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'SMS Divorces' Cut Tajik Migrants' Matrimonial Ties To Home

  • Farangis Najibullah

A Tajik migrant worker in Russia texts a message home.

A Tajik migrant worker in Russia texts a message home.

Aziza Kobilova, a 25-year-old housewife in eastern Tajikistan's Rasht region, recently received notice that her marriage of four years was over.

The end was unexpected and quick. Her husband, a migrant laborer working in Russia, first telephoned to tell Kobilova that he was divorcing her. Then he made good on his promise by sending a text message from a mobile phone that read only "talaq," a term of estrangement that according to Sunni Muslim tradition is enough to annul a marriage.

In Kobilova's case, her husband's use of modern technology to execute a traditional Islamic divorce left her homeless and with no means of support.

She is not alone.

With jobs at home in dismally short supply, a significant percentage of Tajikistan's male population depends on seasonal work abroad to earn money that can be sent home in the form of remittances. But as this migrant culture takes root, long-distant marriages are increasingly ending in "SMS divorce," contributing to a spike in the country's divorce rate and leaving countless Tajik women without recourse.

Following her own text-based divorce Kobilova returned to her childhood home, where she now she lives with elderly parents along with three older brothers and their families.

"My husband let me down," Kobilova says, "but most of all I blame labor migration for my marriage breakup. Even though we were married for four years, we only spent a few months together. Most of the time he was away working in Russia."

"I guess the money migrants make in Moscow blinds them, and they forget all about their wives back at home," she adds.

Tajik law doesn't recognize "talaq" divorce, but things are different in practice.
It is estimated that nearly a million Tajiks -- accounting for one out of every seven citizens and consisting mostly of men aged 18 to 60 -- depend on seasonal jobs in Russia or elsewhere abroad to make a living. The migratory nature of the work leads to prolonged periods away from home, a scenario that women's rights activists say negatively affects the institution of marriage in Tajikistan.

While reliable, up-to-date divorce figures are unavailable, divorce lawyer Bakhtiyor Nasrulloev estimates that "at least one in four marriages in Tajikistan ends in divorce." While that rate is still low when compared to countries like the United States, where divorce rates hover around 50 percent, it marks a sharp increase in comparison to official data compiled the late 1990s that placed the Tajik divorce rate at only 8 percent.

However, the traditional, but unofficial, nature of many Tajik marriages means that the true divorce rate could be higher still.

Laws vs. Reality

It is common practice for young couples in Tajikistan to enter matrimony in an Islamic religious ceremony, and to make it official by registering the marriage at a local registry office.

Unions based only on a religious ceremony, however, are not officially recognized under Tajik law. Likewise, Tajik law does not recognize "talaq" as a legal divorce, and requires that married couples annul their marriages through legal channels.

But divorce lawyer Nasrulloev explains that the reality is much different.

"Despite our secular and modern laws, the plain reality is that many migrant men are effectively ending their marriages by saying 'talaq' through SMS and phone calls," he says.

"Unfortunately, there is not much women can do about it."

Tajikistan's family and divorce code is technically based on Soviet-era law. Women's rights in the event of divorce, such as the right to claim an equal share of the family's joint property and money, are thus officially protected.

However, Nasrulloev cites hundreds of cases in which women have applied for legal divorce and financial settlements after receiving "SMS divorce" messages, only to encounter another obstacle.

"Courts cannot start divorce procedures in such cases because, according to the law, the husband has to be officially notified by court about the pending divorce procedure," Nasrulloev says.

Again, reality often makes this impossible, as the women on the receiving end of the divorce cannot provide a precise address for their migratory spouse living abroad. Most migrants seeking divorce, lawyers suggest, simply obtain a new passport that bears no stamp showing their marital status.

Maryam Davlatova, founder of the Dushanbe-based NGO Center for Gender Politics, says that many Tajik women, particularly in rural areas, are unaware of their rights under divorce and that "many men take advantage of it."

Citing a recent study conducted in the northern region of Panjakent that concluded that 95 percent of its divorces over the past 10 years were initiated by men, Davlatova says that most of women in the region were not aware that they could claim financial support after their marriages fell apart.

To counter this, women's NGOs and government agencies have set up meetings and seminars for women in Panjakent and other rural areas to explain their marital and divorce rights.

"After participating in such seminars, some women who have been divorced even for seven or 10 years went to court to claim proper divorce settlements or alimonies for their children," says Davlatova.

'Part-Time Marriage'

Again, however, reality makes the situation considerably more complex.

Married sons often reside in the same home as their parents, with the home registered under the parents' names. This makes it nearly impossible for women to claim a share of their home following a divorce.

The majority of migrants, meanwhile, have irregular incomes and are not engaged in legally registered employment abroad, making it difficult for women to claim alimony for themselves and their children.

Sultona Alieva, a teacher from northern Sughd region, says that "everything comes down to poverty; if men had job opportunities here, they wouldn't leave to Russia."

Alieva says that labor migration has completely changed Tajikistan's marriage culture, a development that has affected her own relationship with her husband, who works in Russia for long stints.

"It's like a part-time marriage," said Alieva. "I don't see my husband for months. I'm afraid we are becoming strangers. The kids are growing up without him and don't even recognize him when he comes back after nine or 10 months."

"But I know that we have no other choice because of economic hardships," says the 40-year-old village teacher. "And I look forward for his return."

Alieva's husband plans to be home by the New Year's Eve.

But others appear to be in no rush to return home to their wives and children.

Some, like Aziza Kobilova's husband, may even instead seek quickie divorces by text message.

"I try to call my ex-husband to explain me the reason for divorce," Kobilova says, lamenting that her former husband simply doesn't return her calls.

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