Pattern of settlement
In the Soviet period up to 80% of the Kyrgyz lived in the countryside. This has changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We now see that the towns, on account of unemployment and accompanying economic problems in the country areas, are becoming more and more attractive. Migration to the capital and other major cities is formidable. In Bishkek many of the newcomers settle in the outskirts of the city, where they put up simple and cheap houses.
In the central and eastern parts of Kyrgyzstan lie the huge high-mountain plateaus that are used for grazing. The raising of livestock is the dominant occupation and the population essentially consists of ethnic Kyrgyz. In other areas of Kyrgyzstan the population is far more multi-ethnic. In the southern provinces of Osh, Batken and Jalabad there live among others large groups of Uzbeks, Uighurs, and Tajiks. The towns of Osh and Jalabad in the fertile Fergana Valley have a climate that makes it possible to engage in agriculture, and those ethnic groups that have traditionally engaged in agriculture have therefore settled here. In the northern areas (Talas, Chui, Issyk Kul and Naryn) we find in addition to Kyrgyz people Slavs, Germans and Tatars.
In Kyrgyzstan it has not been unusual to establish more or less ethnically pure villages. By living together with one’s own people, one can maintain one’s ethnically specific culture, speak one’s own language and relate to local political matters. Perhaps this pattern of settlement was necessary for maintaining cultural distinctiveness in the otherwise so ethnically neutral Soviet state.
In the small Kyrgyz villages the houses are simple and the backyards often untidy and not put to any proper use. From the outside the houses may seem pretty dilapidated, but inside they are simple and well kept. A Russian neighbour usually has a more elaborate house, a well-kept garden and a tidy yard.
The Kyrgyz are known as a silent and somewhat reserved people. It therefore takes a little time to get to know them. Historically speaking they have also been prevented from having much contact with surrounding peoples in as much as they have lived in small villages or in their yurts in remote parts of the mountains.
Many Kyrgyz people, especially in the countryside, maintain a traditional sex-role pattern in which the husband is the one who represents the family in a public context. He has few duties in the home, but it is expected that he will provide for his family.
Statistics from the Soviet period show that over 95% of the Kyrgyz married within their own ethnic category (Karklins 1986: 156). In connection with the opening to “the West” this is in the process of changing. We see inter alia that many Kyrgyz women who have the chance find men from western countries and marry them, only to move out. Kyrgyz people are not in the habit of getting divorced. An alternative to divorce is that the couple live separately and lead their separate lives. In this way a woman can enjoy the benefit of financial help from her husband and at the same time escape the stigma that the marital status “divorced” may confer. At the same time she can be free to live her life as she wishes. The husband for his part can maintain his honour by keeping the status “married” and providing for his wife and any children.
Kelin and ban on names
I was madly in love with Jamilya. And she was attracted to me. We were good friends, but we did not dare to call each other by our first names. Had we come from different families, I should certainly have called her Jamilya. But now I said instead jené (“big brother’s wife”) to her, and she called me kitshiné balá (“little boy”), even though I was not that young; we were almost the same age. This is how the custom is in the village: The married women address their husband’s younger brother as kitshiné balá or kajní (Ajtmatov 1985: 19, translated from the Norwegian version).
Kelin is the term for a daughter-in-law. On marriage it is usual for a girl to move into her husband’s home. If the husband is the youngest son and resident on a smallholding, it is he who must take over the running of the farm after his father and mother.
For a woman it can be a mixed blessing to live together with her husband’s parents. The kelin bears the responsibility for most of the housework. In some households she must obey both her husband and her parents-in-law. She must always wear a kerchief in the presence of her father-in-law and never mention him or other members of her husband’s family by their forenames. In addressing her husband’s family the kelin must use paraphrases. In such cases one makes use of fixed names that indicate what relationship there is between the person using the name and the person being named. The kelin must not speak directly to her father-in-law. She must address him via her husband or mother-in-law. For his part the father-in-law must not speak directly to his son’s wife.
A woman knows that one day she will herself be a mother and mother-in-law and will in that case be able to benefit from the respect that is shown through actions of this type. A mother therefore makes sure that her daughter is brought up to be subservient to her husband’s family and that she is trained to perform the tasks she will have to perform the day she gets married. All these rules are very much in force even today, even though we do see a somewhat milder form in the homes of many inhabitants of the capital.
“Stealing a wife”
According to old Kyrgyz tradition a man could get himself a wife by “stealing” her. This could be a solution for couples who had found one another, but who knew that their respective parents would not accept their relationship. In that case the man had to take the woman with him in an unguarded moment and go away with her. Then he had to manage to keep her hidden or be on the run with her for a certain time. If he managed this without her relatives’ finding them, he could lawfully marry her. Since the bride price for a “stolen” woman was somewhat lower than if agreement had been reached between the couple’s parents, “stealing” could entail loss of money for the bride’s family.
Ritualised stealing of the bride is a custom that recurs in a number of societies (e.g. in Romania and Mongolia). Usually the stealing expresses a purely ritual form where a situation is symbolically acted out in which the woman’s parents do not want to let their daughter go and the man’s family want precisely this woman. There are a lot of feelings involved in this play between the two families, which sometimes results in certain of the performers’ going beyond their mandate and a real battle may ensue.
Now and again a bride is also "stolen" when the woman does not wish to have anything to do with the man. A young Kyrgyz woman by the name of Gulnara had the following experience:
One afternoon as I was going to take a taxi home, I went over to a car at the taxi rank. There were two men sitting in the car. "I want to go to ‘Alamedin’", I told the driver. I soon discovered that the two had no intention of taking me there. I protested loudly, but it did not help. The boys drove out of the town and continued in the direction of Naryn. It turned out that they were both living on a collective farm on the outskirts of Naryn.
After this it was several days before her parents heard from the collective farm that their daughter had been taken to Naryn, and that she was going to get married there. According to Gulnara there was little her parents could do about this. Kyrgyz law has no prohibition against this practice. She goes on to say about the reason she did not flee:
I often thought about it, but in fact it was not so simple. Since I was stolen and new to the place, those I was living with knew that I might try to flee home. So they kept watch on me the whole time. I also thought sometimes that this was my lot in life, and gradually came to accept life on the collective farm a little more. At the beginning of our marriage my husband and his family were kind to me. As time passed, and they could see that I had settled down more, my husband started to drink more than he had done up to now. This came as a surprise to me, and again the thought of flight grew in my mind. After half a year on the collective farm I managed to get permission to go to Bishkek. I never went back. My husband has tried to fetch me several times, but fortunately my parents have made sure that he did not have the chance to take me back with him.