Tradition = Patriarchy in Disguise

I have blogged before about the highly patriarchal practice of bride-kidnapping, especially in Kyrgyzstan, but here is a reminder from Al-Jazeera English.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The government of Kyrgyzstan has decided to toughen the penalties for the practice and guess which excuse is trotted out to protest the change? Of course: tradition.

“Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is poised to vote on legislation that would toughen the penalty for bride kidnapping.

The bill has caused heated debate, splitting parliament and society into those who defend it as a tradition and those who see it as a violent crime.

The practice of bride kidnapping is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. According to the ombudsman’s office, some 8,000 girls are kidnapped for forced marriage every year across the country.

The Women’s Support Centre (WSC) in Bishkek puts that figure even higher at almost 12,000 cases a year. Most of these cases happen in poor and rural areas.

WSC is part of the network that campaigns against bride kidnapping. Zabila Matayeva, 38, became a WSC volunteer last year after a family tragedy. Her sister, Cholpon Matayeva, was kidnapped for marriage by a husband who beat her frequently.

When she finally demanded a divorce after a decade of marriage, he stabbed her to death. He has been jailed for 19 years.

(…)

Under the existing law, a man faces a fine or maximum of three years in prison for abducting a woman for marriage against her will. The new bill proposes increasing that to seven years, after an initial suggestion to make it 10 years.

(…)

Not all legislators support the bill though. Some claim that it goes against Kyrgyz tradition and may have serious implications for society.

“We will put all men in Kyrgyzstan in prison if we increase the punishment for bride kidnapping,” said MP Kojobek Ryspaev, during a discussion of the bill at a parliamentary session earlier this year.

Opponents of the changes claim bride kidnapping plays an important role in society.

Parents and relatives relentlessly pressure young men in Kyrgyzstan to marry after they reach a certain age. For many, especially for poor families, this is the cheapest and quickest way to marry their son.

If the new law is passed then all relatives who are somehow involved in the process of kidnapping may face a prison term.

“This is a tradition that existed and will exist no matter what law you adopt,” Bishkek resident Bobek, 48, said, voicing an opinion that appeared to be shared by many. He said the law would only fuel corruption, as men would bribe their way out of trouble.”

It’s like everybody’s a bloody functionalist, all of a sudden.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as “tradition” understood as long standing practice, so deeply and objectively embedded in the culture that it cannot be extirpated without great damage to society and disturbance. The reality is less dramatic: traditions are narratives that justify power arrangements, especially of patriarchal nature. These are socially and discursively constructed devices designed to protect hierarchies and oppression from questioning and social change. To  invoke tradition is to us it as a joker card that shuts down discussion and gives the holder an automatic win in favor of maintaining the status quo.

In addition, on top of the social disruption justification used to keep an oppressive practice in place, note that there is another layer of justification used: fighting the tradition won’t work. The idea is that a tradition is so deeply ingrained throughout the social structure that individuals will not be able to evade it and will find ways around the law. In this model of the social structure and culture, men (as only men are discussed as actors) are traditional dopes (in the same sense of “cultural dope” in Harold Garfinkel’s sense) and women are just objects to be grabbed, as dictated by tradition.

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