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Brooklyn, New York (VICE) -- "We are breaking the law," says Madiev Tynchtyk, a member of local government in a small village outside of the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, "but here everyone understands this is a tradition and you can't change it." Madiev kidnapped his wife, Elmira more than 10 years ago. He is one of the many Kyrgyz men who have gotten married through the Central Asian practice of bride kidnapping.
In August, VICE traveled to the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan to investigate the origins and present-day incarnations of bride kidnapping. We met a family who was preparing their 18-year-old son, Kubanti, to kidnap his desired bride Nazgul, a teenage girl from the next town over. Kubanti gathered his friends into an eight-seat minivan and plotted out the operation: Lure the girl to the neighborhood watering hole (an actual watering hole), then ambush her and drag her kicking and screaming into the van and away from her family.
Bride kidnappings happen in two basic ways: There are "consensual kidnappings," where the two people know each other and it is a kind of role-playing, then there's full-on, off-the-street abductions. Unfortunately, they both look the same. It can be hard to tell if the girl you see crying for her mom and clawing at the faces of her abductors is merely acting out her part for her boyfriend and his family's sake, or is actually on her way to being married against her will.
Although the tradition of bride kidnapping is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, authorities largely ignore the law. Nearly half of all marriages in rural Kyrgyzstan are a result of the practice, with the most common justification being "tradition."
Russell Kleinbach, founder of the Kyz Korgon Institute, a non-governmental organization that works to abolish bride-kidnapping, argues that the practice has never been a part of Kyrgyz tradition. "The main source for Kyrgyz customs is the national epic, Manas. But if you read the entire Manas, nowhere in it does the hero kidnap his wife or even reference the practice. Actually, according to our research, we think the practice of bride kidnapping started in the 19th century and didn't become popular until the 1940s and 50s, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union. What I tell people when I go out to the countryside to educate them about bride kidnapping is 'It's illegal, it's against Islam, and it's not in Manas.'"
Not only are its historical antecedents pretty dubious, bride kidnapping has become a serious danger to the country's women says Kleinbeck. "Spousal abuse is higher in kidnapped marriages, the divorce rate is higher in kidnapped marriages, and suicide rates are higher."
None of this seems to phase the men who have participated in this practice. "We are Kyrgyz," says Madiev, "it is in our blood."