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‘I was thrilled!’ Why some Russian Muslim girls want to be kidnapped

Bride-kidnapping is an ancient tradition that originated in Rome and slowly spread to many parts of the world

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What could Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology, and a 17-year-old from Ingushetia, a republic in Russia, have in common? Instead of experiencing one of the most romantic gestures - a man getting down on one knee - both were kidnapped.

Bride-kidnapping is an ancient tradition that originated in Rome and slowly spread to many parts of the world. Certain parts of Russia and surrounding countries still practice it, but in a fun form that adheres to tradition while abiding by the law.

This form of proposing sees the suitor and his closest male relatives pick out a girl he wishes to marry, then kidnap her. Sometimes it is referred to as “marriage by abduction” or “marriage by caption.” The girl is then taken to the suitor’s house and surrounded by his female relatives, with the men absent.

Her family is immediately notified of her whereabouts and guaranteed safety. Then the women of the hopeful husband-to-be’s family sit with the girl and talk to her. They tell her the suitor’s credentials and bring her an array of foods in the hope of impressing her.

She is kept overnight in a separate bedroom filled with gifts such as gold, clothes, shoes, sweets, and in some cases money. The following day, the girl’s family is welcomed to the suitor’s house, at which point the men and women gather and discuss the proposal. If the girl and her family agree, she is officially a married woman. If not she is taken home, where she will await another marriage proposal.

A 17- year-old girl, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic in her region, was kidnapped last year, and is finally speaking of her experience. “He first saw me when I was at the grocery store. [Ingushetia] is a small region, people know each other well. He found out who I was, who my family was, and started calling me,” she told Al Arabiya English.

She said she did not think of marriage when getting the strange calls to her house, but felt it was odd. “I told my mum there was someone calling me all the time, but my mom didn’t pay attention to it.” The girl said just a few days after her visit to the grocery store, she went out with her friends and was kidnapped. “I was so scared. They took me to his house, and all his aunts came and started talking to me.”

Usually by this point, the kidnapped person would realize that it is a marriage proposal and start evaluating the situation, but in this case the girl said she was shocked and did not realize what was happening. The thought of marriage did not come to mind, she said, because she had lived abroad for long periods of time and had never witnessed this tradition.

Asked about how the female relatives tried to convince her into marriage, she said: “They told me he worked a lot, that he was a nice guy, and that he was a good job.” They kept feeding her food from their culture and luxurious sweets. She refused the marriage proposal and ended up going home to her family.

A refusal is unusual. A woman from Dagestan, Russia, who was 16 when she was kidnapped, told Al Arabiya English: “He kidnapped me on my way home from the salon. I had just had my hair cut, and I was alone. I didn’t see who was kidnapping me, but I was very excited to find out.”

She added: “When the women came, I was thrilled. They were my favorite aunts. They were our neighbors, and I knew them all my life. I told them I wanted to stay before they even showed me all the gifts in the room.”

In this instance the woman married her kidnapper, and the couple have two children and a third on the way. When asked about the experience, she said: “It was fun. Our parents were very happy. I could tell my friends that I got kidnapped.”

Asked if she knew of other instances of women kidnapped as a wedding proposal, she replied: “Yes, too many to mention. It’s our tradition [but] it’s not as common as before. I think half of my friends were kidnapped.”

Today, this practice is forbidden by Russian law, but is done in a modified way. A representative at the Spiritual Center of Muslims in Bashkortostan said: “Today it’s like a fun game. The two families agree on the time and place, and the groom’s family kidnaps the bride-to-be. This is a tradition, and it came from when different clans didn’t allow their women to marry outside the clan. That forced the men to steal the girls they liked.”

Besides fun and tradition, the practice eliminates all wedding costs. Today, it is practiced in different parts of Russia and surrounding countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia, but also in India, Africa and South America.