Regulating, Recognizing, and Religionizing Nike in Kyrgyzstan

In: Hawwa
Julie McBrien Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Amsterdam Amsterdam The Netherlands

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In October 2016, the Kyrgyzstani parliament passed a new law regulating marriage amidst a growing debate on gender, sexuality, and the integrity of the Kyrgyzstani nation. The amendment, which aimed to tackle the already illegal practices of underage and forced marriage, criminalized involvement in these acts by targeting the practice that in Kyrgyzstan is colloquially called nike, or what might be referred to as a religious or non-state registered marriage. The amendment regulated and recognized nike for the first time. By adopting novel language and using terminology whose meaning differed significantly from common usage, the amendment also subtly religionized nike. The vociferous public debate surrounding the passage of the bill similarly marked nike as something done by the particularly pious explicitly outside of the state’s purview, producing a spurious and politicized reading of the quotidian practice in Kyrgyzstan.

1 Introduction*

In October 2016, the Kyrgyzstani parliament passed a bill regulating marriage.1 According to the already existing Family Code of the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, the legal minimum age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan was 18.2 Building on this, the amendment criminalized involvement in underage and forced marriage by up to five years imprisonment; punishable parties included parents giving an underaged child in marriage, religious functionaries performing a marriage ceremony involving a minor, and a person over 18 years of age marrying a minor.3 Nearly a year of public and parliamentary discussion preceded the bill’s passage, including negative votes on earlier versions of it. It was the third draft of the bill that finally passed.

The discussion of the bill, in its various forms, and the incorporation of the amendments into the family and criminal codes, had both intentional aims and unintended consequences. From the outset, the intention of the bill was, for those parliamentarians who introduced it and the citizens who supported it, the protection of young women. At the same time, for the female parliamentarians who introduced the bill, it was a way to bring the discussion of gendered violence and gender inequality to the floor of a chiefly male parliament. Finally, the amendment, which targeted already illegal acts, unintentionally reinforced the state, specifically legislation, as the proper mode of redress and prevention of them. It did not, however, question the state’s role in allowing or facilitating the continuance of the illegal acts; nor did it question the more general failure of the criminal justice system.4 In addition to these rather more evident effects of the amendment, the changes also operated in other, unintended ways. By adopting novel language and using terminology whose meaning differed significantly from quotidian usage, the amendment subtly changed understandings and normative evaluations of how marriages are concluded.

The amendment concerning forced and underage marriages aimed to target the practice that in Kyrgyzstan is colloquially called nike, or what in English might be referred to as Islamic marriage, religious marriage, or a non-state registered marriage. The amendment therefore had to linguistically distinguish it from civil marriage. In everyday situations, these modes are marked out by words from two different languages – Kyrgyz and Russian. A state-concluded marriage is named with a Russian acronym zags (Zapis’ aktov grazhdanskogo sostoianiia, civil registry office), while another form of marriage, tied to being Muslim, is referenced with a Kyrgyz word of Arabic origin – nike.5 While Kyrgyzstan has two official languages, Kyrgyz and Russian, legal documents do not and cannot mix the two languages as most speakers of Kyrgyz do. Its drafters therefore had to create a new set of terminology in Kyrgyz to mark the same distinction.

In the constitution, the word nike stands in for marriage generally and, in many cases, is used for civil marriage. New terms, therefore, had to be developed to mark the practice referred to in quotidian speech as nike. The law adopted language to name either the rituals or the officiants involved in concluding a marriage (nike) as ‘religious’ or ‘civil.’ Passages speak of those ‘religious acts’ (diniy kaada), for example, through which marriage (nike) is concluded. At other times, it refers to ‘a marriage concluded by civil authorities’ (nikege turuu jarandyk abaldyn aktylaryn jazyy organdarynda). As a result, the mode of marriage conclusion that most Kyrgyz simply call nike, was referred to in the amendment as specifically religious. Named with this new vocabulary, the quotidian practice nike appeared for the first time in the constitution. In passing the bill to criminalize underage and forced marriages with this vocabulary, the state simultaneously subtly religionized nike in addition to regulating and recognizing it.

The introduction of all versions of the bill – the failure of the first two forms and the eventual passage of the third version – were covered by national and international (social) media. The vociferous discussion surrounding the bills, which occurred in Kyrgyz, English, and Russian, was one of the first serious public debates specifically about nike. Marriage more generally has, however, been a rising site of contestation in Kyrgyzstan over the last decade and has served as a site to discuss, and at times intervene in, larger matters of concern in contemporary Kyrgyzstani society.

Since its independence in 1991, the Kyrgyzstani state has attempted to balance a secular government, on the one hand, with the centrality of Muslimness in its nation-building project, on the other, while concurrently staunchly positioning itself as against Islamic extremism in the so-called War on Terror (McBrien 2017, Nasritdinov and Esenamanova 2017, Hann and Pelkmans 2009, McBrien 2006). Three decades on, religious life has become vibrant and diverse, with varied understandings of what it means to practice Islam and live a good Muslim life; the politics of religion have become more complex, with novel sites of contestation and collaboration, as a result (Artman 2019, Kudaibergenova 2019, Nasritdinov and Esenamanova 2017, Montgomery 2016, Louw 2013, Montgomery 2007). New feminist movements and the development of a politics of gender have grown significantly over the last decade, adding new voices and concerns to public debates (Suyarkulova 2019, Suyarkulova 2016, Ibraeva, Moldosheva, and Ablezova 2015, Botoeva 2012). In addition, massive labour migration, while contributing to economic growth and stability, has also dramatically marked social life, producing anxieties about the well-being of families and, in some cases, the Kyrgyz nation (Ibraeva, Moldosheva, and Ablezova 2015, Reeves 2012, Isabaeva 2011).

Marriage is a site upon which these worries are projected and one through which divergent concerns are articulated, including the rights and treatment of women, the effect of foreign ideas in Kyrgyzstan, and the protection of the Kyrgyz nation. The new bill on underage and forced marriages articulated a related worry about the influence of religion and the well-being of young women. In the public debate and media coverage surrounding the new legislation, nike was often highlighted as a particularly religious act and one concluded in explicit opposition to, or intentionally hidden from, the state. The novel language of the law was a part of this debate and, though itself not making the kind of moral evaluations done in public, nevertheless similarly marked nike out as especially religious and explicitly in opposition to the state.

Yet these interpretations of nike differed significantly from everyday understandings and practices of it. Always inextricably linked to being Muslim, nike is nonetheless not seen by most in Kyrgyzstan as an especially religious act, nor is it something understood as done by the particularly pious. It is also rarely done with explicit reference to the state and is not viewed as in explicit opposition to or intentionally hidden from it. Rather nike is the most common mode of marriage conclusion regardless of class or degree of religious observance or commitment. By mapping out a particularly religious quality to nike, the amendment and the discussions around it shifted its meaning away from these quotidian interpretations and subtly religionized it. They simultaneously cultivated an interpretation of nike as a questionable, worrisome mode of marriage conclusion which contributes to the harm of young women. The bills and the discussion surrounding them moved nike from the category of widespread, licit Muslim practice closer to the field of illicit, troublesome religion.

2 Nike in Context

Nike and zags point to the two minimal acts through which a marriage is concluded in Kyrgyzstan. Nike is usually done at home, and the officiant, someone understood to be a good Muslim with sufficient knowledge of Islam, is usually a local moldo or an imam. Strictly speaking, an officiant is not required, though in practice there is almost always one.6 Nothing is written down. zags is done in a government building – for example, a city hall or wedding palace – and the celebrant, who might be male or female, is a government official. There are documents which must be signed and stamped.

Nike is by and large a non-issue, both socially and politically, in Kyrgyzstan and has been since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nike is ignored by the law, not mentioned and untreated. There are no laws stipulating its regulation or, for example, mandating that civil marriage must be conducted prior to a religious one, as is common in some Muslim-majority countries, like Turkey (Yilmaz 2004, 62) or Kazakhstan, and in some European ones, like the Netherlands (Moors 2013, 148). Nike is widely practised, rarely criticized, and taken for granted as the mode in which Muslims marry. It does not stand in tension with civil marriage as is often the case for Islamic or unregistered marriages (urfi) in Europe (Moors, Akhtar, and Probert 2018).

While the national codification of Muslim family law, requiring the state registration of marriage, began in the Middle East in 1917, it did not fully get underway until the 1950s (Welchman 2007, 12, 19). This process began much earlier in Central Asia, however; in the early Soviet period, family law in Central Asia saw dramatic alteration, including the adoption of legislation to regulate marriage, with the first two codifications occurring in 1918 and 1926 (Cleuziou 2019). Minimum age limits for marriage were set at 16, later raised to 18, and civil marriage was instituted (Cleuziou 2019, Northrop 2004, 243). Forced marriage, polygyny, and bride-price were outlawed; forced marriage of a women was criminalized with up to five years in prison (ibid.). Islamic marriages were not illegal, but only civil marriages had legal effects. Moreover, though strategies changed over the years, marriage – as both a life-cycle ritual and an element of everyday life (byt) – were sites for Soviet development initiatives and anti-religious campaigns (Northrop 2004; see also Kamp 2006, Edgar 2004). The strength of the early Soviet state meant that these changes, as a part of broader modernizing campaigns, including anti-religious efforts, were wrought with terrible force.

Despite this, nike was commonly practised throughout the Soviet Union’s Muslim regions, including Central Asia, in the mid-to-late Soviet period (1953–91) (Ro’i 2000, 510–49, Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1979, 230). There were regional differences, with occurrences happening rarely in some regions, and in others frequently, including among party members (Ro’i 2000, 532), but nike, along with circumcision and burial rites, remained at the centre of Muslim life in Central Asia (Ro’i 2000, 532) and became the defining feature of religious practice. Nike nonetheless remained a site for state intervention.

At the same time, many other practices (e.g., veiling, regular prayer, religious study and teaching) and institutions (waqf) had been much more successfully targeted by the state. They were either eliminated or highly curtailed, and most were discursively branded as excessively religious and potentially dangerous or threatening. This continued into the mid-to-late Soviet period, just as life-cycle rituals and rituals related to the home, including marriage conclusion, persisted and became intimately tied up with ideas about being Muslim and about being Kyrgyz. These two modes of belonging (Muslimness and Kyrgyzness) altered and developed concomitantly, becoming tightly interwoven. Over the course of the long Soviet period, the anti-religious campaigns, the nation-building endeavours, and the tacit and sometimes explicit permission of religion ‘in the meantime’ led to the intertwining of ethno-national and religious belonging, such that the two became inextricably linked (McBrien 2017). Thus, despite the institution of civil marriage, and attempts to eradicate nike specifically and religion more generally, nike remained widely practised, socially acceptable, and understood as the most essential act for the conclusion of a marriage among Muslims.7 It was not, however, part of those Islamic practices that had been eliminated, highly curtailed, and/or stigmatized as excessively religious or potentially threatening.

The post-Soviet period led to the simultaneous shifting of some of these practices and ideas about religion and nation, with the maintenance of others. Following the collapse of the USSR, nike became a mode of marriage no longer targeted by the state as a site of intervention. It remained widely practised and was both legal and socially licit. More than that, it was highly valued and, just as in the late Soviet period, it was understood as the most essential act for the conclusion of a marriage between Muslims in Kyrgyzstan. Yet, just as in the Soviet period, it was not associated as a practice of the particularly devout, nor was it a sign of exceptional commitment to Islam, in the way receiving religious education or wearing a hijab might be viewed. It likewise was not connected to the kinds of practices that were being viewed and labelled as indicators of extremism, in the way once again, veiling and religious education had been in the early 2000s (McBrien 2017). Marriage by nike was common, ordinary, and very much tied up with ideas of belonging both as Muslims and as Kyrgyz.

In 2015 I conducted a half-year research on controversial modes of marriage conclusion in Kyrgyzstan. I began the project by meeting, discussing, and spending time with a network of middle-class adults, in their thirties, who I had then known for 17 years.8 I extended my research by working with their friends, families, and colleagues, who lived spread throughout the country, but most concentrated in the three largest urban centres – Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad, and the small southern town where the core group had attended high school. I also worked in a small agricultural village in Issyk-köl, near Karakol. The socio-economic levels of my interlocutors here varied from middle-class to somewhat poorer. During this time, I interviewed, observed, regularly visited, and lived with my interlocutors. I participated in their daily lives, got to know them very well, and, of course, discussed marriage with them.

Concluding a marriage through nike was, for my interlocutors, an essential part of being a Muslim. “It is what Muslims do,” Azamat, a 32-year-old married man working for Osh’s major electricity provider, told me. His answer came with a sense of slight confusion and exasperation. I had known Azamat a long time, and he was used to my sometimes odd questions, but having to explain such a self-evident thing to me seemed rather unnecessary.

Azamat was not alone in his opinion regarding the necessity of concluding nike. During my inquiries into how people got married, I would often ask whether they concluded a nike and why. My question was often met with a quizzical look and the reply, “Of course.” My interlocutors would explain, just like Azamat, that it is how Muslims marry. Azamat himself had had a nike, as had each and every married, divorced, or widowed person I interviewed in my research on marriage that year, in addition to all the friends and relatives they told me about.

Similar queries about the conclusion and importance of zags were, however, met with a variety of responses, depending on whether the person I was speaking to had done zags, when they had held their civil marriage, and how they had done so. A civil ceremony can occur on the same day as nike, but it can be done later or never at all. While nike is often performed without the civil ceremony (zags), or with zags followed by a delay of months or years, the converse – zags without nike – nearly never occurs. When and how zags is done differs considerably from nearly simultaneously with nike to years later, often around the time of the birth of a child and then with no fanfare, just a signature. Nike, in contrast, is always done. Its occurrence is so self-evident and take for granted, it leaves little to discuss with an anthropologist like me wanting to know why it is done.

3 The Amendment

Nike remained largely undiscussed and unregulated in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan until 2016, when two female deputies, Aida Salyanova and Elmira Zhumalieva, introduced a series of bills in parliament that would have regulated nike, though this was not the stated intention of the bills. The deputies were concerned that underage marriage, bride abduction, and other forms of forced marriage were still occurring despite laws which set the legal age of marriage at 18 in Kyrgyzstan and prohibited bride abduction. Nike was, they argued, the practice which allowed these modes of marriage to persist and, therefore, in order to tackle the problem, they first attempted to regulate nike. A defeated version of the bill would have required an imam or moldo to verify documents demonstrating a civil union prior to conducting nike (Beyshenbek Kyzy 2016). The version of the bill which eventually passed no longer regulated nike but instead penalized those participating in the marriage of a minor – naming the marriage partner, a parent, or the Islamic authority concluding the marriage.9 The bill passed and was signed into law in November 2016.10

In the existing law, the newly adopted amendment, and the presidential reports concerning the amendment, the word used for marriage is nike.11 In the Family Code, the Criminal Code, and the presidential reports on the amendments, the texts mention, for example, ‘marriageable age’ (nike kuragy) and ‘minors getting married/underage marriage’ (jashy jete elek adamdardy nikege).12 Section Two of the family code is called ‘marriage and divorce’ (nikege turuu jana toktotuu). In each of these cases, the only word referring to marriage is nike.

This is not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that the typical Kyrgyz reader would be inclined to read ‘nike’ and think of a ceremony with a moldo or imam, but would not think of zags.13 Yet when the law uses the word nike, it seems to be pointing to both zags and nike simultaneously or only to zags. For example, in the instances cited above, ‘minors getting married/underage marriage’ (jashy jete elek adamdardy nikege), the word used for marriage is nike.14 It stands in for marriage broadly. To specify civil marriage, the law discusses manners of marriage conclusion. For example, the first article in the section on terms and conditions of marriage (Art. 11, pt. 3) defines marriage as an act performed by civil authorities (nikege turuu jarandyk abaldyn aktylaryn jazyy organdarynda).15 The law goes on to indicate that the rights and duties of couples in a marriage come into effect only at the moment of state registration of that marriage.16 The three statues in Article 14 around marital age speak of ‘the marriageable is 18 years old.’17 Here again, only the word ‘nike’ is used. Statute 2 governs the exception that can be made for a 17-year-old.18 Here, it is specified that a (local) state official must approve this exception. Statute 3, the one adopted in November 2016, criminalizes underage marriage and refers to the criminal code in this case.19 In all of these cases, nike is the word used for ‘marriage.’ Yet in all instances, the average Kyrgyz reader would likely have used the words zags to cover the kind of state-linked acts that are being described by the law and summed up with the word nike.

There is a certain logic to this. zags is an acronym in the Russian language and, while Russian is an official language of Kyrgyzstan, in official legal Kyrgyz texts, only Kyrgyz is used. This would have precluded the usage of the term zags in the Family or Criminal Code. Moreover, it is an acronym, from the Russian word for the civil registry office. Taken literally, the acronym does not refer to getting or being married; registratsiia braka or grazhdanskii brak would be more natural substitutes. Yet zags has become the colloquial way of referring to civil marriage. It is for these reasons that zags could not be used in the Kyrgyz language version of the law and the novel use of nike was introduced. We see a bit of linguistic creation and one that comes with necessary departures from everyday use. If two words, nike and zags, are replaced by one (nike), then something must be done to denote the difference between the two.

It is in the criminal code that we see for the first time a modification of the word ‘nike’ and hence its possible widened meaning in the texts to include both a ritual performed by a moldo and one performed by a state official. In the criminal code, it is specified that those who can be punished under the new law regarding underage marriage are people who would conclude a marriage through din (religious) ritual or din (religious) acts (diniy yrym-jyrymdardy; diniy kaada).20 The publication from the president’s office about the amendment likewise shows novel word combinations. In this document, as in the aforementioned criminal code, the word ‘din’ is combined with other words to indicate those who might be performing a marriage ceremony involving a minor.21 Din is applied to yrym jyrym or kaada, both of which can be interpreted as acts or rituals, and in one case with kyzmatkerler, meaning those in service – in this case, officials. And so, together, translated literally, they become religious rituals or religious acts and religious officials.

None of this might seem particular noteworthy or interesting precisely because these are distinctions one might expect to find in a secular civil code or family law. They articulate distinctions made in English on a regular basis religious/civil ritual, religious/civil act, religious/civil official. But it is precisely what these words – diniy yrym-jyrymdar/religious ritual – call to mind in English that I have tried to avoid. For the usage and understanding of these terms is incongruous with the meaning and usage of their supposed cognates, nike and zags, in daily life.

Take the usage of nike, for example. As I described above, in everyday life, nike and zags are the two words which refer to two different ways of getting married. Both are important, and to a certain extent they are both required, but they carry a different necessity and are evaluated by different publics. The former is important in the eyes of kin, social networks, and God; the latter, for the state. But in everyday Kyrgyz there is not one word which would capture both, no overarching term of which nike and zags are subsets, and which therefore would require an adjective like ‘religious’ (diniy) to accompany and distinguish it from other terms. No one in Kyrgyzstan would read, speak, or hear the word nike and think of the signing a state document or standing in a wedding hall in a white dress. These things come to mind only when one says zags. The converse is true as well.

And yet the law uses the word nike in this way. The law uses nike either as an overarching term which could include both practices of nike and zags as they are understood in everyday speech or it is used to signify zags. Then, to further specify that act, which is done with a moldo, the president’s media release and the law employ the word din. It does so because it already has the idea of diniy/religious (nike) and jarandyk/civil (nike) in mind, a set of terms and distinctions not being made in everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.22 The former would be redundant and the latter would not make sense; it is simply zags.

Let me use one example to highlight how divergent these usages are, and how much more complicated the language around marriage is in the Kyrgyz language. During the first weeks of my fieldwork, I met up with old friends and told them about my new research project – controversial modes of marriage conclusion. It was not easy to explain. The first hurdle was the fact that you cannot, in Kyrgyz, say ‘how people get married,’ for there are at least two different verbs to say ‘getting married.’ One is used for women (turmush chyguu) and one is used for men (üylönuu). So, I had to start with a list: “I am interested in how men get married and how women get married.” Understandably, people looked at me strangely. I began to specify: “For example, how do they meet a man or a woman? Do they pay bride price, and if so, how much? Do they do nike? Do they do zags? Which one? Both?” My friends and I could think of no simpler way to say all of this. One interlocutor suggested I default to the masculine form for ‘getting married’ (üylönuu) for a general term, which is commonly done with other vocabulary (e.g., the word for child is in fact the same word for a little boy). But that often led to confusion, and I was forced, again and again, to explain it by making lists and explaining at length.

Interestingly, no one suggested that I say my research was about nike or different ways of doing nike, as this would have been too specific and would have always implied only an act with a moldo or imam. The same was true of explaining my research in terms of zags. And no one, in all that time, ever suggested the words diniy nike (religious nike) or jarandyk nike (civil nike). To press the point further, when I had done research on religion and politics some years previous, I never once heard the words diniy (religious) and jarandyk (civil) as adjectives, when in many cases I wanted them to exist. I wanted people to identify each other as diniy (religious) or not, to the extent that I tried using the Kyrgyz word in that way to refer to some people. I was met only with confused looks. Diniy (religious) was simply not a modifier being used; it made no sense even when one was doing research about religion. It may be that, in the intervening years, the word has come to be used that way, just as now the word hijab is in regular usage in Kyrgyzstan but was not then. However, never once did I hear the words diniy and nike put together in my research on marriage.

The use of the word nike in the law as an overarching category that contains both zags and nike is novel. However, there is a congruence with the new language used by the law and differences that are being indicated by nike and zags when used in everyday speech. One might therefore be inclined to say that what in everyday speech is marked with two distinct words (nike and zags) is now, in the legal texts, being distinguished by modifiers to nike. In each case, one part of the pair is being used to mark out getting married as relating to the state; in the other, there is the idea of getting married as relating to Islam. This is true no matter which vocabulary is being used.

However, a problem arises when, in Kyrgyz, the word ‘religious’ is attached to the word nike and is used to point to that everyday mode of marriage in which people engage, for the two imply slightly different things. Similar divergences of meaning occur when, for example, nike gets translated into the English ‘religious’ or ‘unregistered’ marriage. Whether in NGO documents, media reports, or social media posts, these supposed translations or clarifications of nike give a spurious impression of the understanding and practice of nike in everyday life.

4 The Debate

There was considerable, emotional, at times vociferous, discussion in newspapers and on social media about the proposed amendments. After the failure of the second version of the bill, for example, parliamentarians who had voted against it were labelled paedophiles on social media. This large, nation-wide public discussion of nike as an issue in need of regulation, or protection, is a very recent development. It surfaced through the emergence and intertwining of three political trends. First, over the last decade, newly developing feminist groups and LGBTQ activists have put issues related to gender and sexuality at the forefront of national politics for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Concurrently, gender has increasingly become a focal point for many international development campaigns in Central Asia, similar to the way it has grown in prominence throughout global development endeavours. Finally, massive labour migration, including among women, has severely impacted the social landscape of Kyrgyzstan, raising anxieties about the stability of families, the influence of foreigners on the Kyrgyz, and the constancy of the ethno-nation.23 These somewhat divergent impulses have pushed the problematization of marriage practices to the forefront in Kyrgyzstan.

In 2013, for example, the punishment for bride abduction was increased from 3 to 10 years imprisonment. In 2015, there was discussion in parliament concerning the prohibition of marriage between Kyrgyz and non-Kyrgyz. The proposed bill did not pass. However, in 2016, a law declaring that marriage was understood as a union between a man and a woman, effectively outlawing homosexual marriage, was accepted. Finally, in 2016, the amendment under discussion, setting a penalty for those participating in the marriage of a minor, passed.

While the legislative efforts of the last decade similarly take marriage as a site of intervention and a practice of concern, they articulate overlapping, yet divergent, fields of anxiety. For example, the 2015 discussion of Kyrgyz/non-Kyrgyz marriage, as well the 2016 amendment which established marriage as inherently heterosexual, was grounded in, and produced, a heightened worry about the integrity of the Kyrgyz ethnos and its culture. The 2016 bill effectively prohibiting homosexual marriage was in part an effort to shore up ‘traditional’ Kyrgyz values, but it was likewise an articulation against the perceived intervention of international – read primarily as Western European and American – notions and practices of sexuality and gender; it mimicked what had played out in Russia not long before.24

There is a similarity with the logic deployed in these discussions with that of defenders of bride abduction, one of the two practices at the heart of the other debates on marriage. Both bride abduction and underage marriage have been illegal in Kyrgyzstan since its independence, and both were illegal during the Soviet period. Nevertheless, bride abduction is widely practised, and it was primarily international NGOs and foreigners who started discussions and campaigns to eradicate the practice in the post-Soviet period. The initial Kyrgyz response to these internationally led campaigns attempted to protect bride abduction as a ‘Kyrgyz’ practice being targeted by foreign intervention, the same defence used in debates about homosexuality and marriage to non-Kyrgyz. This is why so many campaigns against bride abduction have attempted to prove the practice is not a national tradition, therefore removing an appeal to custom as an argument for upholding the practice. They argue instead that bride abduction is a crime and a human rights abuse.25

While early efforts to eliminate underage and forced marriage were primarily foreign led, in the last few years, there has been increasing attention paid to them by local activists, academics, politicians, and families of abductees. Bride abduction as a harmful practice is being publicly discussed in Kyrgyzstan, and outcry over police mishandling of cases is bringing attention to the complicity of law enforcement in its continued practice. At the base of most local action against it is a concern for the abducted women, a worry which resonates with those articulated by international actors.

Discussions about forced and early marriage are articulated in overlapping local and international publics. The discussions are carried out in Kyrgyz, Russian, and English-language (social) media, as well as in reports or press releases put out by local and international development organizations in all three languages. This was the case with debates surrounding the 2016 bill on underage marriage, when the particular matter of concern focused on religion and its potential role in the harm of women. Here, the national and international politics of gender and sexuality in Kyrgyzstan, and the anxieties produced by labour migration intersect with the long-standing, complex politics of religion in Kyrgyzstan.

As discussed, the original version of the bill proposed to parliament originally aimed to directly regulate nike and, in doing so, targeted religion as one of the primary sources for the problem surrounding underage marriage. The public discussions surrounding the bills were similarly focused on the role of religion in the marriages. Here, nike was often portrayed as a marginal practice done only by the particularly pious. A rather blatant example of this was an article with the headline “Mullah and marriage in Kyrgyzstan,” which stated, “Nikah is actually becoming more popular in Kyrgyzstan and there are solid reasons for that. The first is simply that young people in Kyrgyzstan are becoming more religious and wish to have a religious ceremony that formalizes their wedding.”26 The article gives not only a rather unnuanced reading of religious life in the country but also a skewed rendering of nike as a previously marginal practice now growing in number directly due to new religious commitment.

Other discussions rendered nike as something done out of excessive religiosity and explicitly concluded outside of the state’s purview. For example, in an article covering the passage of the law, a lengthy discussion is given in which those participating in nike are sketched as exceedingly devout.27 They are described as women and girls who attend madrasas where it is taught that girls should be married off at puberty. While the number of women and girls receiving religious education in Kyrgyzstan has grown, they are a very small minority and, locally, their attendance would be read as a sign of significant religious commitment. The article then moves on to discuss the celebrants of these marriages, moldos, making a distinction between official religious authorities, who do not allow the marriage of underage girls, and other moldos, who do things in the shadows and conclude secret marriages. This labelling and normative evaluation of religious authorities into bifurcated moral categories utilizes tropes prominent in both Soviet-era and contemporary discourse, in which benign religious practice is linked to that which is state controlled or approved, and that which is not, is rendered as clandestine, threatening, and subversive. Put together, these descriptions, which comprise a significant portion of the article, give the impression of nike as a ritual done by the highly religious and secretly conducted by unsanctioned religious leaders.

Thus in discussions surrounding the proposals of the three versions of the amendment like these, nike is rather negatively evaluated, with the source of its troublesome nature located variously in religious character of the ritual or the supposed piety of those participating in it, and in the assumed stance of those holding nike vis-à-vis the state. Yet the imputation of nike with a particularly pious quality and an explicitly anti-state stance is at odds with quotidian interpretations and practices of it.

5 Nike, the State, and Religion

In marking out nike as unregistered in these debates, the practice is signalled as being outside the purview of the state, as secretive, clandestine, illegal, or subversive. Yet nike, as a common and ordinary mode of marriage, is not perceived by most to be transgressive vis-à-vis the state in the way its problematization makes it out to be. It is neither illegal according to Kyrgyz law nor socially illicit. Moreover, rather than conducting nike with explicit reference to the state (i.e., in defiance of, hidden from, or critique on), most hold nike with little thought of the state. The state is simply an irrelevant force in deliberations about concluding nike.

Discourses which translate or play on the notion of nike as unregistered, also appeal to arguments of the state as the arbiter of legality and guarantor of civil rights. In these problematizations, the lack of state registration is portrayed as worrying because it means that a woman can no longer have her rights protected by the state. But many who marry by nike later go on to acquire a state-registered certificate of marriage. The categories are not mutually exclusive: sometimes a couple marries civilly on the same day as they marry by nike; other times, they do so a few weeks or months following the nike ceremony; and in other instances, they acquire the state marriage certificate when it is needed for other things, the registration of a newly born child being a prime example.

Sometimes they do this by holding a civil ceremony, but other times they simply ‘buy’ the document. The fact that most state and public documents – like driver’s licences, university degrees, marriage certificates, and legal pardons – can be purchased, speaks to the nature and function of the Kyrgyz state. In such an environment, it becomes difficult to see nike as defiant of the state or to make claims to the moral superiority and legal weight of a state-registered document. Beyond this, the implication that a state-registered marriage would lead to the protection of a woman’s civil rights is for many in Kyrgyzstan an utterly unfounded claim. Local and state authorities rarely enforce the laws protecting women against domestic violence and bride abduction or ensuring their fair treatment in divorce. The idea that one should marry civilly to gain this protection therefore becomes derisory on two counts.

The portrayal of nike as especially religious, both in the amendment and in the surrounding discussions, likewise gives a spurious reading of both those who conclude nike and also the motivations for doing so. For most in Kyrgyzstan, nike is never perceived of as a particularly religious ceremony or one done only by those perceived to be particularly devout in belief or practice. Nike is, however, elementality bound up with being Muslim, and it is therefore the ritual which sanctions their union, though most speak about it as ‘necessary’ or ‘expected’ of Muslims, and less in reference to ‘Islam.’ Azamat, mentioned above, is a case in point. He immediately indicated nike as the most essential act needed to conclude a marriage, and directly linked it with Muslimness, yet Azamat does not consider himself devout, nor do any of his immediate family members, friends, or those in his wider kinship networks. While understandings and interpretations of Islam in contemporary Kyrgyzstan are multiple and diverse, including notions about what qualifies as particularly ‘religious,’ ‘devout,’ or ‘pious’ behaviour, there is no definition under which Azamat would be thusly qualified. Yet to him, nike is simply the way Muslims marry in Kyrgyzstan. Nike is the practice that is most socially essential for a union to be considered legitimate. In the eyes of kinship and social networks, a marriage without zags is acceptable, but rarely, if ever, so without nike.

I am not arguing that nike is disconnected from religion/Islam for Azamat or for others; it is an inherent part of Muslimness for them. There is, however, a difference between this and an act which is rendered as a practice of the particularly pious. There is a slippage, I would argue, in a double reading of the word ‘religious,’ whether in English or in the new ways ‘diniy’ (religious) is used in Kyrgyz. ‘Religious’ can be understood as belonging to religion, or as an index of a degree of commitment or observance. The former is what is understood by Azamat and many others; the latter is what is implied in the discussions about the amendment.

When nike becomes entwined in heated debates about forced and underage marriage, when it gets mentioned in and regulated by the law as opposed to civil marriage, when it is translated as ‘religious’ or ‘unregistered’ in the context of media reports and NGO documents which link it to harmful practices, a reading of it as especially religious and potentially harmful or deviant is emphasized and strengthened. This connects to the larger politics of religion in Kyrgyzstan, specifically the legacy of Soviet-era discourses about the harmful nature of religion and their congruent post-Soviet counterparts, both of which have long warned about the supposed troubling influence of religion on the well-being of women.

The new law criminalizing underage marriage does none of these things. It is the discussion surrounding the law, in Kyrgyz, Russian, and English, which does. Nevertheless, the law does some very subtle work on its own, work which transforms both the conception and practice of nike. The amendment, for the first time, brings the practice of nike under the regulation of the state and, in doing so, it officially recognizes the practice of nike. At the same time, by distinguishing it from marriages concluded by civil authorities and civil rituals, it religionizes it. The law itself does this primarily by marking it out specifically as part of a religious/civil duality and signalling it as distinct from marriage concluded by civil authorities or through civil rituals. However, the amendment arose as a part of this public discussion about illegal practices, harm to women, and the politics of religion. The marking of nike as religious thus begins to subtly move it out of the category of Muslimness, and into a category of particularly pious, in opposition to the state, and therefore, taken together, deviant and troublesome.

6 Conclusion

The introduction of a bill to criminalize participation in underage marriage on the floors of the Kyrgyz parliament in early 2016 had a fairly straightforward aim – to protect women. Yet the three proposed bills, the passed and accepted amendment, and the discussion surrounding the whole process, operated in a much wider set of ways. Chief among these was the subtle transformation of the language used to discuss marriage and the more manifest normative evaluation of how it is concluded. Formerly untreated in the constitution, the new amendments legally recognized nike in their effort to name the practice seen as enabling the conclusion of underage marriage. In doing so, the law also regulated the practice for the first time, if only just slightly. It was, however, not easy to accomplish this, for the constitution had already used the word nike to signal ‘marriage’ generally and civil marriage specifically, despite the fact that, for most Kyrgyz, nike is a form of marriage conclusion most essential to being Muslim and is what in other contexts might be referred to as an Islamic marriage. No longer left with quotidian vocabulary to signal nike, the law had to create novel language to distinguish the two modes of concluding marriage. In the amendments, but also in press releases from the President’s office about the amendments, and in news reports and social media exchanges, the practice most Kyrgyz refer to as nike, became religionized and marked as something explicitly done out of the state’s purview.

Marriage has become an important site for discussion of contentious social trends in Kyrgyzstan. This consideration of nike intersected a larger, often vociferous, sometimes violent, debate about gender and sexuality in Kyrgyzstan, which grew out of the new feminist and LGBTQ politics, an international development agenda focused on marriage, and anxieties about the stability of the family and, by implication, the Kyrgyz nation as a result of the impacts of massive labour migration.

The 2016 amendment and the debate about nike were also nestled in a broader politics of religion in Kyrgyzstan. Since independence in 1991, the Kyrgyzstani state has had to establish a delicate balance between its role as a secular state, the centrality of Muslimness in its nation-building projects, and its outspoken stance against ‘Islamic extremism.’ This gained particular salience in the early 2000s, as the numbers of those ‘interested in Islam’ grew and became more publicly prominent, just as the so-called global War on Terror was coming into full force. At the same time, the diversity of opinions on proper Muslimness and interpretations of Islam in Kyrgyzstan has grown significantly since the early 2000s, including in the capital, Bishkek, and among state actors, making it a much more contested field.

Marriage functioned as a site through which discussions of these larger societal and political issue could take place, one in which concerned parties attempt to sway the tide through legislation. The intersection of the overlapping, yet divergent matters of concern, of the national and international publics in these debates, provided new points not only of collaboration but also of contestation. In discussions about nike, various national and international publics considered what is acceptable Muslim practice and what goes too far; what counts as religious, what does not, and what might be considered clandestine, threatening, and potentially harmful. This portrayal of the practice nike as particularly religious, or as something explicitly done outside of the state’s gaze, produced a reading of the practice at odds with its interpretation by most in Kyrgyzstan. For most, while nike is elementally tied up with being Muslim and understood as the proper mode of marriage conclusion, it is not viewed as especially religious or done by those who are particularly devout. Moreover, it is not seen as in particular tension with civil marriage, nor is it performed with direct reference to the state (e.g., it is not hidden from or in defiance of it). Nike, marked out as a practice that is particularly religious and explicitly kept outside of the state’s control, produced a spurious reading of it. It shifted understandings of nike from the category of widespread, licit Muslim practice to illicit, potentially troublesome religion.


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Thank you to Rajnaara Akhtar, Mulki Al-Sharmani, and Annelies Moors for advice and input as well as to the European Research Council ‘Project “Problematizing ‘Muslim Marriages’: Ambiguities and Contestation’, 2013-AdG-324180.


KR 2016-Jyldyn 17-Noyabryndagy No. 179 Myyzamynyn redaktsiyasyna (KR Amendment No. 179, 17 Nov. 2016).


Üy-bülö kodeksinin 14-berenesi, Nike Kuragy (Family Code, Art. 14, “Age of marriage”).


Üy-bülö kodeksinin 14-berenesi 3-bölük (Family Code, Art. 14, Pt. 3), Jazyk kodeksi 155 berenesi 1- bölük (Criminal Code, Art. 155, Pt. 1).


The female parliamentarians who introduced the bill have, however, at other times called for criminal justice reforms, as do many activists and NGO workers.


From the Arabic nikah.


Intriguingly, the law also implicitly maps out the difference between different ways of concluding marriage by referring either to the officiant or to the act. In other words, you have marriage by a religious authority or a civil celebrant, or you conclude a marriage through religious acts or civil rituals.


Though people do not speak of it this way, nike was and is a condition for cohabitation.


I have worked or conducted research in Kyrgyzstan off and on since 1998.


KR 2016-Jyldyn 17-Noyabryndagy No. 179 Myyzamynyn redaktsiyasyna (KR Amendment No. 179, 17 Nov. 2016).


Üy-bülö kodeksinin 14-berenesi 3-bölük (Family Code, Art. 14, Pt. 3), Jazyk kodeksi 155 berenesi 1-bölük (Criminal Code, Art. 155, Pt. 1),, last accessed 1 June 2018.






The use of language in the Tajik law is similar, with correspondingly confusing misreading, as Cleuziou argues (2019).


Üy-bülö kodeksinin 14-berenesi 3-bölük (Family Code, Art. 14, Pt. 3).












Jazyk kodeksi 155 berenesi 1- bölük (Criminal Code, Art. 155, Pt. 1).

21, last accessed 1 June 2018.


The law never explicitly brings the adjectives religious (diniy) or civil (jarandyk) together with the term for marriage (nike). Rather, it moves around this and modifies the terms for ritual or celebrant, naming the act or person concluding the marriage rather than the marriage itself.


In 2010, an estimated 800,000 Kyrgyz had left for Russia and Kazakhstan between 2004 and 2008 (International Crisis Group 2010). The population of Kyrgyzstan in 2010 was approximately 5.4 million people. In 2016, other sources indicated between 320,000 and 700,000 migrant workers for the years 2010–15. The later figures indicate that this represented between 13% and 28.4% of the economically active population (Ryazantsev 2016). For a nuanced reading about how anxieties surrounding migration combine with an appreciation for its economic benefits, leading to a rather ambiguous orientation towards migration, see Isabaeva 2011.


On LGBTQ movements, and threats against LGBTQ people, see Suyarkulova 2019. On women as keepers of hearth and home see Ismailbekova 2016. Ismailbekova argues women are seen as “responsible for the health of future generations, for the quality of children’s education, and for safeguarding and passing on moral principles, which contribute to the formation of the traditional Kyrgyz family, and thus to the Kyrgyz nation.” (2016, 267). On gendered nationalism in Kyrgyzstan and its expression in clothing, see Suyarkulova 2016.


For an excellent overview of the discussions surrounding bride abduction and the academic work on it, see Werner et. al. 2018.

26, last accessed on 7 Apr. 2020.

27 .html, last accessed on 7 Apr. 2020.

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