Tradition = Patriarchy in Disguise

I have blogged before about the highly patriarchal practice of bride-kidnapping, especially in Kyrgyzstan, but here is a reminder from Al-Jazeera English.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The government of Kyrgyzstan has decided to toughen the penalties for the practice and guess which excuse is trotted out to protest the change? Of course: tradition.

“Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is poised to vote on legislation that would toughen the penalty for bride kidnapping.

The bill has caused heated debate, splitting parliament and society into those who defend it as a tradition and those who see it as a violent crime.

The practice of bride kidnapping is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. According to the ombudsman’s office, some 8,000 girls are kidnapped for forced marriage every year across the country.

The Women’s Support Centre (WSC) in Bishkek puts that figure even higher at almost 12,000 cases a year. Most of these cases happen in poor and rural areas.

WSC is part of the network that campaigns against bride kidnapping. Zabila Matayeva, 38, became a WSC volunteer last year after a family tragedy. Her sister, Cholpon Matayeva, was kidnapped for marriage by a husband who beat her frequently.

When she finally demanded a divorce after a decade of marriage, he stabbed her to death. He has been jailed for 19 years.


Under the existing law, a man faces a fine or maximum of three years in prison for abducting a woman for marriage against her will. The new bill proposes increasing that to seven years, after an initial suggestion to make it 10 years.


Not all legislators support the bill though. Some claim that it goes against Kyrgyz tradition and may have serious implications for society.

“We will put all men in Kyrgyzstan in prison if we increase the punishment for bride kidnapping,” said MP Kojobek Ryspaev, during a discussion of the bill at a parliamentary session earlier this year.

Opponents of the changes claim bride kidnapping plays an important role in society.

Parents and relatives relentlessly pressure young men in Kyrgyzstan to marry after they reach a certain age. For many, especially for poor families, this is the cheapest and quickest way to marry their son.

If the new law is passed then all relatives who are somehow involved in the process of kidnapping may face a prison term.

“This is a tradition that existed and will exist no matter what law you adopt,” Bishkek resident Bobek, 48, said, voicing an opinion that appeared to be shared by many. He said the law would only fuel corruption, as men would bribe their way out of trouble.”

It’s like everybody’s a bloody functionalist, all of a sudden.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as “tradition” understood as long standing practice, so deeply and objectively embedded in the culture that it cannot be extirpated without great damage to society and disturbance. The reality is less dramatic: traditions are narratives that justify power arrangements, especially of patriarchal nature. These are socially and discursively constructed devices designed to protect hierarchies and oppression from questioning and social change. To  invoke tradition is to us it as a joker card that shuts down discussion and gives the holder an automatic win in favor of maintaining the status quo.

In addition, on top of the social disruption justification used to keep an oppressive practice in place, note that there is another layer of justification used: fighting the tradition won’t work. The idea is that a tradition is so deeply ingrained throughout the social structure that individuals will not be able to evade it and will find ways around the law. In this model of the social structure and culture, men (as only men are discussed as actors) are traditional dopes (in the same sense of “cultural dope” in Harold Garfinkel’s sense) and women are just objects to be grabbed, as dictated by tradition.

Privilege as Neutrality

In the British press, headlines were all over their new census and especially the decline in established religions, a development similar to what is happening in the US. In this context, it is interesting to read headlines like these:

“No longer the default religion: is being a Christian now a political statement?”

And in the article:

“Today’s results from the 2011 Census suggest that the number of those self-identifying as “Christian” in England and Wales – the religion question wasn’t broken down by denomination – has declined substantially from ten years previously. Then it was 72 per cent. The latest figure is 59 per cent. There has been an almost equivalent rise of 10 per cent in those ticking the “No religion” box, but it’s still only a quarter of the population.


Christianity has also become much more political. Debates about education, about the status of marriage, about abortion and medical ethics have became heavily dominated by questions of religion, and the dominant voices have often been religious ones (or, for that matter, anti-religious ones).”

This claim is absurd. Christianity has always been political. Religious organizations of various kinds have always thrown themselves in the political battles of the day. The main difference is that, for countries like the US or the UK, Christianity occupied a position of privilege while doing so and therefore could claim to not be political, and therefore above the fray, speaking only from a moral perspective, etc.

It is one marker of privilege to have one’s position seen as the default setting, the neutral center, the objective point of view. That is how whites are opposed to “people of color”, that is how we think LGBTs when we hear “sexual orientation”, that is how white males were seen as the only legitimate voting group in the last US presidential election and all the other groups were ideological and biased in their votes.

And it is also a marker of privilege to have one’s privilege never questioned and one’s supremacy never challenged. And we know that bad things can happen when such a perceived challenge arises.

But all privilege ends up being questioned or directly challenged through social movements or through softer nudges, micro-push-backs against the privileged position, whether is the removal of a nativity scene from public spaces or getting pummeled in social media when one asserts one dominance and supremacy as a given.

It is also interesting that privileged individuals are so used to their position to be silently accepted as the neutral, objective, non-biased setting that any push-back is perceived as an ideological aggression and having to share becomes a form of oppression. One can see that when, for the first times, religious people got pushed around a bit by the so-called “new” atheists. The cries of Christian oppression are based simply on the fact of having a few people listening to their religious discourse and going “really?”… and that’s all it takes. Or to simply be called to account for one’s dogma has been so unheard of that its occurrence is seen as aggression, followed by retreat to relativism (interestingly and ironically enough), that is, that everyone is entitled to their views and should not be questioned for them.

In other cases, take gay marriage, for instance, the claim is that, by getting married, gays are taking something away from straight marriage (“damaging the sanctity of marriage” or some such similar formulation).

What this all boils down to is privilege = exclusive access. What privileged individuals may be complaining about, in all cases, is potentially losing exclusive access to cultural dominance, or institutionally-based rights (marriage), treating all such as zero-sum games: if Christians have to share public spaces with other religions (as opposed to exclusive access for their nativity scenes), it is a loss to them, if straight people have to share the institution of marriage with LGBTs, it is a loss to them. From this view, culture and institutions are defined social spaces that cannot be expanded, so, sharing, when one had 100% of said social space, does mean a loss.

There is no conception of the possibility of increasing these social spaces. After all, the ability for LGBTs to get married does not reduce the ability of straight people to get married as social and institutional space can be expanded. The only possible expansion, for them, is the slippery slope one (LGBT marriage → bestiality). In this sense, privileged people are not only the potential losers of the deal, but because they also see themselves as the guardians of these social spaces – not for themselves, but for civilization, mind you – it is a double loss. Look back at the discourses of the opponents of the Civil Rights in the 60s and you will find these themes.

So, privileged individuals find themselves in the position to (1) see their privileges questioned, (2) having to now loudly claiming their privilege (which they didn’t have to do before, hegemony will do that for you), (3) having such loud claims ignored, shouted down or (worse) mocked, and as the article notes (4) being reduced to being just another interest group like the others (decentering). No wonder they get shrill (about gays, immigrants, women, abortion, contraception… anything to try to keep the moral center of a culture whose control is escaping them).

This is why social media have not been the preferred formats of privileged groups. By definition, these groups were already massively overrepresented in the traditional media (TV, radio), so, when new media spaces opened, they initially did not feel the need to go after them. And so, new media got populated by the non-privileged and became a source of alternative everything (news, sociability, entertainment, discourse, etc.). Hence the early cries against the outrages of bloggers, then the outrages of Twitter, etc.

A privileged position means you don’t need to shout because you’re the only one with a megaphone. When everybody can get their own and they’re making as much noise as you, it does feel like an aggression (free speech, for everyone else), and it does mean that your speech is no longer taken as the moral center nor does it command the same respect it used to (because you could have it backed up by the state). So, no, Christians have not become more political. They always were. It’s just that their old megaphone is losing battery power and everyone else’s megaphone is running on solar power and 4G wifi.