Behind Bride Kidnapping: Interview with Lara Aharonian
Written by Mariam Avagyan
25 October 2021
In her work at the Women’s Resource Center, Lara Aharonian has seen multiple cases of bride kidnapping. In this interview, Mariam Avagyan talks to Aharonian about the silence around bride kidnapping, the importance of consent, and the Women’s Resource Center’s work to raise awareness and address this issue in Armenia.
Mariam Avagyan: What do you think, is the practice of bride kidnapping still present in Armenia?
Lara Aharonian: Yes, we all know that the practice of bride kidnapping exists, however, unfortunately, we do not have statistical data about the phenomenon. I remember Peace Corps volunteer Chris Edling came and asked us questions back in 2012; he was working on a scientific article. But people don’t want to talk about it, especially when asked by an outsider. They think it’s our nation’s internal issue that would be shameful to bring up. The same used to be said about domestic violence, though today the situation has improved a little. As a nation we have a complex: we want to show the world how good we are, we don’t make any mistakes, so that we are loved and accepted… I don’t know whether it comes from our history, our problems or the overall situation but we tend to silence people who speak about these themes labelling them as “traitors”, “home-wreckers” etc. In other countries, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, it is more common to discuss the bride kidnapping issue. For us it’s the elephant in the room.
MA: Have there been any victims of kidnapping within the Women’s Resource Center?
LA: Over recent years we had a couple of women who called our hotline for help, and they had been kidnapped. But the reason for calling was violence, not kidnapping. Working with them at a later stage we found out how their relationships started. They had been kidnapped and raped, or just held captive… You know how it is… They hold the woman for a bit, to lower her reputation, even if no sex has been had.. Anyway, if she spent a night at somebody else’s home, it’s the end. It’s a shame. She must marry the kidnapper, or… There are very few cases when another way out is found.
MA: Does the Women’s Resource Center take any measures that address this or similar issues?
LA: We have walking campaigns once every two years. We go and stay in villages and talk with the residents. Last time we were in Gegharkunik province and people spoke a lot about cases of bride kidnapping. While we walked they showed us the houses where kidnapped women lived, but they would always talk about it in a light manner. They said there were cases when the families didn’t have money for a wedding party and that’s why they agreed on bride kidnapping. There were cases when the girl’s parents were against the marriage. But there were also cases when the bride was kidnapped against her will. I don’t remember which village in Gegharkunik it was, we were talking with the school teachers about girls’ education. And one of the teachers said: “I have a daughter and she is very beautiful. She wants to go to Yerevan for her studies but I won’t let her. We never let pretty girls go to study. You never know what will happen there, they may get kidnapped or something else… The ugly ones, no problem, we let them go, they can go study, nothing will happen to them”.
MA: Why do you think bride kidnapping cases still take place in Armenia?
LA: I think the thing is that our society doesn’t understand what’s called consent. Consent is very important at all stages of a relationship, be it between a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a married couple or strangers, one of which fell in love with another. We don’t teach kids about consent. If you’re in love with someone who is not interested, you cannot make him or her marry you without giving consent. Even before touching someone you should ask for consent.
The next problem is that this issue has never been researched in Armenia (except Chris Edling’s article in 2012). Besides, people disguise it under the veil of tradition. When we try to combat this, they call us “traitors” and “against Armenian traditions”.
There is another problem as well: as a society, we have a low level of awareness. We haven’t yet reached the point to condemn all types of violence. Even in the most flagrant cases there will always be people (mostly in social networks) who will place the blame on the victim. For instance, they would say: “Perhaps you wanted to be kidnapped… Perhaps you provoked…”․ Even in cases of femicide they’d say: “Perhaps she was sleeping around”, etc. So it is very hard to encourage the victims to be brave and tell their stories. And to find a solution to a problem like this it is crucial to share personal stories.
As the young generation looks around, they don’t see healthy relationships. They hear sounds of beatings coming from the neighbors’ houses, they watch TV shows where the hero kidnaps, beats and swears at a woman… So young people never see an example of healthy, respectful relationships and grow up thinking that violence is normal.
MA: How should we combat bride kidnapping?
LA: First, we should inform people about these cases. The problem should be studied, there needs to be data and a strategy must be developed. Research needs to be assembled, and then a strategy developed to address the issue. But the most important step is we need to start talking about this.
That is why it is very important that people share their stories. For example, cases of domestic violence are discussed more now, and, as a result, we see positive changes. The victims would come with us to the government, to the Ministry of Justice and other places and they would share their stories. In these cases it was already very difficult to ignore their voices. The Women’s Resource Center submitted proposals to the Government of Armenia on making amendments in the Criminal Code. We submitted proposals about sexual violence and consent. After the revolution the political environment has become much more favorable in Armenia. I hope Armenia will ratify the Istanbul convention as it includes all the provisions condemning all types of violence.
You can find more information on the Women’s Resource Center at https://womenofarmenia.org/