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No Rights for Sharia Wives

Dagestani women who enter into polygamous marriages risk losing everything - even their children - when their husband tires of them.
By Polina Sanayeva

Madina thought that she had married well. The educated and worldly Dagestani woman was thrilled with her husband – a wealthy man with a large house – and thought nothing of it when he asked her to marry him in a mosque, instead of at the local registry office. The latter was “all just rubbish, paper”, he said. So Madina gave up her job, was a housewife for three years and tried her utmost to be her husband’s idea of a Muslim wife.

But her husband, seemingly, had other ideas. His preference for a mosque wedding apparently stemmed from an intention to take a second wife – which is permissible under Sharia law.

“I slaved for the family, to put it bluntly. But my husband decided to marry again. I was not ready for this turn of events and I told him so. Then he showed me the door. And no one supported me. I went to live at my grandmother’s house. Some time later, my former husband took my daughter away from me,” she said.

The court battle for custody of their daughter is still going on, although Madina says that she has no more money or strength to contest it. Her husband bribed the judge and presented false documents claiming that she had treated the little girl badly, she claims. The child now lives with her former husband’s new wife and Madina, aged only 32, says that she has no energy to start a new life.

Madina is one of hundreds of women to suffer as a result of a growing trend in Dagestan – men taking advantage of their Muslim status to take a second or even third wife, even though polygamy is forbidden under Russian law. As a result, these “Sharia wives” have few rights in the secular republic.

Until recently, only Dagestan’s wealthiest men with high social status took second wives, as it was thought that they “could permit themselves” to do so from an economic and ethical point of view. However, many other men have also chosen to ignore the official registry office and marry according to Sharia law, and this practice has spread widely. While more optimistic religious figures link this phenomenon to the growth of Muslim self-awareness among Dagestanis, sociologists, psychologists and also representatives of Islam are choosing to see it as the result of a decline in morals.

While imams at mosques in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala say that almost all couples who marry there do so before or after their official registration, there are others who go to the registry office only under pressure from their families, as it is more important for them that their marriage is blessed by Allah. As a result, some believe that a Sharia marriage is the only necessary form of legalised matrimonial relations.

But in many cases, the process of taking new wives is only indirectly related to religion.

“Modern Dagestan citizens who come to Islam by tradition are what are called ‘ethnic Muslims’,” said one young man who describes himself as a fundamentalist. “They allow themselves to be Muslims only when it is convenient for them. For example, they drink and smoke quite readily, despite the prohibitions that are clearly set out in the Koran. It is also convenient for them to take a second wife and they do so, saying that their religion allows it.”

Many religious young women readily agree to be second Sharia wives in spite of their poor status compared to an officially registered first wife. Husbands tend to treat their second wife with less respect than their first, and such unions are often kept secret from the husband’s relatives and his first family.

Irina Rudakova, head psychologist at the Genesis crisis centre for women, which has been working in Makhachkala for five years, said, “At the moment, the chance of taking a second wife for a man is a convenient, socially acceptable form of legalised relations, which are more properly categorised as extramarital.

“The problem is that for women who marry in this way, nothing changes in their relations with the man after they are formally married. They remain in an illegal or semi-legal position, which does not give them any more stability or social protection. And if the marriage breaks up - usually on the initiative of the husband and his family - the woman has no chance to defend her rights. At any rate, it is useless to appeal to the state.”

However, many specialists agree that the psychological discomfort and social infringement of marriage rights is nothing in comparison with what women have to endure when their Muslim husbands literally throw them out on the street.

“I am in favour of polyandry - where a woman marries more than one man - and I am happy with the Russian constitution, with its declaration of the equal rights of men and women. But these local ‘Sharia marriages’ are a big deception by men,” said publicist Svetlana Anokhina.

“Men ignore their obligations. If a Sharia husband gets sick of his wife, he throws her out, and this is still considered a disgrace for the woman – as if it’s her fault! It’s like something out of the Middle Ages.”

Amina was still a student when she married a man older than herself. She says that she decided to become a second wife primarily because of the so-called economic factor – her husband was wealthy – and did so against her parents’ wishes. Amina lived separately from her husband, in an apartment registered in her name, and did not work, partly because she had given birth to a daughter, and partly because her husband’s wealth made it unnecessary. But before long her husband had gently but insistently forced her out of the apartment, and then broke off relations with her. “He got tired of pressure from his family who never accepted me as his lawful wife,” she said.

Unable to return to her parents’ home, Amina and her daughter lived with a friend for six months while she looked for work. She now works as a house painter and rents a small apartment. Only 25-years-old, Amina has the air of one who is already used to surviving adversity.

The lack of any legal mechanism to regulate relations within a Sharia family can also cause problems for first wives as well as for the second. Women in Sharia marriages usually spend many years not working, and live a closed-off life. Therefore if the husband withdraws his care of her, she feels completely helpless. With no rights, she cannot approach the state for help in making the husband respect his obligations, and a lawyer can only advise that the Sharia wife is in fact a mistress in the eyes of the law.

The Dagestan legal code does contain provisions for a Sharia wife to claim property that was acquired jointly with her husband. But, in practice, such women have not been able to successfully do so in court, and lawyers do not take on such obviously difficult cases – too many conditions need to be observed, and there are too many factors working against them.

This runs contrary to the principles of Islamic law, which gives a wife more rights than her husband in a marriage, and the legislation of the secular state which stresses equality of the sexes.

“Men who take their obligations seriously do not marry second wives very often, and they treat their first marriage very seriously,” said Islamic law specialist Idris Magomedov. “In a real Sharia marriage, all the responsibility for the woman, for the family and the children, lies fully with the man. His obligation is not just to fully provide for his wife financially, but to make sure that his wife is healthy and happy.”

And indeed some Dagestan women have never been happier than within a Sharia marriage. Aishat used to be called Alyona before being persuaded by her husband to convert to Islam. The Russian woman is now a Muslim, has been married for eight years, and has three children. She wears a headscarf and long dresses, as is proper, with only her face and wrists visible. “I gained peace and faith. I now have many new friends. I believe that they are all my new Muslim family,” she said.

Magomedov, who has made a scientific study of the issue of polygamy in Dagestan, said that many religious Dagestani men remarry because they are unhappy with a first wife who does not wish to adhere to religious principles – for example, wearing Islamic clothing, praying five times a day and observing fasts. They marry women who fully share their beliefs.

According to political scientist Ruslan Kurbanov, “I see a solution in creating a Sharia court. In a secular society this is also possible, and a precedent already exists. For example, in [the Canadian province] of Ontario [such a court] has existed for a long time and with the permission of the authorities.

“Most of the people who so readily marry second wives do this out of an ignorance of Islam. The basis of the requirement laid out in the Koran is fair and equal treatment of wives by the husband.”

Polina Sanayeva is an IWPR contributor in Dagestan.

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