Moparuli: Stolen Brides
The tradition to kidnap young women to force them to marry became less popular in the Caucasus Mountains, but it did not disappear. Local men continue to claim that women approve of such a practice and are happy to be married. Photographer Natasha Sharapova decided to ask women what they thought.
The tradition for a man to kidnap his bride has existed in the Caucasus for several centuries now. Sometimes, it is an attempt of a couple in love to go against their parents’ wishes; sometimes it happens according to the agreement of relatives on both sides, but often a bride would be taken without her or her parent’s consent. There are many cases when young women are kidnapped by complete strangers.
This tradition is based on the prejudice that a woman should marry while being a virgin — her hand can’t even be held. If the bride is kidnapped, the rumor immediately spreads across the village, and the young woman’s reputation is considered lost forever. Parents worry that their daughter won’t be able to get married and try to persuade her to stay with the kidnapper, to maintain the chance for a family and protect herself and themselves from shame.
It used to be that brides were stolen on horses, but now several friends come together, wait until a young woman is alone and drag her into a car. They take her high up into the mountains, often to the groom’s relatives, and try to persuade her to marry a kidnapper before the family and police find them. According to the law, a woman can sue them, but she is often afraid that nobody else would marry her after this, so she remains with the one who stole her.
Even ten years ago, young women were kidnapped at the age of 14-15, and after a year they had their own children. Now, this happens less often and after 16; they say that it is largely thanks to more schools in remote areas.
Moscow-based photographer. Participated in exhibitions Young Photographers of Russia and Kolga Tbilisi Photo. Published her work in Lenta.ru and Vedomosti. Studied photography at the School for Visual Arts.
— I have always known that young women are kidnapped in the Caucasus, but I thought that it was something abstract, an ancient tradition and no more. When I came to Georgia, it turned out that this tradition didn’t die, but as the punishment for doing it became harsher (4 to 8 years in prison), it simply went underground.
If you are a foreign traveler and don’t speak Georgian, in the mountain regions almost all people you talk to will be men over 50 — women and youth rarely talk in Russian or English. That’s why I heard approximately the following about the tradition to steal brides: young women want to be stolen, they are just too shy to say it; they love their husbands and are very happy to be married.
I kept being bothered by this picture of the world — carefree and happy Georgian women who are dreaming that a guy that they’ve never met takes them from their parents’ home by force. I wanted to meet and talk to women themselves. However, nobody hurried to introduce me to them: I was told something like “she was just recently kidnapped, it is not a good time” or “she doesn’t want to talk”. Svaneti highlanders advised me to go to Adjara, because ‘everybody is stolen’ there. Later, the Adjari told me the same about the Svaneti.
In Adjara, I traveled to the Khulo area. People walking or driving around the city were almost all men, there were just a few female saleswomen. I entered a cafe. I didn’t even get through the only page of the menu as two men from the neighbouring table started insisting that they buy me a beer. I looked around and realized I was the only woman in the cafe. They asked me who I was and what I was doing in Khulo.
“My name is Natasha, I am from Moscow, I am looking for a woman who was stolen to be married to a man she had never seen before.”
And then, a miracle happened. A man looked at me from behind a curtain and said that his mom was kidnapped by a stranger when she was young. Another had a neighbor who was stolen, the third confessed that he stole his wife who had never seen him before that. Men were proud with what they had done and took me home gladly to boast their wives. I didn’t even need to convince women to be photographed because their husbands had already decided everything for them.
A husband or his friend were often an interpreter during our conversation. I once wanted to ask a woman if she was happily married, and the man answered immediately: “Of course she is!” I asked him to interpret my question, and she said that it used to be very difficult — she cried every night for four months — but then, she got used to it, and now everything is fine. Her husband was unfazed.
“I didn’t marry again.” Chito
I was 18 when I was stolen. I hadn’t even seen my future husband before that. I was at a wedding, my relative introduced us, he said that this man was his friend — and after an hour, I was kidnapped: grabbed by the hand, subdued, and pulled into a car. They didn’t take me to their home, but took me far away, to avoid being caught by the police.
I fought them, I didn’t want to be married, I was scared. They called my brother and made a deal with him. What could I do? You can’t run away, you can’t go back.
We didn’t have a wedding. I lived with my husband for two months, and then we quarreled with my husband, and I ran away from there. The elders reconciled us, and we lived together for three more years, and got divorced after.
I didn’t marry again. They are asking me to, but I don’t want to, I have a son at home. I raised him, now we live together, I have a daughter-in-law, and I will soon have a grandson.
“I consent now.” Lali
I am 21, and I was 18 when I was stolen. I didn’t know him. I was at my aunt’s, he came by car and kidnapped me. I put up a fight, I didn’t want to go anywhere with him. Later, he called my relatives, made a deal with them, and that was it.
We didn’t have a wedding. We have been together for three years, I had my son when I was 19. It is all okay, I consent now. My parents are also glad.
“I had my daughter when I was 16.” Marina
When my husband stole me, I didn’t know him — he hadn’t even seen me before that. His relatives entered our house and took me with them. It was winter, the snow was two meters high, we walked for 4-5 kilometers. I didn’t fight it, but I didn’t want to be married either — nobody asked me though. I was 14 at the time.
I had my daughter when I was 16, she is almost his age now, and my son is 12.
This is not a way to treat girls. They need to grow up first, and marry later.
“I ran away twice.” Neri
I was stolen at 14, he was 21, and I didn’t know him. I studied at school and didn’t particularly like anybody. When I was kidnapped, I was at my relative’s house — they came, grabbed me and took me away.
I ran away twice. Then, we reconciled, he came to take me back. My father didn’t particularly like him, so it was our uncle who always reconciled us.
We didn’t have a big wedding, just a small gathering. I was 15 when our daughter was born. I have two boys and a girl. My daughter got married and lives nearby, she teaches Georgian. I like my son-in-law.
I never worked, I just did the housework.
My husband was handsome. He died already. We lived together for 53 years.
“I don’t think that this is a romantic tradition.” Dali
I was stolen when I wasn’t even 14.
I didn’t know my husband-to-be. I lived in Bogdanovka then — it is a Russian village. He saw me in a local restaurant during a celebration and came up to me. I fought, I left him with two bruises. But I agreed eventually, because I was still a child. He took me to the mountains. There was no wedding.
We now have two children: a daughter and a son. I am 26. I don’t think that this is a romantic tradition.
“Two daughters, one man!” Teona
Did he steal me? He did. He saw me in the neighboring village. He was with his friends, I was sitting in the street alone, and he drove up in a car. He said: “Let’s go, you’ll be with me, we’ll live together, and we’ll live fine!” And I agreed. I mean, I agreed later. I was 15 when I was stolen.
We have lived together for 10 years now, and we have three children. (Two daughters, one man! — The husband comments.) My husband is a police officer. We did have a wedding, but it wasn’t too big, only 150 people. Why didn’t he ask my parents? Why did he decide to steal me? Well, this is the custom we have here.
“It is worse if a family breaks up.” Diana
I saw him before, and I knew that he was from this village. But we were not in a relationship. I was stolen at 18.
He first took me to the mountains, we spent three days there. Then he took me somewhere else, and only after that brought me home and sent the relatives to make an agreement with my parents. I was going to be married to a different man, the wedding was scheduled — I didn’t want to marry that guy, but my parents arranged everything. I agreed to marry my now-husband after one day, because I liked him better than the first one.
We have lived together for 10 years, we have two sons. It’s a tradition just like any other; the most important thing is to have mutual understanding, because it is worse if a family breaks up.
“I watch my daughter constantly.” Makkhuala
I was a stolen bride, he took me home in a car. I was 18. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t like him at all. We had a wedding only after four months.
They used to think that even if a man grabs a woman by the hand, it is already indecent, not good. Now, if a woman doesn’t want to marry, there may even be war between the families.
I think that it was romantic when I was stolen. But I wouldn’t want this to happen to my daughter — I watch her constantly, trying to protect her.
“There were five of them, and I couldn’t fight my way out.” Mzia
I was 15, now I am 21. He saw me in my village, talked to me a bit, and then he came to Batumi where I studied and kidnapped me. He drove up in a car and made me sit in it. I fought, I didn’t want to be married that early at all, but there were five of them, and I couldn’t fight my way out.
My father was against it and did not approve of my future husband — that was why he stole me. I never studied or worked after that. We have two children, a boy and a girl.
“My husband was afraid that my family wouldn’t give me away to him.” Layla
I was 19. We didn’t know each other. He saw me at a wedding in a village where I lived, and found out who I was and what family I came from. But he didn’t try to arrange anything with my relatives, because he was afraid that my family wouldn’t give me away to him.
He was in a car with his friends. I fought as much as I could. My husband took me to the city to his sister’s. It took a long time to reach the arrangement, my family agreed only after a month. I agreed after a day, I gave in.
We have been together for 16 years. We didn’t have a wedding. We have children, three of them.
“There was a fight.” Aishi
I was 15 when I was stolen. I didn’t know my husband at all. He saw me at a celebration, and he liked me. He came on horses together with his friends to take me when I was alone. I fought, I screamed, but nobody heard me.
Then, the relatives came to take me back, there was a fight, but everything ended well — nobody was hurt. My parents were going to marry me to a different guy, they gave their word and didn’t want to break it. But it used to be that if someone even laid a hand on a girl, he had to marry her — or else, shame, and nobody would marry her after that. My parents had to make a deal.
Now I have 5 children and 14 grandchildren.
“He turned out to be a good husband.” Gulbayas
I was stolen at 13. I was so beautiful back then, I weighed 64 kilos! My husband was 17 or 18. I knew him, we were from the same village.
I was taken to walk barefoot on the snow. We lived high up in the mountains for two months, until I calmed down and stopped fighting. My relatives took my side and wounded him twice — they didn’t want me to marry him. I didn’t want to marry him either, I was promised to another man who loved me very much. My father made me agree.
I am 92 years old now. My husband died, we spent our entire lives together. He turned out to be a good husband, he took me all around the Soviet Union: we traveled to many places.
“It is not good if a bride is returned as bad goods.” Ulisa
I saw him from afar, but I didn’t want him to kidnap me. I was 19, I was still at school. He stopped the car and waited till I walked by. There were three of them. I fought a bit, but what could I do? He took me to his home.
I agreed on the second day, and everything was fine. We didn’t have a wedding — when the bride was stolen, there was usually no wedding. We have lived together for 20 years, we have two children.
I don’t like this tradition, it is better done with consent then by force. But that’s now how they do things here, and it is especially not good if a bride is returned as bad goods. That’s why parents try to reconcile the newlyweds so that they would stay together.
“I am satisfied!” Dariko
I was at school back then. I sort of consented — I knew about his plan, I just didn’t want to be married. I knew him, saw him in the village. He came in a car with his friends and took me home.
I was 18, and we have lived together for 39 years. We have a girl and two boys. The girl is already married. I am satisfied!
I wanted to let the women speak with the help of my project. However, what the men told me is also worth noting.
“If a woman is not married, it is bad; it means that she is sick or has some kind of problems. When they are young, they keep choosing and choosing, and finally they remain alone, because after 30 nobody would marry them.”
“Modern children won’t steal their brides, now everybody meets on the Internet. Parents don’t interfere now. But it’s too bad that couples get divorced after a year. We never got divorced. Parents studied the entire bloodline, looked for illnesses in the family, evaluated beauty and searched for the perfect candidate.”
“Sometimes, relatives win their children back, there may be fights and weapons. There were cases when somebody got killed during such kidnappings. It happens that a bride gets stolen, and then the family takes her back with the help of the police — the law doesn’t allow them to be married before 18 now. It is hard to believe, but love also came later, and the strongest families are this way. Not one case of divorce.”