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

Tajik Marriage Reform Misfires

Impact felt most in cross-border marriages – not what was intended.
By Ekaterina Shoshina
  • Dushanbe civil registry office. (Photo: Ekaterina Shoshina)
    Dushanbe civil registry office. (Photo: Ekaterina Shoshina)

Controversial remarks by a Tajik politician opposed to local women marrying foreigners have revived the debate over the effects of restrictions introduced in 2011. 

Women’s rights activists say that rather than boosting legal protection for Tajikistan nationals, the law has placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of marriages between people in neighbouring Central Asian states. Many Tajiks live in Uzbekistan and some in Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan has a significant Uzbek minority, and cross-border marriages are not uncommon.

In remarks made during an online conference on July 1, member of parliament Saodat Amirshoeva said she was against Muslim Tajik women marrying men of different religions “in pursuit of material comfort and money”.

“I am against Tajik girls marrying men of other faiths or ethnicities – Russians, Chinese and others,” she said. “It won’t be to the benefit of our customs and traditions.… I think Muslim Tajik men are allowed to marry women from other faiths, but I’m against Muslim Tajik girls marrying men of other religions – especially Chinese.”

Amirshoeva, who belongs to President Imomali Rahmon's People's Democratic Party, said she would try to raise the issue in parliament.

In fact, Tajikistan already has legislation in place to restrict such marriages. A law passed in January 2011 requires foreigners to have lived in Tajikistan for a year before they can marry locals, and to sign a prenuptial agreement committing them to provide housing for their spouse. Foreigners can only buy property after five years’ residence. (See Tajikistan Tightens Marriage Rules.)

At the time, analysts said the reform was mostly aimed at two groups – Afghan nationals, and ethnic Uighurs from western China, who might wish to use marriage to acquire rights of residence and citizenship, which would make it easier to run a business and travel visa-free travel to other former Soviet states. Both Afghans and Uighurs are Muslims like the vast majority of Tajikistan’s population.

When the government introduced the bill, it insisted special legislation was needed to protect women and their children in the event of marriage breakdown.

Speaking in early 2013, Tajik justice minister Rustam Mengaliev said the number of marriages to foreigners had halved since the law was introduced. In 2010 there were over 700 such marriages, whereas the following year the figure was just 323.

In February this year, the government more than doubled marriage fees for foreigners to 41 US dollars.

The latest figures indicate that only 57 marriages to foreigners were registered in the first six months of this year.

Alla Kuvvatova, director of the Association of NGOs for Gender Equality, said that the broad definition of “foreignness” included people in neighbouring Central Asia states with which Tajikistan has long ethnic and cultural links.

“These restrictions are a gross violation of the constitution and run directly contrary to it,” she said. “They have also significantly reduced opportunities for girls to get married, given the fact that massive numbers of men from here are labour migrants outside the country.”

Experts say that the real impact of the law is quite different from that intended, and has hit communities living close to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with ethnic kin on the other side of borders that have only been meaningful since these countries separated in 1991.

In these border areas, the restrictions have added to an existing trend for people to marry solely according to the Muslim rite without also registering with the civil authorities. In the eyes of the law, therefore, they are not legally married, which leaves wives and children vulnerable in the event of a separation.

Sitora, a resident of Spitamen district in the Soghd region of northern Tajikistan, says she has all but given up on trying to register her marriage with Hakim, an Uzbekistan national.

She told IWPR the situation was difficult even before the 2011 law, given the bureaucracy on either side of the border.

“We’ve been living together since our Muslim wedding five years ago,” Sitora said, explaining how her husband tried unsuccessfully to collect all the complicated documentation needed to apply for a marriage certificate.

“We love each other, and I pray to God that all will be well between us,” she added.

Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, said that when legally married couples with different citizenships got divorced, the wife could still pursue an alimony claim. But that had changed since the tighter restrictions prompted people to avoid the formalities.

“If the man is unable to buy a place to live and can’t wait until the one-year-residency test has passed, they can’t register their marriage,” she said. “But they’ll still live together, and when they break up, the woman enjoys no protections whatsoever from a legal point of view”.

Bobonazarova said that instead of making it harder for Tajik women to marry foreigners, the government should be trying to retain the male population by providing jobs, so that they are not forced to go abroad to find work.

For those intent on marrying foreign nationals despite the hurdles, the law has simply made the process more difficult and expensive.

Karina (not her real name) lives in the capital Dushanbe and met her fiancé several years ago while studying in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. They want to get married next year and initially planned to do so at a wedding registry in Tajikistan.

Karina was keen for all her relatives including her elderly grandmother to come to the wedding. “But after reading about the legislation on the internet, we were forced to change our plans,” she said, explaining that her family would now have to travel to Bishkek.

Kuvvatova sees that Amirshoeva’s scornful attitude towards marriages with foreigners as a setback for efforts to build democracy in Tajikistan.

“I do think that sometimes when women in our country enter politics and gain power, they forget they’re supposed to be protecting the interests of citizens, of women,” she said.

Whatever others may think of her views, though, Amirshoeva has a track record of backing initiatives that she believes will afford women greater protections. In 2010, she suggested raising the legal age for marriage for women from 18 to 22.

Earlier this year, she was one of the architects of a failed bill to ban marriage between first cousins – a common custom in Tajikistan. (For the reasoning behind it, see Tajikistan to Ban Cousin Marriage.)

Ekaterina Shoshina is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.