A cause for Kyrgyzstan, 16 years and counting

A life-changing conversation with a leading expert on bride-kidnapping

Last week I had the honor of meeting with Dr. Russell Kleinbach, one of the world’s leading experts on bride-kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. A professor emeritus of Philadelphia University, this is his tenth trip to Kyrgyzstan since first teaching in Osh as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998.

Born and raised as a Minnesota farm boy, Dr. Kleinbach went to seminary in Kansas City then worked as a civil rights activist, once meeting with senators on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s.

After returning from his trip to Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a guest on a talk show debating the Vietnam War. Going head to head with staunch proponents, the “green” Dr. Kleinbach quickly found himself in over his head. “They tore me every which way and loose,” he told me, with a quiet chuckle.

For the next six months he read everything he could on the war, educating himself on the history and perspectives of the conflict. This led him and his wife to spend the last two years of the ‘60s living and working in Vietnam. The experience helped shape his deep ideological belief that “the foundation of all conflict in the world is inequality.”

Dr. Kleinbach worked for most of his career as a professor teaching psychology and the humanities. Having had a keen interest in the Soviet Union, he took the opportunity to live and work in Kyrgyzstan, a former soviet republic, a few years into its newly forming history. Here Dr. Kleinbach was first made aware of the phenomenon of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a social ill that affected his students and those in his community. Sixteen years later, Dr. Kleinbach continues to work researching and educating Kyrgyz people on the effects of this practice and how it can be stopped.

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is an extremely complex issue which runs the spectrum from those who elope to those who are physically taken practically at random off the street. Dr. Kleinbach’s cause works to end what they call “non-consensual bride-kidnapping” or the practice of forcing a woman to marry who doesn’t want to. (More detailed information can be found in this well-written 2013 Eurasianet article. A descriptive account can be found in this NYT article from 2005.)

Reducing bride-kidnapping rates one village at a time

I was initially invited to meet Dr. Kleinbach by my Japanese volunteer friend in our village. Entering the guest house where he and the director of the organization he started, Kyz Korgon, were staying, we found them folding pamphlets and rolling posters for their next round of seminars and door-to-door canvassing in villages in our region.

He started right in with the history of his work in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, the research he’s done, and the methods of education they employ.

Bride-kidnapping is a prevalent practice that, according to his research, has been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. It is popularly believed here among Kyrgyz people that this practice has ancient cultural roots, yet Dr. Kleinbach believes it’s a more recent phenomenon. “In a culture without a written history, tradition can develop quite quickly,” he tells me, adding that no where even in oral tradition does the idea of bride-kidnapping appear as a legitimate way of gaining a wife. “It’s not in the Manas,” he says, referring to the world’s longest epic poem and what today many Kyrgyz people consider the foundation of Kyrgyz culture.

This is one of the appeals he makes to people during his organization’s seminars. They focus on a multi-pronged approach to reach people which includes a discussion on how according to the Koran, Muslim Imams are forbidden to bless a marriage that is non-consensual.

“The issue is start the thinking process,” he says. But he’s doing a lot more than that. His work is getting results.

The organization he works with canvasses an entire village, conducting interviews with women and men to determine the statistics on the number of women who have married non-consensually. Then, they meet with students and unmarried youth to show a video of women who have been kidnapped and discuss the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. The sessions end with an appeal for a written and signed “pledge of resistance” form stating that for girls, if kidnapped they will leave and return home, and for boys, that they will promise to only marry someone who will agree to the marriage.

The next year his organization returns to the same village and conducts interviews with those who have been married since they were in that village the previous year. The results are showing nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of non-consensual marriages.

His talk on the organization’s work only slowed when our host brought out the afternoon lunch of rice soup and steamed dumplings.

You’re asking the wrong question

As the conversation moved on to the kind of chatter associated with all meals, I felt this growing urge to ask him a selfish question. Maybe it was his professorial demeanor. Maybe it was his warm heart and open ear from decades of mentoring students. Maybe it was simply a deep gift for relating to people. Whatever it was, I felt that tug that comes whenever you’re in the presence of someone great, that tug to ask for sage words of wisdom gained from a life of living with purpose.

“What am I supposed to be?”

As a 30-year-old, still hopping the world every couple of years without a clear plan, I yearn for that calling. A cause that pulls my feet out of bed every day to stand for something instead of that listless noise that’s made me fall for everything.

“If you had a calling, you’d probably know it by now,” he says, tossing the thought ball back to me. “Don’t worry about the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’…Focus on a cause you can pursue.”

Indeed Dr. Kleinbach didn’t discover the cause of bride-kidnapping prevention until he was in his late 50s. “Ah, but I already had a full life teaching. This is just sort of the icing on the cake.” He went on to commend the role of the teacher I’ve been playing saying that’s cause enough, an honorable cause.

Always one to make things practical, he followed this immediately by challenging me to pick up the cause of educating people of the dangers of bride-kidnapping and helping people work out a better way. To stake my claim here, in Kyrgyzstan, working with local people to end this practice that wrecks havoc in so many lives.

And there it is: the secret. It’s nothing more—and nothing less—than simply doing something. To start thinking about others and what needs to be done. To not worry about having what it takes or being on the right path because in his words, “the education will take care of itself.” That each and every cause is fought by people who through doing the work are discovering how to better people’s lives.

I’d been asking the wrong question and seeking its answer in the wrong direction. Focus on the self is where the problem lies, not the solution.

A cause to celebrate

“You ever hear about stone soup?” Dr. Kleinbach gave me a whimsical look.

I had—I remembered the story from grade school, where a man with only a stone for dinner invites the village over for soup, but first cleverly asks each person for just a little something to flavor the stone. The story ends with a simmering pot of vegetable stew and dinner for the entire community. I nod.

“I’m the guy with the stone.”

Dr. Kleinbach looks at me with the smile of one wise enough to know it’s not the personal cause alone that changes the world. It’s a focused heart, a willingness to do something and an invitation to draw others in to make a difference.

IMG_6310A student painted poster hanging in my school reads: “The 8th of March! Dear ladies and girls–we congratulate you on your upcoming holiday.” (International Women’s Day)

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