Bride Kidnapping: Crime, Culture and Everything in Between
Written by Mariam Avagyan
12 May 2021
If you grew up in Armenia or in an Armenian community, you might have played a game called Aghjik Pakhtsnotsi (Աղջիկ փախցնոցի, Girl-Kidnapping) as a kid. The game is simple and quite popular among Armenian kindergarteners. You start with an odd number of kids, one more boy than there are girls, and get in two lines with arms raised together. The odd boy out walks through the lines and picks a girl to pakhtsnel (փախցնել, kidnap). Then, the boy who has been left alone has his turn to pick a girl. In more “modern” versions of the game, girls can be in the position of the pakhtsnogh (փախցնող, kidnapper) and get their pick of boys.
Even if you have not played the game, you have likely heard the term aghjik pakhtsnel (աղջիկ փախցնել), which refers to the practice of bride kidnapping. In 2011, a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer named Christopher Edling worked with the Goris Women’s Resource Center to conduct surveys and interviews about marriage practices in the Goris region after he observed bride kidnapping in Khot, the village where he lived for two years. He later studied bride kidnapping in 2015-2016 as a Fulbright researcher in Kyrgyzstan and is currently completing a book on the topic. In one of Edling’s co-authored pieces, bride kidnapping is described as one of several paths to marriage among certain ethnic groups in Central Asia and the Caucasus, including Armenians, Azeris, Chechens, Georgians, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. This form of marriage is sometimes initiated when a man (often with a group of friends) plots to use physical force or deception to capture a woman and transport her to his home with the understanding that she will become his bride. 1
In English, the words “kidnapping” and “abduction” have an immediate negative connotation — these words immediately make a siren go off in your head. However, the word pakhtsnel (փախցնել, to kidnap) in Armenian doesn’t sounds as harsh as “to kidnap” does in English. In fact, it sounds playful, fun, nothing serious; it’s just another word. After all, it is in the name of a popular children’s game. Bride kidnapping is also often used as a romantic arc in Armenian literature and fables. In Armenia, you may also hear about consensualkidnappings, or romantic elopement in other words.
In the music video for a song by Oksy Avdalyan from June 2019, a man sees a woman at a movie theatre and falls for her. After this encounter, he stalks her through different settings, including her home, while she continuously rejects him. Eventually, the man and his friends come to her with a choice: a bag or a ring. She is basically given an ultimatum — marry me or I will kidnap you. She eventually gives in, they get married, and live happily ever after. The video has over 11 million views and thousands of generally positive comments, with one commenter lamenting, “it’s so sad that this does not happen in real life.”
But does it happen in real life?
In 2012, Goris Women’s Development Resource Center Foundation conducted a study called “Bride Kidnapping, Courtship, and Marriage in Armenia” as a pilot research project to gather information about bride kidnapping, relevant courtship, and marriage practices in Armenia over the past decade. The survey included 163 Armenian women, the majority of whom come from rural parts of the Syunik region in Southern Armenia, and showed that 54.6% (89 women) were kidnapped at some point in their lives.2 The average age of survey participants is 24.6 years old; their average age when kidnapped was 19.9 years old. Edling served as the Program Coordinator of this project. The study includes the disclaimer, “it is important to understand that bride kidnapping, as it is practiced in Armenia, encompasses a wide range of actions and consent, ranging from… violent scenario[s] to consensual elopements that are mutually planned and agreed upon in advance.”3
Of the kidnappings reported in the survey, 70% were planned in advance. 94.1% of kidnappings were planned by the boy, 2.9% were planned by the girl, and 2.9% were planned together.
27.9% of kidnappings were done because of family disapproval of the union, 27.9% were done due to time pressure, and 16.2% were done for financial reasons. Culturally, women are not to have sexual relations before marriage, which manifests itself in the idea that girls can have a proper wedding only once in their life because they can lose their “purity” (virginity) only once. Therefore, if a girl is kidnapped and as a result no longer a virgin, there can be no wedding anymore. Thus, the financial burden of hosting a wedding disappears, leaving the couple no choice but to simply start living together. The deed has been done and holding a “proper wedding” seems no longer reasonable.
To the question, “did you receive pressure to marry your kidnapper?,” 94.4% answered no. However, the majority of women who participated in this survey thought that once kidnapped, a woman should stay with the kidnapper, regardless of if the kidnapping was consensual or not (18% were ashamed/embarrassed; 18% saw no way out; 14.6% were not allowed to return home).
The term “bride kidnapping” in Armenia assumes both consensual and non-consensual kidnapping, but it is important to differentiate the two, even within this blanket term. The survey of women in Syunik provides a glimpse at this, but much more research must be done to make a clear distinction. In the study of Syunik, out of 54.6% (89 women) who were kidnapped at some point in their lives, 42.7% (38 women) claim their kidnappings were not consensual. Additionally, in over one-fifth of kidnappings the boy is not even a friend of (16.7%) or was completely unknown to (5.6%) the girl.
Also according to the study, 9% of kidnapped women were forced to have sex with their kidnapper the day/night of their kidnapping. This statistic suggests a greater issue in conjunction with that of bride kidnapping: That half of women are kidnapped at some point in their lives and that 9% of those women are forced to have sex reveals a serious and disturbing number of Armenian women who are suffering sexual violence.
The majority of survey participants thought that 25-50% of marriages in Armenia are entered into via kidnapping. These are mere guesses made by survey participants, but it shows that it is common knowledge that kidnappings happen. Recently, a man kidnapped his ex-girlfriend, with the help of his two friends, from Republic square in Yerevan and raped her. The three men were charged for their crime, which indicates a shift in what is accepted and what is not. But kidnapping still exists in different forms, and the effects on individual women and Armenian culture are much the same.
Listen to Anna K.’s story, read by Karine Eurdekian, for a first-hand account of the way bride kidnapping — and the way it has been normalized in Armenian culture — manifests itself today.
1Cynthia Werner, Christopher Edling, Charles Becker, Elena Kim, Russell Kleinbach, Fatima Esengeldievna Sartbay & Woden Teachout (2018): Bride kidnapping in post-Soviet Eurasia: a roundtable discussion, Central Asian Survey.
2 Christopher Edling, Goris Women’s Development Resource Center Foundation, “Bride Kidnapping, Courtship, and Marriage in Armenia” Final Report, September 15, 2012.
3 Christopher Edling, Goris Women’s Development Resource Center Foundation, “Bride Kidnapping, Courtship, and Marriage in Armenia” Final Report, September 15, 2012.