Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechens Consider Reviving Polygamy

For some, multiple marriage offers a simple solution to the gender imbalance caused by conflict. But others say introducing the practice is the last thing Chechens need.
By Asyat Murtazalieva

The publication in Chechnya of a short story about polygamy has reinvigorated debate over whether the custom could offer an answer to problems stemming from the erosion of family structures in the war-torn region.

“The Man With Three Wives” caused a stir when it was printed recently in two local literary journals. Multiple marriages are a contentious subject in this Muslim-majority republic, which has long struggled against control by the central government in Moscow.

“I did not want to publish ‘The Man with Three Wives’ just to be sensational,” the story’s author Aizan Taramova – who is also deputy editor of the journal Vainakh and a university teacher and grandmother – told IWPR.

But she added that Chechens should not hide from the subject of polygamy.

Some local observers see legalising the practice as a good way of dealing with disproportionate death rates amongst Chechen men resulting from the region’s simmering conflict.

Others reply that polygamy is entirely inappropriate for the modern Chechen way of life, and that for economic reasons, multiple marriages are rarely an option in any case.

Many in Chechnya say they face great difficulties trying to find a partner and start a family.

“Recently I’ve had fits of despair,” Laila, a 43-year-old teacher from the capital Grozny who has never married, told IWPR. “I don’t think about love anymore, or about having a stable family. Just one child would be enough for me!”

“It’s easier for non-Muslims,” she went on, “they can have babies outside marriage, even by test-tube. But what can Chechen women do?”

Lula Jumalaeva, editor of the women’s journal Nana (Mother), added that it is often the best-educated women who find it hardest to get married and have children.

One reason for the collapse of family structures is that traditional Chechen ways of selecting partners, such as encounters at relatives’ houses, have died out in recent years. And newer practices such as meeting members of the opposite sex at discos and parties as is customary in the rest of Russia are still considered licentious here.

The years of violence in Chechnya have also taken a heavy toll on traditional social structures.

“For Chechens, the traditional foundation of society is the family,” said Taramova. “[But] the tragedy that has been afflicting us for more than ten years has seriously undermined this foundation. When people think solely about surviving, they don’t think about lofty matters or spiritual values.”

One major factor is the large numbers of men who have been killed in the fighting with Russian forces.

“There is a threat of demographic collapse,” psychotherapist Kyuri Idrisov told IWPR. “According to the results of a survey we held in the republic two years ago, the population was divided 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men.”

As a result of this imbalance, Taramova says, “An enormous number of women with no one to marry grow old on their own, dreaming of family and motherhood.”

Chechen writer Musa Beksultanov is amongst those who think polygamy could in principle be a solution. “If they were well-off, modern Chechen men could become polygamists,” he said. “This is a forced measure in the name of saving the nation. There are still more potential brides than husbands.”

But Beksultanov acknowledges that, even before the question arises of men taking more than one wife, financial considerations are already an insurmountable barrier for many young Chechens who wish to marry one wife, let alone two.

“In our small village of Alkhazurovo there are dozens of young men who can’t get married because they don’t have an income,” he told IWPR. He explained that these men are simply unable to save enough money for the wedding costs.

In an effort to address this problem, Beksultanov noted that some villagers had recently agreed to reduce the sum of 500 US dollars traditionally paid by a suitor in return for a woman’s hand in marriage. The new figure has been set at the equivalent of 175 dollars.

Such are the financial barriers to starting a family in Chechnya that some observers have suggested that the state should actually finance marriages.

Quite apart from the economic considerations, some observers argue that polygamy in itself has no place in modern Chechen society, no matter what the benefits might be.

“In eastern countries, a shortage of husbands might be addressed easily through polygamy,” Idrisov told IWPR. “But the Chechen mentality does not allow this solution to the problem. The rare cases of bigamy that are encountered here are seen as the exception rather than the norm.”

“Chechen society is not prepared for this development,” agreed Jumulayeva. “The first wife, who has turned into a workhorse looking after the home and children, isn’t going to be keen to let her husband take a young and beautiful wife.”

Jumulayeva also expressed scepticism that the central government in Moscow would ever agree to a change in the law allowing men to take multiple wives in Chechnya.

Asyat Murtazalieva is a correspondent for Groznensky Rabochy newspaper in Grozny.