As the night went on and it got late, she remembers one of her co-workers calling her to make sure she hadn't been kidnapped.
“I was absolutely certain he was joking until I heard the serious note of concern in his voice,” Merkel said.
“Like me, he was a foreigner, and unnecessarily alarmed about a context that we did not totally understand – I was having a wonderful time and was treated as an honored guest by my colleague’s family,” she explained.
“But it was at that rather inopportune moment that I learned that bride kidnapping is actually still practiced in the country.”
“I must admit, I kept my eyes and ears open until all the rowdier revelers had gone home and I was safely tucked in for the night on the family’s comfy floor mattresses.”
Merkel later met a Kyrgystani female college student on a plane. Correctly guessing that Merkel worked for an non-government organization, the young woman asked her if she had come to the country to educate people about bride kidnapping.
“She proceeded to tell me that growing up, she did not know that bride kidnapping was illegal in Kyrgyztan,” but because of what a human rights group taught her, the girl was able to talk openly with her parents about her fears, Merkel said.
The young woman told her that it's customary for a girl to write a letter to her parents once she's kidnapped to ask permission to marry the boy. However, the girl’s parents are expected to give their consent, as the she is already in her “new home” by the time her parents are notified.
“Together she and her parents devised a code,” Merkel said.
“With her newfound knowledge of her legal rights, this girl was able to tell her parents that if she puts a period at the end of the final sentence on the letter, that means that she would indeed really like to stay at her new home and marry this boy.”
However, if she were to leave the period off the sentence, it would be a cry for help, and her parents would come rescue her.
(Story continues below)
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“Luckily for this girl it never came to that,” Merkel said.
“To be completely fair, I’m sure there are examples throughout the country of men and women who have started their marriage in this non-consensual way, but have grown to love each other and had a fruitful family life as a result,” said Merkel.
“I just don’t see how the end could justify the means.”
Although the custom allegedly dates several centuries back, Prof. Kleinbach said that prior to the Soviet era in the 1920-90s, the practice of bride kidnapping “was very uncommon and a serious legal and cultural violation.”
But the seizure of private property during Soviet rule caused less family resources for gifts, bride price and dowry – and more freedom of choice in selecting marriage partner. As a result, a benign “consensual kidnapping” between couples started to emerge.
This form of elopement became popular as a less expensive wedding alternative and an effective way to avoid marriages arranged by parents.