Uzbekistan's Trophy Wives

Wealthy Uzbeks increasingly take second wives as the alternatives for women narrow.

Uzbekistan's Trophy Wives

Wealthy Uzbeks increasingly take second wives as the alternatives for women narrow.

More and more wealthy Uzbek men are taking a second wife, as a sign of prestige and respectability. Women's rights activists says the practice has become common because both first and second wives often have few other alternatives.

Staff at an Uzbek registry office in Andijan, a city in the Fergana valley of eastern Uzbekistan, told IWPR that most polygamists are wealthy city-dwellers. They estimate that up to 70 per cent of men who can be described as well-off have a second family. This category includes those with high-ranking government jobs or successful businessmen who earn hundreds of dollars a month, substantially more than ordinary Uzbeks. In most cases they take a second wife, rather than the three or four allowed by Islam.

"When they get more money, some Uzbek men are not satisfied with family life with just one woman," said Bahrom, a successful Tashkent businessman who has just one one wife.

Polygamy is still illegal in Uzbekistan, although officials turn a blind eye to it more than in the Soviet period, when it was frowned on and punished strictly. Attitudes changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when there was a surge of enthusiasm for Uzbek national identity, of which Islam is part.

A second marriage is generally sanctioned by a mullah, but since it is not registered with the authorities it does not count as legal bigamy. Cohabitation with more than one woman would also count as a crime, but in Uzbekistan the practice is for the two wives to live separately.

Islamjan Hasanov, a judge in Andijan's criminal court, told IWPR that had never seen a case involving polygamy. The city's deputy prosecutor, Shukhratbek Rustambekov, confirmed that he had not dealt with any cases for several years, even though he believes the practice is widespread in this part of the Fergana valley.

Officials at the births and marriages registry in Andijan told IWPR that it was impossible to keep statistics on polygamy since it only showed up when mothers registered newborn babies and did not name the father.

Second marriages have become more common partly because a small proportion of men have grown wealthy enough to afford the expense of keeping a second home.

But observers say it is also because many women now have fewer opportunities than before. Women have tended to lose most from Uzbekistan's poor economic performance, and especially the decline of the Soviet-era welfare system. They are less likely to get jobs that earn them a decent income and a measure of independence.

And they are not helped by social attitudes exemplified by Bahrom's views, "Why should women work if we are feeding them - the most important thing is for them to be beautiful and obliging?"

Women's organisations say the changing social and economic environment has made single women more likely to enter into a polygamous marriage. And those who are married are more dependent on their husbands than ever, and less likely to question their decision to take a second wife for fear of divorce.

Niaziddin Akbarov, a butcher in the town of Kuigan-Yor in the Andijan region, has acquired three wives. His first wife, Dilfuza Akbarova, became disabled after an operation and would be unable to support her children alone. Dilfuza told IWPR that she is happy to be married at all, since life can be tough for a single woman in Uzbekistan.

According to Malad, a women's organisation in Andijan, polygamy is becoming one of the most serious issues facing Uzbek women - and it will not go away until women win higher social status and more financial independence.

Muhsina Hamidova is a pseudonym for an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.

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