wonderful interpreters who worked for me during my Peace Corps adventure, was my mainstay in Zhezkazgan. Her devotion to my partner and I allowed us to do what we were sent to this oblast (region) to do, to assemble a small business assistance center. We wanted to express our devotion to her as well, but in the one area that might ruin her future, we could not help.
She was of dating age, maybe late teens or early twenties, interested in men, and cute–in the petite, dark-eyed way of women of her culture. Madina told me her parents hoped she would marry someone they approved, but it was not in their tradition to arrange her marriage.
We were in the tiny room that housed all the assets of our Center when she shared what must have seldom left her mind. When she began to talk, the pain in her voice drove me to look up so quickly from our brand new computer that I almost dislodged it from its perch on our homemade desk of boards and crates.
“Djoic, I am afraid to go to parties where Kazakh men may be present. I don’t dare make eye contact with Kazakh guys my age. Once in a while, one asks to give me a ride home from a party. I never say yes, even when I want to, and even if he is a friend from my school.”
I knew Madina well enough by now to know she did not go to wild parties. And I knew enough of Kazakh values from living with Saulye and from working with the region’s chief cardiologist’s staff to know their stand on premarital sex. 21st century Kazakhstanis and early 20th century Americans held similar beliefs. “Madina, American women are careful, too, about riding with strangers, but if you know the man well, why would you be afraid?”
“Kazakh men often kidnap women to become their brides. It is our tradition.”
“What in the world do you mean by that?” I couldn’t comprehend that intelligent, free-born women could be forced into a marriage. “You live in a civilized country. And this is 1993. How could this be?”
“It has happened to some of my friends, Djoic. One was kidnapped last month when she left a party. A Kazakh man she had just met offered her a ride home. Because he was known to some of her friends, she accepted. Instead of taking the direct route to her parents’ house, the driver set off in another direction. The car pulled up at his parents’ home, not hers. My friend told me later that as soon as she realized what was happening, she screamed and fought him. But it was too late.”
“How could it be too late? Surely his parents would help her! Or at least she could have called her parents to come and get her. Why didn’t she?”
“You don’t understand our traditions. Stealing a bride is how Kazakh men prove they are strong and brave. They see it as a way to earn respect. And their mothers approve. Very few homes have automatic wash machines or vacuum cleaners, so another pair of hands is welcomed.”
Madina had to be mistaken about the mothers. “No mother in her right mind could approve of kidnapping as the means to gain a daughter-in-law.” I was almost shouting at Madina, and I didn’t stop there. “This is violence against women and it’s illegal! No American mother would tolerate it!”
By this time Madina was close to tears, but she looked me in the eyes and spoke in a very calm voice. “I will tell you a story, Djoic, that may help you understand. Most of our men are not bad.
“My little brother and his friend were playing with their carved horses when the boy called the horse Madina. I asked why he gave a horse my name. He said with a very serious face, ‘I break my horse like my papa said me do. I must know this for when I get big and take you my wife. Wife and horse want no rein. But both must know who is master. When horse knows, like wife, no more whip. Be happy to obey. I want you be my happy wife.’ My brother laughed so hard he couldn’t talk, even when he tried to repeat the story at supper. I didn’t think it was at all funny because I feared the boy would still think that way when he became a man.”
“Oh, my God, I think I’d commit suicide if this kind of relationship was my fate. Madina, would you ever quit fighting a husband who had forced himself on you? Why, it would be worse than rape because it would go on forever. How could a woman ever be happy with such a man?”
“I would try to run away if my parents could help me leave Kazakhstan…maybe for your country. If I escaped and stayed here, my family would be disgraced and no man would want me. That’s why many of my friends don’t fight it. Eventually, some get a divorce, but most accept it as the fate of one born Kazakh.”
When Madina left the office, taken home by her father that day, I thought of her reference to the Kazkah heritage. Why would such a crude practice be handed down from generation to generation? I immediately thought of Genghis Khan, the great Mongol emperor, whose tactics for occupying much of Central Asia and China included massacring whole populations. Since he was hardly ever mentioned by the Kazakhs I met, my mind turned to Kokpar, a rugby-time game played on horseback with the ball a headless body of a goat. When I saw men hurling a goat across the goal-line of the other team, kicking and bashing to get through herds of horseback riders, I was repelled and named it savage.
Another horseback game, but one I didn’t see, was Kyz-Kuu, a nomadic version of spin the bottle. In this game, the men get to play act their ancestors’ tradition of stealing another nomadic party’s women. Men gallop after a female rider to steal kisses without slowing their horses. But any man so unlucky as to miss feels the female’s whip instead of her mouth all the way back to the starting line.
These games for men and the reality game of stealing brides seemed to illustrate a giant hurdle for Kazakh men to cross to reach the refined women I had met. How could a relationship of such unequal partners thrive? Yet, I suspect that more last than the marriages made in heaven of Western culture.
It is their heritage, derived from the necessities of the nomadic lifestyle of sheepherders. Moving from pasture to pasture to keep their sheep fed, living in yurts, staying alive through harsh winters demanded a course lifestyle. Nothing they encountered was refined.
What could I do to protect Madina from being stolen? Nothing. Only when the little boys are taught that taking a wife is not tantamount to breaking a horse will stealing brides cease. Then it will be a story about history instead of heritage.