After three months of dating, Melis Aliyev thought it was time he and Ainur Tairova married. Tairova balked. So Aliyev turned to a practice viewed by many Kyrgyz people as tradition and by the rest of the world as a crime.
Aliyev and a crew of friends tricked Tairova into getting into a car, kidnapped her and kept her corralled in his house for two days, she said. A group of Aliyev's friends and relatives hovered around her like hornets, repeatedly trying to force onto her head a white scarf signifying her acquiescence.
"I kept shouting" at them, she said. Wearied by the ordeal and telling herself that Aliyev was "not a bad person," Tairova, 28, eventually gave in to the man who is still her husband four years later.
Bride-kidnapping is practiced throughout Kyrgyzstan, from the former Soviet republic's capital of Bishkek to mud-hut villages at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains. Kidnapping is on the books as a crime, but the abduction of women to coerce them into marriage has become so ingrained in the country's male-dominated society that prosecutions are rare.
Because the custom is so widely embraced, an abducted woman finds herself alone in any bid to fight back -- confronted not just by her captor's friends and female relatives, but also, at times, by members of her own family who assure her that bride-stealing is the Kyrgyz way.
She might have casually known the man kidnapping her, she might have dated him, or she might never have seen him before. Nevertheless, in many cases women submit to the pressure, convincing themselves they will eventually grow to love the abductor.
Sometimes, a woman who continues to refuse is raped by her captor, a crime men know will likely go unreported.
"The woman is all alone in a very difficult situation," said Bubusara Ryskulova, director of the Sezim Crisis Center for Women in Bishkek. "That's why they usually decide it's better to keep quiet."
The custom's roots are murky. Many Kyrgyz scholars believe that centuries ago, when Kyrgyz tribes led a nomadic existence, men from one tribe would steal women from nearby enemy tribes to weaken their rivals, according to a research paper co-written last year by Russell Kleinbach, a sociology professor at American University in Bishkek.
During the Soviet era, the practice became more common, though scholars have not determined why. When Kyrgyzstan gained its independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991, instances of bride-kidnapping rose steadily. Kleinbach's report estimated that more than a third of married Kyrgyz women are victims of bride kidnappings.
The custom remains almost exclusively a phenomenon of Kyrgyz society and parts of southern Kazakhstan, though incidents of bride-kidnapping have been recorded elsewhere in Asia and Africa. At the Sezim Crisis Center, three or four women victimized by bride kidnappings appear each month to seek counseling and shelter, Ryskulova says. The center's hotline also gets about five calls a month from women who say they were abducted.
Members of Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations have toured the countryside with public awareness campaigns aimed at convincing villagers that bride-kidnapping is a crime. They have made little headway.
Women rarely pursue kidnapping charges against their captors, fearing the attention and shame that would be brought on their families. Moreover, "in most cases, local authorities prefer not to interfere," said Nurdin Jangarayev, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry.
When Dinara Aitmamatova was kidnapped in July 1998, she said, she put up little resistance. She said she had never met Nurlan, a 24-year-old construction worker who had arranged with a group of friends to kidnap the 18-year-old freshman from her college dormitory in Bishkek.
At Nurlan's apartment, Aitmamatova was made to sit at a table, surrounded by Nurlan's friends and relatives. One of Aitmamatova's university friends approached and wrapped the ceremonial white scarf around her head, she recalled.
"She gave me bread with cream and butter, a traditional welcome, and said, 'We have kidnapped you, and now you are our bride.' I began to cry."
Aitmamatova soon learned that Nurlan had been through three marriages and served time in prison for theft. A month into their marriage, he began drinking heavily. He repeatedly beat her, often for not waiting up for him when he came home after all-night binges. One night, Aitmamatova said, Nurlan brought home a woman, introduced her as his lover and said she would be sleeping with them that night.
After eight months, Aitmamatova left and sought refuge at her sister's house.
"I was just naive and young," said Aitmamatova, now 25. "Maybe there are rare occasions when couples live well, but this tradition usually just creates a lot of destruction and divorces."
Turarbek Sadyraliyev's kidnapping of Lilia Belekeyeva in 1989 was one of those occasions when the marriage that followed survived. Sadyraliyev, a merchant at a Bishkek market, had his mind set on marrying Belekeyeva, but he grew worried that other men were planning to abduct her. He decided to preempt their plans.
Sadyraliyev and several friends picked up Belekeyeva at her house, about an hour outside Bishkek, telling her they were going for a ride. When the group arrived at Sadyraliyev's house in Bishkek, Belekeyeva sensed something was wrong and clutched the car seat in front of her. Sadyraliyev's friends persuaded her to go into the house.
Once inside, a group of women converged on Belekeyeva, offered tea and began trying to wrap the white scarf over her head.
By the third day, Belekeyeva's will had weakened.
"I thought, 'This is my destiny. He's not bad -- he's handsome.' "
Sadyraliyev and Belekeyeva have three children. The oldest, their daughter Altenai, is 15. Sadyraliyev worries about the day someone tries to kidnap Altenai, an irony the 42-year-old father acknowledges.
"Yes, I'm a father, and I have to start thinking about this happening to her, about the possibility that a bad guy kidnaps her," he said. "We don't rule out that the boy could come from a good family. Still, we are afraid."