მოტაცება (pronounced mot’atseba) is the Georgian word for bride kidnapping, as opposed to regular kidnapping, which takes a different word. It’s an ancient practice in the Caucasus region that doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but still happens, especially in the rural areas. Today, most Georgians condemn it, but there’s still a whole slew of lingering cultural subtexts that can be very difficult for a Westerner (like me) to understand and navigate.
The video clip at the top is from a Georgian comedy program (named, aptly enough, “Comedy შაუ”), and does a pretty good job illustrating how mot’atseba works. Of course, the genders have been reversed–50% of Georgian humor is cross-dressing, and the other 50% is cross-dressing with slapstick–but everything else is pretty accurate. Like I said in a previous post, it’s like a weird game of capture-the-flag involving sex and arranged marriage, where the flag is the girl.
This is how it works: boy meets girl. Boy decides to marry girl. Boy gets his friends together and kidnaps the girl (with or without her consent), holding her captive overnight. The next morning, boy contacts girl’s parents to ask for girl’s hand in marriage.
Since the girl has been held overnight, the implication is that she’s been raped (which may or may not be true). Therefore, to avoid a scandal which could tarnish the family’s reputation, the parents will usually marry their daughter off as quickly as possible. However, if the girl can escape, or the girl’s brothers can rescue her before nightfall, the crisis can be averted.
I first heard about mot’atseba from this post on Georgia On My Mind, back when I was looking into TLG about a year ago. It disturbed me a little, but not enough to dissuade me from coming to Georgia. A couple of weeks ago, however, I learned that that was how my host parents got married.
Here’s the thing, though: they both seem to remember it kind of fondly. In fact, when my host mom saw the clip from Comedy შაუ, she couldn’t stop laughing. Her mom lives with them now, and from time to time they go out to visit his family in the village, so it looks like everyone’s on pretty good terms.
So what the heck happened?
Here’s the story, as best as I can piece it together. They were introduced by his sister, who was her coworker at the hospital. After a month, he got together with some friends and took her without violence to his family’s house out in the village. She was surprised and upset at first, of course, but her parents gave their consent, and so they were married the next day by a magistrate. Now, they’ve got four kids–a huge family, by Georgian standards–and seem to be pretty happy together.
As a Westerner, it blows my mind that a strong, healthy family can come out of something as violent as an act of kidnapping. Indeed, I have yet to be convinced that that’s a normal outcome. However, after asking around and doing some research, I’ve come to realize that mot’atseba isn’t a black and white issue: there are all sorts of cultural subtexts that make the issue much more complicated.
The key to understanding how all this works is the following proverb, which underscores the entire Georgian concept of gender roles and the differences between men and women:
If a woman says no, she means maybe. If she says maybe, she means yes. If she says yes, she is not a woman.
From this, two things follow:
1: Women are fickle, therefore men should be assertive.
As a man, I see this all the time. All three of my co-teachers are women, and all of them constantly defer to me, even though they have far more professional experience than I do. When I had some pretty serious differences over teaching methodologies with one of them, she suggested that I take over the next lesson and teach it without her interference, so that she could get a better idea that way. This isn’t the case with the female volunteers–many of them complain about how hard it is to get anyone to take their suggestions seriously.
2: A woman can never say no.
If “no” is constantly interpreted as “maybe,” then it follows that no one (or at least, no man) is going to believe that a woman is even capable of saying “no.” This turns the whole concept of rape into a nebulous gray area, unlike the United States, where women have a lot more power at least in terms of the law.
This is not to say that in Georgian culture, women are doormats or property (even though that’s what some TLGers claim). Women have a number of support networks, such as family, friends, and other women, and can use these networks to ward off unwanted attention. When I asked my host sister if she’s worried that a mot’atseba would ever happen to her, she said no, because if it did, her three brothers would kick some serious ass.
On top of all this, Georgians have no real concept of casual dating. If a girl and a guy are seeing each other, they’re either married or about to be married. This shows up in the way they use Facebook and other social networks: instead of listing themselves as “in a relationship,” the girl will give her password to the guy she’s dating. And they don’t just do it because the guy demands it–when my host sister was seeing someone, he asked her if she wanted to give her password to him, as if that was the natural next-step in their relationship. From the way she told me, she seemed to be worried that she’d made a mistake by telling him no. Of course, I told her she’d made the right decision!
Combine all of these together, and you should start to get a clearer picture of some of the subtext surrounding mot’atseba.
When I asked my first co-teacher about it, she said it was only an ancient practice and absolutely didn’t happen anymore. When I brought up rape and asked if that was also a part of it, she was horrified and didn’t want to talk about it. However, when I asked if it’s possible for a happy marriage to come of it, she kind of smiled a little and said that if the woman likes it, then why not?
My second co-teacher was much more straight with me. Yes, it happens occasionally, though it was a lot more “fashionable” about twenty or thirty years ago. No, it’s not romantic. Yes, a lot of the marriages aren’t very happy, which is why so many of them end in divorce. She told me that one of her friends from college was married through mot’atseba, and that she knows of at least one case in our school where an 8th grader was kidnapped and married. However, under President Sakashvili, mot’atseba is now a serious crime, so it’s not as common as it used to be.
My third co-teacher’s answer was a lot sketchier. The first time I asked about it was in passing, as she walked in on the conversation I was having with my first co-teacher. When I asked her about rape, she laughed and said “well yes, of course it happens!” as if that wasn’t a big deal. Later, however, she sat me down and said quite seriously that mot’atseba is a horrible thing, that it’s a criminal act, that it doesn’t happen anymore, etc etc.
However–and this was perhaps the most illuminating thing–she said that sometimes, when a guy and a girl are in love, but she’s being wishy-washy and non-committal, he’ll sweep her off her feet and carry her off. In fact, that was what happened with her: her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but she kept putting it off, so one day he tricked her into getting in the car and told her “all right, enough is enough–we’re getting married this weekend.” And they did.
When I asked her if that was mot’atseba, she said no, but I think the subtext was similar. A real man knows how to assert himself and take what he wants. Since a real woman will never say yes, sometimes you just have to man up and tell her how it’s going to be. And don’t worry if she says no at first–she only says that because she doesn’t really know what she wants yet. She’ll come around eventually.
It sounds pretty horrible, but that seems to be how it works. And really, there are gradations of it. Most Georgians will agree that it’s wrong for a guy to kidnap a girl he doesn’t know so that he can rape her and force her to marry him. But if the guy and the girl know each other, and are already pretty serious (ie seeing each other at all), and he wants to speed things up–or, alternately, if she knows her parents would never say yes otherwise–that’s when everyone speaks of it with a wink and a nod.
And really, can we say that our culture’s problems are any less abhorrent? What about teenage pregnancy? Secret abortions? Date rape? At least with mot’atseba, the guy is trying to marry the girl, not just sleep with her and walk away. If it’s just sex that the guy is after, there are a lot more easier ways to get it than risking a prison sentence.
So is it “wrong”? I don’t know if it’s possible to say yes or no, except on a case by case basis. My host sister knows a girl who was kidnapped at age 12 and had a baby the year after. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong. But when I told her what would happen to that guy in the states–that he would go on the registered sex offender list and spend the rest of his life ostracized and unable to find work–she thought that that was wrong too. And as for my host parents, well, it seemed to work out well for them.
I don’t know. But either way, it’s definitely an interesting anthropological experience.