Sitting on a wool blanket outside a yurt in May, high in the mountain pastures of Kyrgyzstan, I hugged my body for warmth as women trickled into our circle from all directions.
My interpreter, Zina, and I chatted about the history of this village, Alai, as we waited for the women to come from their homes. We were interviewing women about the new land legislation and whether they received land from the State after the fall of the Soviet Union.
I tried to sear the view of the dark blue and purple mountains covered in cloud mist into my brain as we talked. We were surrounded by mountains and streams and horses and sparse grass—a difficult place to survive, but a magnificent place to live. The cool damp air was welcome after the hot sun of the Fergana Valley, where we had been interviewing women for the last week.
Alai was known for its strong women because one of their own, Kurban-Jan-Datka, a celebrated female warrior, tried to keep the Russian conquerors out by tumbling rocks onto their heads as they marched up the mountain in 1876. The Russians were not deterred by the rocks, but Kyrgyz heroes only have to be brave and clever, not triumphant.
Occasionally Zina would call out a direction to someone in Kyrgyz: “Bring a chair for the agi,” (old woman) or, “Get an extra blanket.” Zina was in her forties like me, short and stocky with a round warm face and eyes that were nearly hidden by her cheeks when she smiled. Used to taking care of foreigners, she was equal parts mother and drill sergeant.
Once or twice someone brought an extra blanket, and the circle expanded and re-shaped so more women could sit. I relaxed as I listened to the women talk to each other and arrange themselves. I am at home among rural Kyrgyz women; their gifts of felt and embroidery hang on my walls in Seattle. Sometimes I take a moment to bury my face in one of them to again smell these pastures—damp wool, and sheep, burning dried manure, and wood smoke from the samovars.
There were two other Kyrgyz researchers with Zina and me. Once we explained who we were and what we were doing, we intended to break into smaller groups. Anara, the lead Kyrgyz social scientist—the best in Kyrgyzstan–would take a group of young women away to another area and interview them. Girls would not talk in front of their elders, especially if they were in the same group as their mothers-in-laws. Anara was in her early forties, pretty, but thin and stern, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. Even in urban clothes, Zina looked as though she belonged with the shepherd women in their long colorful dresses and pants tucked into worn leather boots. Anara looked like an outsider–a researcher.
Nearly forgotten by Zina and Anara much of the time, the other Kyrgyz member of our team, Chinara, was a young lawyer whom I had been working with on Kyrgyz land legislation for the past year. I insisted that Chinara come along on this fieldwork because, like most young lawyers in the capital, Bishkek, she believed that once a law was passed, it would be followed. Law was, in her mind, the answer to all social ills. I wanted Chinara to be able to ask women about these laws we had worked so hard to pass so she might see the laws’ limitations and not be so willing to stop at the initial–and usually ineffective–first step of passing the law. Chinara was from a northern tribe and had never been to southern Kyrgyzstan. She dressed as though she were still in the office in Bishkek: skirt, pantyhose, and heels. Her youth and her outfit made her virtually invisible to Zina and Anara—they called her an “arrogant little fool.”
When the women from the village had settled, and it seemed that no others were coming, I started with a simple question. “Do any of you own land?”
“Ova,” some older women said, and others nodded. Yes.
“What do you grow on your land?”
“Potatoes,” one woman said. “Hay,” another answered. “Sheep,” said a woman in the back, and everyone laughed.
A young girl brought us tea and “salt,” which means bread and hand-churned butter, a traditional Kyrgyz welcome. The bread was round, about two inches thick and crusty from being baked on the side of a clay oven fueled by the dried manure that was stacked under the eaves of the animal shed. The butter was whipped cream with salt. A few older women took the circles of bread, broke them into hand-sized pieces, and spread them around the blanket. I was served my ripped piece of bread first, a sign of respect. Among the Kyrgyz–traditional nomads–travelers and outsiders receive the highest honors: the sheep’s head and the first piece of bread. Age and gender are the next consideration; an older, male foreigner is usually offered the sheep’s eyes, ranking high above all others. As a foreign female woman of middle-age in a circle made up of women only, I would be first in all ceremonies, followed by Zina, then Anara, and then the older women from Alai. Chinara would be lumped into the category of young women–the servers, not the served.
My questions became more personal as we continued to talk. Were any of them divorced or widowed? Had any of their husbands taken a second wife? How did these family changes affect their rights to the land? They talked easily about their lives, teasing each other and daring one another to answer my personal questions about dowry, alcoholism, and poverty.
“Do you want to go to college or get married?” Anara asked one girl in Kyrgyz, pointing to her with her head.
The girl looked down and said nothing.
“Are you already married?” she continued.
The girl still looked down and shook her head no.
“You have to stand up for yourself. Do you let your husbands beat you?” she asked of the whole group.
There were a few women who shook their heads, but no one spoke.
“If your husband beats you, you have to go to the police,” she continued. I was growing uncomfortable because lecturing women was not part of the research protocol.
“Anara,” I said quietly, “let’s break into groups.”
Anara took a group of young unmarried girls with her, and they left us to move to the other side of the common area so that neither group could hear the other. I told Chinara to stay with me because I wanted her to ask some questions of the group. I encouraged the women who were left with me to take their turn and ask me any questions they wanted. I believe this is an important part of the process because it lessens the researcher-subject dynamic, and because I know I am as much a curiosity to them as they are to me. They were anxious to ask about my age, my husband, my children, and how much money I make. My age (40) surprised them; they insisted I was much younger. As usual with any group of Kyrgyz women, they asked how much money I make—the question is not considered rude. Although I hesitated to say because I know it is an unimaginable sum to them, I opted for understatement instead of refusal to answer. Still, they clicked their tongues at the amount, thinking about what they would do with that kind of wealth.
“Were you stolen?” one young, married girl asked.
“No.” I shook my head, slightly amused. “That’s not our custom.” Bridestealing, also called bride kidnapping, is practiced by the traditional nomads of Central Asia. While the custom was hidden during the time of Soviet rule, it has resurged in the last twenty years and is now common again in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, although against the law. A young man and his friends kidnap a young girl from her home or workplace and take her to his mother’s house. There, the mother of the young man tries to put a scarf on the head of the kidnapped girl. The girl can resist but is pressured not to by her future mother-in-law, who tells her she will break all social norms by “crossing” an older woman. Other women in the boy’s family usually join in the pressuring as well. Once the scarf is on the girl’s head, she is considered married, and her wedding night ensues, ending with the bloodied sheet hung outdoors for the village to see.
“How did you meet your husband then?” the young woman asked.
“We met at law school.”
The girls nodded their heads in approval. My life was easy, and this delighted them.
“Do you want to see pictures of my children?” I asked, pulling out the photos I carry. They all moved in closer.
I showed them my young daughter, my older son, my husband, and my white standard poodle.
“Even your dog is beautiful,” one woman said wistfully.
As we walked to the van to leave, Anara complained that the girls she interviewed acted like sheep, not giving their opinion on anything.
“It’s not right for them to talk,” Chinara said quietly. “Besides what would they have an opinion about?”
Anara looked at her with scorn.
Toward the end of our two weeks of research, we interviewed teenage girls in a very remote part of the country where the Aga Khan, the hereditary spiritual leader of Ismali Muslims, had built a college. The hall outside the classroom smelled so strongly of urine that I had to cover my mouth and nose as I made my way to the interview. The old battered hand-written sign on the front door of the building said, quite unnecessarily, “Broken Toilet.” We slipped into a room where twenty girls sat in a circle on small folding chairs. The wooden floor was filthy; the walls were painted light blue but covered in a layer of dust. Still the girls wore mini skirts and blouses and tight jeans and strappy shoes. We talked of being girls and women and what they wanted to be when they grew up. They all had plans—scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers. I wondered, but didn’t ask, how they could be so clean and beautiful and have only an outhouse and ditch water for their toiletry. Did they wear those shoes to the outhouse?
Toward the end of the interview, I asked, “How many of you want to be stolen?”
Giggles and head shaking. No one raised her hand.
“How many of you would stay with the man who stole you?”
They all raised their hands. All of them.
“It would be a shame not to,” several of the girls said at once.
In this case, “a shame” means shameful. But it doesn’t describe a feeling; it describes an ever-present force. Shame must be avoided at all cost and is the energy behind so many traditions: shame on the individual, shame on her family, shame on her ancestors. It would be a shame not to slaughter a sheep for a funeral, even if it were your last sheep. It would be a shame not to make a sherdak rug for your daughter’s dowry. It would be a shame never to marry. It would be a shame not to provide your guests with tea and bread and salt.
“We don’t want to be stolen,” one girl said, “but time will show us our way.” Everyone nodded.
The university was the last stop before returning to Bishkek. On the way back to the city, I asked the Kyrgyz women how they met their husbands.
Anara immediately responded, “At the university.”
Zina was not married.
“I was stolen,” Chinara said. She smiled, then shrugged.
An overwhelming sadness welled up inside me as Chinara told us her story. She had been a gymnast and had to stop her training immediately. She did not like her husband when he stole her; she knew him and did not want to marry him. But they were still married, eight years later, and had three children. The idea of bridestealing had always bothered me—yet, at the same time I found it appealing–something I had not admitted to myself until that moment. I was so interested in its otherness, its origins, the romanticism of being whisked away by someone who had chosen you from afar.
What would it feel like to be Chinara and participate in these interviews, with rural women, and then discuss the answers with us? But she hadn’t really discussed anything with us, I realized. She had remained silent except for one or two comments, immediately shot down by Anara.
Zina said something to her tenderly, in Russian. But Anara, exasperated and impatient, lectured Chinara that she didn’t have to stay married to him, as if Chinara could or would leave her husband after eight years and three children.
“Anara znait vso,” Chinara whispered to me angrily when we finally got out of the van for a break. Anara knows all.
A year later, on a return trip to Kyrgyzstan, I got a call from Anara. She wanted to see me. Being with Anara was work, but refusing the invitation would have been an insult, so I agreed, and soon we sat at the conference table in her small office and talked about her family, and mine, and drank tea.
“Did you go to Lake Issyk-kul this year?” Lake Issyk-kul is a beautiful lake in Kyrgyzstan where much of the country goes during the summer.
“Yes. But it wasn’t a good vacation.”
I waited for her to say something else.
She and her husband and son were on the beach. Her husband and son decided to return to their room, and Anara said she would follow when she finished her book. On her way back, she passed a group of boys standing in a circle, laughing and cheering. She walked closer. In the middle of the circle, a girl was being raped. When the boys saw Anara, they ran.
“You know, I have been to the US and Europe,” Anara said. “I know how things are there. I knew to go to the police with the girl, to get help for her.”
“But they were disgusting. They made us sit there while they smoked and laughed. The girl knew the boy. I demanded they arrest him and threatened them by saying I knew the Minister of Interior and I’d get them fired if they didn’t.”
It was getting dark now, the office completely quiet. Our tea was cold. Anara had stopped pouring.
“The police agreed to talk to the boy and his parents. The girl and I went to tell her parents what happened. Her father said he would kill the boy.”
“I took the girl’s parents to the police station and we met the boy’s parents there. The boy had admitted to the police that he had raped the girl. His parents started begging me not to press for charges. He was only 21; he was their only son. He was a good boy. He was drunk. He wouldn’t get out of jail alive, and if he did, he would be ruined, and they would be ruined.”
“What did the girl’s parents say?”
Anara looked down, and paused. She ran her thumb up and down her index finger.
“The girl’s father said they would press charges unless the boy married their daughter.”
“What?” I stood up.
She nodded, still running her thumb up and down her finger.
The girl was no longer a virgin. If the boy went to jail, everyone would know what had happened to her. She would be an unmarried woman, and not a virgin. They were both from a small village. She would never get married. The village would take sides, and many people would shun her for sending him to jail. Both their lives would be wrecked. She would bring shame to her family.
“I agreed to that in the end,” she said quietly. “We all agreed that would be the best thing.”
“The marriage?” I looked down at Anara’s hands.
Anara wanted me to understand what had happened to her–how she had changed in that moment. She wanted me to understand that there was no other way, not now, not in that village, not with those families. She wanted absolution.
The thought of the girl was almost unbearable to me. Was this worse than bridestealing? For some terrible reason, ranking the horror seemed important. I wanted to compare it to something that now seemed more normal. I wanted the girl to go to law school and become a lawyer like Chinara.
The paper we had written together was on the table, bound and published by the World Bank: “Women’s Rights to Land in the Kyrgyz Republic.” On the cover, an older peasant woman stands in a doorway, looking out at her barren, hand-plowed field. I couldn’t remember her particular story. I only knew that she worked all day, and in the winter ate mostly bread and cabbage. But she had laughed when she saw me take her photograph. She insisted on fixing her hair and posing for me—not in front of the door, but by the big birch tree. The second picture was a better one of her, and I sent it to her later. But I used the first picture on the cover, because she’s caught in a moment of her real life, when she wasn’t smiling or posing. She might have been thinking about how much work it would take to plant her potatoes before it was too late in the year. Or she may have been considering whether the manure was dry enough to burn. One can see, though, that she is not imagining another life.
Renée Giovarelli works for a non-profit organization as a lawyer on issues related to women’s land rights in rural areas of developing countries. She recently graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction and has been published in New Letters and Numéro Cinq. She was short-listed for a prize with Wasafiri Literary Magazine.
Read an interview with Renée here.