Maia was kidnapped by her future husband three times. She managed to escape twice, but the third time she just gave up and accepted her fate.
Now, she says, “Gia is a remarkable husband. I’m happy to live with such a man.” This is despite the fact that Gia and his friends forcibly abducted her, leaving her no option but to marry him.
The couple now have three children. Everybody knows Maia in her home village in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of southern Georgia, so she asked for her real name not to be used.
The story of how Maia began her marriage 14 years ago is typical of what many people in Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region with a mixed Georgian and Armenian population, see as accepted tradition. The practice of “bride kidnapping” has seen a resurgence in the Caucasus since the end of Soviet rule.
Local women’s groups say bride theft is a backward, deeply ingrained form of male violence, and they are starting to try to highlight the issue and help protect women from being “stolen”.
Activists in Samtskhe-Javakheti say it is difficult to give any hard statistics on how widespread the custom is, but they believe hundreds of women in this region are forced to marry against their will every year.
Women say that very few take their complaints to the police because, once they have been kidnapped, great social stigma attaches to the suspicion of lost virginity.
Maia described how Gia – whom she knew – made repeated attempts to abduct her.
“I met Gia when I was in ninth grade,” she recalled. “After finishing school, I continued my education at a theological college. Gia often called on me at the convent. I suspected I was more than just a friend for him. But at the time I was in love with another guy.”
Gia’s friends helped him with all three attempts to abduct Maia. The first time, she said, “They tricked me into getting into their car. I was very frightened. I cried and begged them to turn the car around. Seeing that my tears and entreaties produced no effect, I opened the door, stuck my legs out and said I’d jump out. Passing cars slowed down. Everybody was looking at us.”
Gia relented and let her go, but on a subsequent occasion his friends chased her down a muddy slope before some bystanders intervened and took her into a local church. “I was dirty all over, my clothes were torn. In tears I approached the icon of the Savior, kneeled before it and whispered, ‘Lord, I don’t love him, but let it be the way You want it to be’,” she said.
The third time around, she said, “Someone put his hand over my mouth to stop me from crying out. I managed to run away, but it was dark outside and I fell down into a ditch, hurting my back. I still have the scar.”
“A terrible feeling seized me after the abduction,” continued Maia. “Even today, I cannot help shivering as I recall it. I didn’t know what to do. Everybody knew that I’d been abducted. I was thinking about my brothers. I thought that if I left, people would say I wasn’t a virgin.
“That is why I decided to stay.”
Some locals estimate half of all marriages involve the bride being kidnapped. In many cases, the abduction is in fact not real, but part of a pre-arranged courtship tradition. There are also cases where a young couple stage the kidnapping so as to avoid getting parental permission for the marriage.
But many of the abductions are all too real, and anything but voluntary.
“In any village, nine out of every ten women will have been abducted,” said a resident of Akhalkalaki, Ofelia Petrosian. “I have a daughter in eighth grade, and I’m afraid to dress her well, as she will then look pretty and could be abducted.”
Petrosian believes the custom continues only because social attitudes are so backward. “It’s all down to the ignorance of young people,” she said. “Their only interest is in getting married. Women are so worried about feeding their families that nothing else bothers them and they’re prepared to live like slaves.”
Teenagers in the leafy central park in Samtskhe-Javakheti’s biggest town, Akhaltsikhe, wear the fashionable clothes and lace their conversations with the latest slang. But their views are typically very traditional.
“I will never marry a girl who’s been abducted once, even if she was returned home on the same day, as her name will be stained forever,” said one young man, Nika Beridze. “Why would I need a woman who’s been abducted by someone else? If I love a girl, I may well want to abduct her too.”
Historians disagree about the origins of the tradition. Some say it appeared while Samtskhe-Javakheti was under Ottoman rule or that it came from the east. Others argue that it is indigenous to the Caucasus.
“This is the Caucasus - abduction is in the blood, and no one can change a thing about it,” said Samtskhe-Javakheti resident Nina Nakhatakian. “I’m 70 years old, and all my life I’ve been seeing families start from abductions. It’s bad for the woman, while a man can always abduct someone else.”
Technically at least, Georgian law is tough on bride-kidnapping. Article 23 of the criminal code covering “crimes against human rights and freedoms” stipulates a sentence of four to eight years imprisonment for the offence, and if it is found to be a premeditated act by a group of people, the prison term can go up to 12 years.
This reflects a change in legislation a few years ago, when a new law was drafted to define bride-snatching as “kidnapping with the goal of marriage”. Until then, it had been viewed as a minor offence which was punished lightly if at all.
Activists and legal experts here say that the legal changes and prospects of severe punishment have had some deterrent effect. But they say it not nearly enough.
“Of the very many abduction cases in Javakheti, only two or three have been officially recorded,” said Akhalkalaki-based lawyer Anaida Oganesian, an expert on bride kidnapping.
“Why is a woman never asked whether she loves the man or not?” she said. “She does not even know that she has rights which she can defend in court. Mothers say to their daughters, ‘What will people say? You’ll have to put up with it, as I did in my time.’”
Oganesian recently worked on the only case ever to come before a judge in Akhalkalaki. “I was defending the girl’s interests and did my best to get the abductor convicted,” she recalled. “But at the last moment she refused, saying, ‘let him leave me alone, and I won’t seek a conviction’.
“The man got away with it. The girl is now in depression and never goes out of her house.”
The lawyer says the abductors operate with impunity because the victims are treated with opprobrium rather than sympathy, “Women are socially vulnerable. In my experience, there haven’t been any cases where a culprit has been punished. A girl who’s been abducted gets no understanding even from her own family; her relatives see it as a disgrace if she returns home.
“The way generations are being brought up is wrong. People using violence against women are not held accountable.”
Oganesian concluded, “It’s just like the 16th century.”
Several non-governmental organisations, NGOs, in Samtskhe-Javakheti are trying to teach young women what their rights are and how they can protect themselves against violence. But they say that changing mindsets even among young people is proving very difficult.
“We meet women of whom a majority have been abducted. They have families and live happily. At least that’s what they say,” said Marina Modebadze, leader of the Woman Democrats in Samtskhe-Javakheti group. “It’s hard to change their mentality. We don’t harbour illusions that everything can be changed immediately, but little by little results will be achieved.”
Modebadze’s group has published information booklets and set up a hot line, and plans to set up a safe house for victims of attempted kidnappings.
Maia, who says she started to love her husband only after more than a year after she was bride kidnapped, shrugs off such activism.
“All shall be as God wills,” said Maia. “The first year of my marriage was difficult, but with God’s help we overcame all the difficulties together. Now I have a daughter growing up, and her future is my major concern. If she ever gets abducted, that will be God’s will, too.”
As for her two sons, she said, “One day they may do what their father did – abduct the one they love.
“There’s no escaping the tradition.”
Gulo Kokhodze and Tamuna Uchidze are correspondents for Southern Gates newspaper, published with IWPR support in Samtskhe-Javakheti.