|kidnap2.jpg from Noriko Hayashi's "Grab and Run: Kyrgyzstan's Bride Kidnappings"-- Newsweek (Web)|
US Media Representations of Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan
In her 2001 article “Feminism versus multiculturalism”, Leti Volpp argues that minority women are frequently portrayed as “victims of their culture”. That is, Western accounts of violence against minority women tend to paint minority women as lacking in agency, and completely under the control of “cultural” forces (which somehow do not affect white, Western women). One particular problem to which this applies is that of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (and Central Asia in general). There have been a few representations of this phenomenon in US media in the past ten years, most of which have confirmed Volpp’s thesis. I will examine these representations in depth, and argue for change in US media reporting of foreign violence against women. In particular, we will see that there is some misrepresentation of bride kidnapping in US media, and that there are many parallels that can and should be drawn between bride kidnapping and violence against women in the United States. Because this is inherently a women’s issue, we will be referencing work from feminist media studies and feminist anthropology.
Bride kidnapping is a phenomenon in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan in particular, that has gone through an “apparent resurgence” since the decline of the Soviet Union. It tends to involve the abduction of a woman by a man for marriage with or without her consent. The nonconsensual ones (the ones that are the topic of this paper) often involve “three or four men, a car and vodka”.The woman is often captured during the day as she is walking down the street, or alternatively, she is lured out of her residence at night to be abducted. This is often a traumatic experience for the victim of the kidnapping. Kidnapped women are frequently raped or face threats of rape if they do not accept the marriage. Furthermore, if a kidnapped woman escapes, she is often rejected by her family and village, either because she has dishonored Kyrgyz tradition, or because the kidnapping itself dishonored her family, and the only way to restore honor is to go through with the marriage, or possibly for some other reason, depending on the analysis. Bride kidnapping can be viewed through a broader lens of a desire to go back to “traditional” Kyrgyz customs after gaining independence from the Soviet Union.
There are several reasons why bride kidnapping is a particularly interesting phenomenon to consider in the context of US media representations of violence against foreign women. There has not been so much reporting done on bride kidnapping in the first place, compared to many other reports of “conflicts” of women’s rights with multiculturalism. For example, there have been many more discussions in the Western media of various institutions banning the wearing of hijabs. Because of the relative lack of reporting on bride kidnapping, I imagine that there is also a less “self-aware” reporting. That is, the reporting that we see is not filtered through a lens of awareness of minority women’s rights, which might come about from discussions about a phenomenon that is reported on more frequently. Thus, I think that by studying a less well-known phenomenon, we can see more directly the ways that news institutions themselves view violence against women perpetrated in other countries.
In “Feminism versus multiculturalism”, Leti Volpp gives one perspective on how minority women are represented in the West. She writes that “incidents of sexual violence in the West are frequently thought to reflect the behavior of a few deviants – rather than as part of our culture”, whereas acts of violence in the Third World “are thought to characterize the cultures of entire nations.”8 She argues that the consequences of this representation is that women (particularly those from non-Western cultures) are deprived of agency in Western culture. That is, they are portrayed as victims, and not as people who have power to change their situations.
In my opinion, one of the major contributions to this characterization of non-Western women is the way that they are represented in Western media. My aim is to study in the particular case of Kyrgyz bride kidnappings how this is done. By looking at specific reports about bride kidnappings in the US media, I will describe the ways in which the reports support Volpp’s ideas. We will see that the representations of Kyrgyz women serve to preserve a cultural hierarchy that places the West at the top.
My method of research is as follows. I have studied three news reports on Kyrgyz bride kidnapping from the United States. The first is a website published by PBS including an article about bride kidnapping, a video, and some facts and pictures; this was published online in March of 2004. The second source is an ordinary news article published in the New York Times written by Craig S. Smith and published in April of 2005. Finally, my third source is a 2013 photo essay by Noriko Hayashi published on the Newsweek website. I want to use these reports from the last ten years to look at how modern US media portrays violence against women in other cultures, to confirm Volpp’s thesis about representations of “other” women.
All of the news reports studied included pictures of Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz people along with the text. In many ways, the way they use photography already marks a distinction between Western people and Kyrgyz people. They almost always depict women in “traditional” dress, often in situations that emphasize their cultural distance from the Western world. The PBS report, for example, includes many pictures of Kyrgyzstan, none of which have anything to do with the subject of bride kidnapping. Most of the pictures are of rural scenery; one of them is a picture of a woman milking a mare. All of this serves to exoticize Kyrgyzstan to the Western eye, emphasizing the differences between the experiences of the intended readers of the news and the subjects of the reports.
In some ways, there is nothing wrong with these choices of pictures. Bride kidnapping is a primarily rural phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps the more westernized Kyrgyz people, who might be easier to identify with for viewers of PBS, are not very likely to be kidnapped. However, I want to argue that while these depictions may be realistic, they may not always be relevant. This is an important distinction to make in these situations. There are two ways in which we are influenced by news. First of all, the facts that we learn from the news can affect the way we think about things. But, secondly, the way that news reports frame stories is just as important as, if not more important than the facts presented. While the pictures of rural Kyrgyz people we can find on the PBS website may be representative of what things really look like, the question that really needs to be asked is what purpose these photographs serve. To me it appears that they only serve to exoticize Kyrgyz people, and thus provide a way to separate the situations from Western readers of the article from those of the subjects of the article.
The Newsweek article studied relies even more heavily on photography than the PBS report. It too contains many pictures of people in traditional clothing, but now the pictures are more focused on people than landscapes. They are mostly taken indoors, and in all but one of the photographs, the subject of the picture is a person or group of people. These photographs mostly depict people in traditional dress, just as on the PBS website. However, what is most striking about the pictures here is that the people portrayed always look dejected, with their faces usually turned away from the camera. This is different from the representations of the PBS website in that everything is not as clearly focused on the cultural differences between Kyrgyzstan and the West. However, the dispirited people depicted in the photographs do invite the viewer to think of Kyrgyz people as victimized. This is in line with Volpp’s analysis of depictions of minority women: they are often portrayed as victims, and as lacking in agency.
We see that the Newsweek article too frames the suffering of Kyrgyz women in a particular way. By portraying Kyrgyz people (women in particular) as victims, it deprives them of agency. Again, it is certainly true that a large portion of Kyrgyz women are “victims of their culture” in some sense, but by framing this suffering in a context only of victimization, the essay paints a very one-dimensional picture of what the situation of Kyrgyz women is like.
The news reports also tend to unquestioningly take the stance that there is a “correct” culture, i.e. the Western one, and that non-western cultures should aspire to be more Western. This is very evident on the PBS website, which invites readers to answer the question “Should the international community intervene when cultural traditions clash with modern notions of women’s rights?”This makes it clear that the authors are painting a cultural hierarchy. One should ask oneself why the “international” (presumably this means Western) community should be intervening in Kyrgyz affairs. Certainly nobody asks whether the international community should intervene when women are raped in the United States, even though this is something that happens systematically.
The short documentary film that can be viewed on the same website poses near the end the question of the morality of bride kidnappings given that many of the abducted women end up happy in the resulting marriage. This particular question is often portrayed as a unique ethical problem facing the people of Kyrgyzstan. The New York Times article I studied spends many paragraphs describing the violent kidnapping of one woman against her will, and then ends up with a few short sentences about how she is happy with the arrangement now. I think that these descriptions serve to portray other cultures as particularly violent compared to Western ones. Furthermore, by noting that there clearly is some ethical dilemma at hand here, but not asking Kyrgyz people for their opinions, they implicitly make the claim that it is the duty of Western people to make judgments about the morality of events in other countries.
At this point, I think that I have established that the portrayal of Kyrgyz women in major US media outlets has to some extent deprived them of agency by depicting them as victims of their culture. This is not an unusual phenomenon; Volpp discusses it in some generality in her paper. It has also been studied in some other specific cases. For example, Reimers describes in her paper “Representations of an honor killing” how very much the same phenomenon has occurred in Sweden regarding discussions of honor killings by Kurdish immigrants. She comes to the conclusion, very similarly to me, that Swedish representations of these killings contribute to a picture of Swedish culture as “superior” to Kurdish culture. She writes that “the purported difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ intersect with a nationalistic and colonial discourse.” I now want to look more closely at how portrayals of Kyrgyz women serve to elevate Western culture above other cultures, and in particular describe how this in itself can be seen as an act of violence against the women of Kyrgyzstan.
One analysis of violence is put forward by Patricia Hill Collins, in her paper “The tie that binds: race, gender, US violence.” She argues that violence is often defined in a way that benefits people who are higher up in some social hierarchy, and that the acceptance of these definitions leads to a perpetuation of those hierarchies. One example she gives is that “American soldiers who killed people during the Gulf war were excused and even celebrated,” whereas “civilians killing police in inner-city neighborhoods remain vilified.” From these observations, Collins argues for a broader definition of violence, which should better take into account the suffering of socially disadvantaged people. She writes that violence can “be viewed as a group-based institution of abuse”; this will be an important frame of reference for my analysis.
To elaborate on this idea, we can note that even according to traditional definitions, violence can be conceptualized as an act that limits another persons freedom, albeit usually physically. However, from a point of view of analyzing injustices, there is no clear reason to limit one’s definition of violence to the physical. To make a distinction between abusive acts that are physical and ones that are not physical does not seem entirely justified. In fact, such an approach could possibly serve to make abuses against people in oppressed positions seem less noteworthy than other abuses. It is frequently the case that minorities are portrayed in a stereotypical way in the media, while people in privileged positions can play many different roles. By claiming that media representations cannot constitute acts of violence, we are thus supporting a definition of violence that supports already existing hierarchies. It is in this context that I will examine the violence implicit in US representations of Kyrgyz bride kidnapping.
I think that it is appropriate to apply an analysis similar to that of Patricia Hill Collins to the reports on bride kidnapping studied here. As we have seen, the role of Kyrgyz people in the reporting done on bride kidnapping is always limited to providing facts and experiences, but they are never asked for their own analyses of the culture behind bride kidnapping. This upholds a cultural hierarchy that says that people from the West tend to be more neutral and disinterested than non-Westerners. People from other cultures are depicted as too bound by their culture to think rationally about moral questions, while Western people are able to look at things from a neutral perspective, either because they somehow are capable of diassociating themselves from their culture, or because the culture that is there is a culture of rationality from the beginning.
Furthermore, the portrayal of Kyrgyz women as victims rather than agents perpetuates certain Western ideas about “other cultures.” Volpp writes the following about the distinction between agents and victims.
The binary assumption that women in the West have choice, and that those in immigrant and Third World contexts have none, in part reflects the limits of our language in describing choice: Either one is an agent, or one is a victim. This binary also reflects historical representations of the West as the site of rugged individualism, and the East as the repository of passivity and culture.
That is, the portrayal of Kyrgyz women as victims upholds a long-standing tradition in the West of denying non-Western women agency. This is certainly an act of violence in the sense of Collins; it is a systematic abuse of a large group of underprivileged people. It is interesting to note that the way that women in non-Western cultures are portrayed as victims of their culture stands in stark contrast to the way that violence against Western women is portrayed in the United States. A complaint often raised about US news coverage of rapes in the United States is that they fail to take into account cultural conditions that are conducive to rape.
In light of this analysis of violence, I hope that it is clear how the representations studied here indeed do constitute an act of violence against Kyrgyz people, and Kyrgyz women in particular. Geopolitically, rural Kyrgyz people are typically not in a position of power, and the way that they are portrayed here only perpetuates this. They are portrayed as people to feel sorry for, not as people to identify with, or as people with their own agency.
I now want to discuss how news reporting can be transformed to depict the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan without painting them in a way that furthers Western cultural dominance over the East. Recall that there are two main aspects to the way that someone is represented in the news: the facts given, and the way that these facts are framed to give a complete picture of the situation. Of course there is a large amount of overlap between these two aspects; the choice of facts presented clearly contributes to the way that reports frame people. That is, for any given event, there are many facts about the event that can be presented in the news, and only a small number of these facts can be given. In any case, what needs to be changed is the framing of the reports. All of the news articles I have read do report accurate facts (to my knowledge), and I do think that it is important for people in the United States to be aware of the situation of women in Kyrgyzstan, but I do not think that the way that the women are portrayed represents them fairly. One way to ensure that women are portrayed fairly is to report through a transveral lens.
Transversal politics is a form of analysis which “emphasizes coalition building that takes into account the specific positions of ‘political actors.”’ Handrahan writes about transversalism that it “involves maintaining a starting/standing point/perspective coupled with the flexibility to recognize, but not homogenize, other starting/standing point/perspectives.” We want an analysis that firmly acknowledges that all people are different in their backgrounds, their points of view, their identites, and so on, while simultaneously allowing for empathy between people with different backgrounds. One way to achieve such an empathy is by emphasizing abstract similarities between different people’s positions, while still acknowledging the potentially large differences between them as well. I believe that such an approach would be well-suited for descriptions of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
There are many abstract similarities between Kyrgyz bride kidnapping and the problems that affect women in the United States. For example, one pervasive problem in the United States is sexual assault on university campuses. Abstractly, I think that there are many similarities between bride kidnapping and campus rape. First of all, they are both acts of violence that affect mostly women. Furthermore, the victims (and perpetrators) are often young, and there is often alcohol involved. Finally, the perpetrators are often acquaintances of the victims. Note that I do not mean to equate bride kidnapping with campus rape. What I want to show is that US media outlets can and should emphasize that there are similarities between the sexual violence faced by young women in Kyrgyzstan and in the United States, while still acknowledging the (vast) differences. Such an approach would serve to humanize Kyrgyz women, instead of victimizing them.
We now turn to the discussion of the ethics of bride kidnapping from earlier. We noted that one of the questions often brought up in reports on bride kidnapping is how to approach the phenomenon given that many of the resulting marriages actually end up happy. It is often portrayed as a cultural curiosity that Kyrgyz women can choose to be happy with people who have committed acts of violence against them. However, I would argue that there are certain similarities between this and the phenomenon of women who choose to remain with their abusive spouses in the United States. Again, there are many differences between the specific situation of spousal abuse in the United States and bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, but perhaps by looking at the similarities we can understand better the situations of women both in the United States and in Kyrgyzstan, and more importantly, it would allow for more connection and empathy between the women in the different situations.
Of course, there are certain aspects of bride kidnapping that are not quite analogous with any phenomena in the United States. For example, we have noted that some reporters view the increased amount of bride kidnappings since the fall of the Soviet Union as a way for a Kyrgyz national identity to assert itself. This might be difficult to relate to a US context. However, we must keep in mind that the important thing is not necessarily to paint all violence against women as being similar or even analogous, but just to always remind people that foreign women cannot (and should not) be viewed entirely as victims without agency, and that while their situation is different from those of the audience of the news, it can still be understood and related to the personal lives of the audience. We must also keep in mind that there is no one “Western” experience; there are many types of people in the West who face many different kinds of oppression. Still, by connecting the suffering of Kyrgyz women to suffering that is at least geographically closer, if nothing else, to the audience of the news, we can hope to evoke at least some additional understanding.
We have seen that the way that bride kidnapping is reported on in the US media is flawed in many ways. It depicts violence against Kyrgyz women in a way that portrays Kyrgyz women only as victims, and not as agents. This is a common feature of media portrayals of non-Western women as well as Western minority women both historically and in the present. The result of these portrayals is a preservation of a cultural hierarchy that places the West at the top, and regards other cultures as inferior and oppressive. This stands in contrast to the way Western media depicts violence against women occurring in the West, with Western perpetrators. In order to portray the people of Kyrgyzstan in a more respectful way, we must turn to a transversal reporting of their situation, and try to connect their lives to the lives of Western people.
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Werner, C. (2009). Bride abduction in post-Soviet Central Asia: marking a shift towards patriarchy through local discourses of shame and tradition. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15(2), 314–331.
Worthington, N. (2008). Progress and persistent problems: Local TV news framing of acquaintance rape on campus. Feminist Media Studies, 8(1), 1–16.
 Volpp, 2001.
 Werner, 2009, p. 316.
 Handrahan, 2004, p. 209.
 Handrahan, 2004.
 Handrahan, 2004.
 Werner, 2009.
 Akiner, 1997 says that after the dissolution of the Soviet union some Kyrgyz women “feel the need to return to their ‘authentic’ roots; Handrahan, 2004 writes that bride kidnapping “has come to be understood as a fundamental ‘Kyrgyz tradition’ neither imposed nor transported but home-grown on the jailoos (mountain pastures) of the Tien Shen mountain range.” 8Volpp, 2001, p. 1186-1187.
 “FRONTLINE/World: Kyrgyzstan - The Kidnapped Bride,” 2004.
 Reimers, 2007.
 Reimers, 2007, p. 251.
 Collins, 1998.
 Collins, 1998, p. 922.
 Collins, 1998, p. 921.
 Volpp, 2001, p. 1211.
 Worthington, 2008, p. 13 gives an example of even a relatively “progressive” report on a rape which still “focused so much on the specifics of the scandal without reference to broader social structures that facilitate violence against women.
 Collins, 1998, p. 930.
 Handrahan, 2004, p. 211.
 See Armstrong, Hamilton, and Sweeney, 2006 for an in-depth analysis of rape at one university.
 Handrahan, 2004 gives an analysis of the importance of vodka in Kyrgyz bride kidnappings, and Armstrong et al., 2006 discusses in depth how alcohol shapes sexual assault on US university campuses.