The conversation started when Tatik Haykush and I were looking through old family photo albums–both hers and mine.
“No photos. No wedding”. said Haykush and shrugged. I goggled. This is not a country where people are casual about connubial commitment. “Are you married?” is the first question asked of any woman 17-75 and if the answer is No then people find it a worry. What did Haykush mean, no wedding?
“He just came home with her one day and said this is my woman” said Haykush. She laughed in embarrassment. Everyone else in the room guffawed.
“You realize what we just heard” said my fellow volunteer Anna, who speaks Hayeren better than I do. “There was a bridenapping here…”
Bridenappings, unfortunately, have long been part of the culture in the Caucasus. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Christopher Edling, now back in the States, conducted a survey on the custom about five years ago. He did his research in Goris and surrounding villages–the area where I now live. Working with women from Goris Women’s Resource Center he asked local woman to speak voluntarily and anonymously about bridenapping. 163 women came forward of whom 54.6% said they had some experience of an attempted bridenap, or were bridenapped themselves. Most of these women were still with the man who took them away. Of the women interviewed, 65% said they knew others who had been bridenapped too. Obviously, Christopher’s survey group were particularly motivated to speak on this topic, but still the group numbers and the percentages seem disturbingly high in this day and age, even in this very patriarchal and conservative country where women still have little autonomy.
I thought about Artur and Aleta. They will have been together 20 years in November. They have three children of 19, 13 and 4. They appear more than averagely loved-up for people who have been together so long. Artur is a mild-mannered, gently humorous man who works night and day to support his family. Aleta is feisty, irrepressible and cheerful. She is not the type you could imagine being bundled into the trunk of a car without protest. If she is unhappy in her marriage, she hides it very well.
Most of the women featured in Edling’s report had no complaints about their kidnapping. They knew and loved the assailant and the bridenapping was a romantic elopement rather than than a brutal assault and attack on their human rights. When Armenians talk to outsiders like me about this phenomenon, this is always how they will present bridenappings: love finds its way. This conservative culture couldn’t allow a woman to just move in with a man she liked the look of, and so it is necessary for her to be seen to have no choice. But not every bridenapping is a love match. 9% of Edling’s interviewees–let’s call it 15 women–reported being forcibly abducted by someone they didn’t care for. “Ruined” by the unwelcome attentions of their ‘napper, most of them felt they could not go home, and that they needed to make a go of the “relationship” in order to remain part of their own family, and the wider community. This is a horribly uncomfortable thought: perhaps 15 women walking around in the small city where I live who were raped, denied choice about a life partner, and decided to make the best of it. Unthinkable.
It is easy to comfort ourselves with the thought that this sort of behavior was “back in the day” and that we are hearing historical reports of wrongs committed half a century ago. Well, maybe. But a young male volunteer on the other side of the country reported that his (male) lunch companions were hooting and hollering about a recent bridenapping in their neighborhood just last week. It really shook him up. And he’s from small-town Georgia, so he’s not easily shocked by family matters.
According to Edling’s report, when brides–whether bruised and bewildered or cheerfully complicit–are brought home to their new family for inspection, they are generally welcomed. Concerns may be voiced about the couple being too young, or too headstrong, but the deed is done. Families will often try to convince a reluctant bride that, being used goods and all, she might as well settle down, assume her new role in the family and grow to love their son. I could find no reporting about the feelings of mums and dads whose daughters, without warning, suddenly live somewhere else. Surely, surely most would urge them to come home?
Back to Artur and Aleta. I had them both alone at the breakfast table the other day. The talk turned to weddings –they were off to a family ceremony in Yerevan.
“Did you know each other before you were married?” I asked carefully. It is hard to know if Artur ignored the question because he couldn’t understand me, because he thought it was silly, or because he didn’t want to share. I persevered and eventually Aleta understood where I was coming from.
“Oh yes, we knew each other for 5 months before”
“But no wedding?”
“No” she laughed. Artur sloped off, muttering something about a vacuum cleaner he needed to mend.
“Why not?” Always one to ask an extra, unwelcome question, my powers are particularly sharpened here. If you know only a very few words you use them how you can, and people forgive your bluntness and nosiness because they know you don’t know how to dress it up as anything else.
“I don’t like weddings” said Aleta, and pulled faces and made hand gestures to suggest that she finds them fussy and irritating and tiresome. “And it was 1997 and the country was in a terrible state–no lights, no water. No-one had any money….” She shrugged, remembering the awful years after the fall of the Soviet Union when the fledgling Republic of Armenia had to pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again.
I exhaled. As a matter of preference and practicality Aleta and Artur had decided to forgo a visit to the Orthodox priest, the big family party, the pouffy dress, the fireworks, the cognac and the dancing. I would do the same myself. I have no idea whether there is a piece of paper from a courthouse or if community presumption of a sexual relationship is enough to seal a lifelong deal, in the absence of a wedding ceremony. Certainly in these parts there is only married or unmarried: terms that directly correlate to sexually active and not. (You can imagine what a culture shock this is for a lusty busload of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, working here in Armenia for two years.) Whatever the semantics, I am glad to know that Artur is not a villain, and that Aleta is not a victim. Sadly, not every couple in these parts can say the same.
That’s enough talk about marriage for now. It is staple of conversation in Armenia, much as the weather is in the UK, and the price of gas can be in the US. I have never spent so much time discussing my own marital status, and that of my children (at 24 and 27 everyone here worries that they are aging out of the market. I have no such concern). I note with pleasure that Aleta, a wife at 17, is not eager for her own 19-year-old daughter to be married. “She’s little. She’s young” she says. Diana loves sparkling dresses and full hair and make-up so it seems reasonable to assume that she will want a big wedding when her time comes. Let’s hope no ardent but aggressive admirer robs her of the occasion.
Hear Christopher Edling talk about his research on Armenian bridenapping here.