KHINGA, NEPAL — When it came to getting engaged, the old rules were simple: You start by snatching a woman.
An unmarried man who has his eye on an unmarried woman gathers his relatives and friends and together. They trot on horseback into the woman’s village. Under cover of night, the man tiptoes into the woman’s home, snatches her and tosses her over a horse.
He rides to his village and the woman is obligated to stay in the village leader’s home for at least three days. If, at the end of the three days, she decides she can marry the man, she settles in. If she refuses to marry him, she returns home.
That’s how Tsewang Namgya Gurung found his wife, Palmo Gurung, when he was 22 years old. She was 24.
“I was so scared,” he says, describing the scene that occurred 24 years ago. “My heart was pounding.”
Despite his fear, he secured Palmo Gurung onto a horse, even as her mother screamed at him. The situation got even dicier when Palmo Gurung realized what was happening.
“She punched me on the nose,” Tsewang Namgya Gurung says. “I started bleeding. She is a strong woman.”
But that chaotic start gave way to a full night of conversation. Tsewang Namgya Gurung told her about his family and the life he hoped to build.
“‘This is our destiny,’ I told her. ‘God has brought us together,’” he says.
Palmo Gurung says she agreed to marry him.
The couple has been together ever since.
It’s a crude, sometimes violent tradition that requires men to literally physically overpower women to make them their wives. It went on for generations and, a new study suggests, has severe health consequences.
Researchers led by Duke University economics professor Charles Becker found that the children of kidnapped brides tend to have low birth weights. The researchers specifically examined the issue in Kyrgyzstan, where bride kidnapping is relatively common, but noted that the practice exists in other countries, too.
But suddenly, people in Khinga say the practice has all but disappeared. Even here, in Nepal’s highlands where internet access is scarce and visiting even another rural village means hiking, sometimes for hours, young people see new ways of living.
Six years ago, Rhythm Gurung and Sangye Gurung decided together to marry. They’d been in a relationship for a year and wanted it to last a lifetime, so they went to the home of the village leader, known as a ghenpa. They were married 10 days later.
“The generation is changing and now there is more elopement and arranged marriages,” Rhythm Gurung says.
People watch television and see how people in urban areas behave. More children are going to school and learning about other options for daily living. Cellphones are ordinary household tools and text messaging is as popular in rural Nepal as it is everywhere else.
The old system of marriage is nearly gone, Rhythm Gurung says.
Much of the change is due to young people who are taking control of their lives and forcing their families to accept it, says Tsewang Norbu Gurung, who was the village leader in Khinga from April 2016 to April 2017.
Parents are more easily convinced to support a marriage when the couple has already decided together to marry and has notified a village leader of their intentions.
“It is an easier way to convince parents,” Tsewang Norbu Gurung says.
When it comes to arranged marriages, girls now have more say over the partner their family chooses, says Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist based in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.
“Now if things are happening against a girl’s wishes, she can react,” he says. “This is a progressive change toward gender equality.”
Even couples who married under the old tradition are ready for the change.
Palmo Gurung, the woman who punched her husband-to-be in the nose when he captured her, is at peace with the new trend.
“My son and daughter can choose their own partner and decide to get married when they are ready,” she says.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated all interviews from Nepali.
Editor’s Note: Gurung is a common family name in the villages. None of the sources are immediately related, except for Palmo Gurung and Tswewang Namgya Gurung, a married couple and Rhythm Gurung and Sangye Gurung, also a married couple.