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. (more…)