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A wedding in Tajikistan. (Photo: IWPR)
The rise of polygamous marriages since Tajikistan became independent two decades ago has left “second wives” with few legal and economic rights.
The tradition of polygamy experienced a resurgence after 1991 – before that, the Soviet authorities cracked down hard on what they regarded as an ugly vestige of the past. A survey conducted last year by the Centre for Strategic Studies in Tajikistan indicated that one in ten men had more than one wife.
Tajikistan’s secular legislation bans polygamy, so second and third marriages are contracted outside civil law, using only the Muslim wedding rite used as “nikoh” which for many people is far more meaningful. Attempts by the authorities to force clerics to demand a civil wedding certificate before blessing a marriage have so far failed.
When marriages – often including monogamous ones – are not registered with the civil authorities, wives enjoy no legal protections or rights to a share of property if they separate.
Ruzigul, a 29-year-old Dushanbe resident, has found herself in a difficult situation as the third wife of a man who is gradually distancing himself from her and their children.
“These days, he comes only once a week. Sometimes he doesn’t bring any money for months at a time,” she said. “But what can I do?”.
Ruzigul has two children with her present husband, and two from an earlier marriage.
When she agreed to a religious marriage, she was aware that her husband already had a legal wife, but not that he also had a second one. At the time, she was struggling to make ends meet, and her job as a waitress did not pay enough to pay cover the rent and look after her children.
Her first husband, whom she married at 15, went off to Russian as a labour migrant and never came back. She also had a second husband, who left her after a year.
Ruzigul is not keen to go through the Islamic divorce rite, as she would find it hard to remarry, and at least this way she still has the social status of a married woman.
One of the main factors behind the rise in polygamous marriages is the consistent gender imbalance that has been a feature of Tajikistan since independence in 1991. First there was the 1992-97 civil war in which many men were killed or displaced. Then came the mass exodus of labour to Russia and other countries in search of work. While many husbands send money home to support their households, others settle down and marry again.
For women like Ruzigul, entering into a polygamous marriage can be an economic necessity.
“It is understandable that despite the shortage of men, women still want to get married and have children. That is why they agree to become second or third wives,” sociology expert Rustam Samiev said.
Karomat, 24, believes she made the right decision when she became second wife to a government official with a well-paid job. She says his family knows about the arrangement.
“I did work, but my small salary wasn’t enough to live on,” she said. “Now he’s bought me a flat. I don’t work but I live well.”
Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, said polygamy was now widely accepted, given the country’s Islamic inheritance and the lack of any effective legal sanctions.
“In the Soviet Union, people were afraid and kept it secret. Now almost every government official has two or three wives,” she said.
“Even fathers agree to them [daughters] becoming second or third wives.”
A government official who has two wives himself told IWPR that since the people in charge were Muslim like the bulk of Tajikistan’s population, they saw nothing really wrong with the practice.
According to Bobonazarova, families’ expectations of their daughters are commonly low.
“Traditionally, every family here will have two or three girls. They don’t study, and they aren’t brought up to fend for themselves. The only thing they are taught is to how to become a housewife,” she said.
Social affairs commentator Bobojon Qayumzod points out that while Islam allows a man to marry up to four wives, it also requires him to treat them and provide for them in an even-handed manner. “That isn’t what happens here,” he added.
Bobonazarova said that when couples bound only by Islamic marriage separated, “the women and children have no economic protection”.
Husbands are required to provide for their children in the event of a separation, but this is harder to enforce when there is no wedding certificate.
First wives often have little choice but to accept their husbands’ decision to marry again.
Shahlo, 41, said her husband took a second wife despite her objections.
“No first wife … will agree to her husband having several wives,” she said, adding that she was jealous but realised there was nothing she could do about it.
“If he can find a good, pure woman, then let him marry her,” she said. “But I don’t think she will be able to compete with me.”
The fact that polygamy is now so commonplace has led even some advocates of women’s rights to suggest that legalising it might be the answer. At least that would provide wives with legal protections, and impose rules on their husbands.
Bobonazarova said that the financial obligations stemming from legalised polygamy in Iran meant that there were “very few cases” of it in that country.
Haramgul Qodir is a freelance journalist in Tajikistan.
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