There is an effort under way in Kyrgyzstan to place some regulations on marriages performed by mullahs to hold the religious figures responsible for marriages that should not have been allowed under the law.
It is a sensitive issue given that the line between mosque and state is being crossed and the ceremony in question has existed as long as Islam has been in the region.
The ceremony is called “nikah” (nike in Kyrgyz), and two members of Kyrgyzstan's parliament have introduced legislation that would give the local mullahs, or others (we’ll get to that soon), regulations to follow before they pronounce a couple man and wife.
Underage marriage is a problem in Central Asia despite legislation that sets a minimum age to be eligible for matrimony and requires the official registration of the union with the authorities. All the same, in the tight-knit communities of the region many marriages are still arranged by parents and performed by the local mullah. Often there is no documentation of such a marriage.
One of the parliamentarians raising the issue is Elmira Zhumalieva (from the Kyrgyzstan Party). She is a co-author of a bill that would require all marriages to be registered first with authorities. Any couple appearing before a mullah with a request for a religious wedding ceremony would have to have the appropriate forms documenting their civil union.
Zhumalieva spokes with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk.
“There are instances when girls 15 or 16 years old are married off [by] going through the nikah ceremony. Girls at this age are not mature enough for marriage,” Zhumalieva explained, adding that "every now and again the girls cannot resist the will of parents and after getting married they commit suicide.”
Aida Salyanova, parliamentarian and former prosecutor-general
Zhumalieva and her co-author, Aida Salyanova (from the Ata-Meken Party), propose that “The mullah who performs the nikah ceremony must be held accountable.” According to their draft bill, that means the mullah must first have proof the couple -- any couple regardless of age -- coming to him have already “registered their marriage at a state agency.” If not, the mullah faces three to five years in jail.
Azattyk interviewed a woman named Adalat from the southern Nookat region who has been married three times, never once registering the marriages with the authorities.
“The first time I was married I was 14. At that time the parents arranged it. Father ignored my arguments, that I was too young, and my husband was much older than me,” Adalat recalled. “After two years we got divorced.”
Her father died and Adalat married a second time “of my own desire, to a man with three children, a marriage that also was not officially registered.”
After Adalat gave birth to a daughter, her husband went back to his first wife. “The third time I married and had two children, after that my husband told me I was ‘ugly’ and left, despite my pleading not to leave me, that I had no way of feeding the children and my pensioner mother.”
Since none of Adalat’s marriages was ever officially registered she had no legal basis to claim anything from any of her three ex-husbands.
Azattyk contacted Chinara Yrysbaeva, the legal representative at the Nookat mayor’s office. Yrysbaeva said there were many cases like Adalat’s in the district. Yrysbaeva said when these divorced wives come to officials seeking alimony or child support there is nothing officials can do since their marriages were never officially registered.
These are problems that go beyond just the marriage of underage girls, as Adalat’s experience shows.
But Baktiyar Toktagaziev from the Spiritual Department of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims told Azattyk the legislation Zhumalieva and Salyanova are proposing needs to be carefully reviewed and studied.
“What kind of responsibility can a mullah have in this matter?” Toktagaziev asked. “If young women ask for him to perform the nikah ceremony, how can [the mullah] be held responsible?”
Toktagaziev said: “A mullah performs nikah, fulfilling his duties, and with that his part ends.”
Toktagaziev said his department was not against the legislation and pointed out that mullahs are supposed to ask the ages of the people getting married and inquire if they consented to the marriage. He said in order to make mullahs responsible under the law, the status of a mullah would have to be raised to that of a state official.
Azattyk also spoke with Jamal Frontbek kyzy, the head of the Muslim women’s organization Mutakallim. Frontbek kyzy said she believes the proposed legislation is a good idea, though she questioned whether the authors of the bill understand the depths of the problem.
Frontbek kyzy did object to holding only the mullah responsible. She said one of the biggest problems with focusing on the mullah is that “any person can perform a nikah just by reading namaz and no one has the power to prevent this.”
According to Azattyk, this is true. Preferably someone reading the relevant holy passages for nikah has at least made the hajj, but this is not essential.
Nikah is actually becoming more popular in Kyrgyzstan and there are solid reasons for that.
The first is simply that young people in Kyrgyzstan are becoming more religious and wish to have a religious ceremony that formalizes their wedding.
For people far from the cities, where the marriage registration bureaus are located, the trips back-and-forth to complete all the paperwork needed for a marriage can be daunting. Many therefore choose to simply have the nikah ceremony performed in their town or village.
For people in the cities, the long process of registering the marriage, which involves much waiting in line, is also inconvenient.
And it goes without saying that those who marry a second, third, or even fourth wife can only get married through nikah.
But as Azattyk has reported, the consequences for women without official marriage documents can be devastating if one day their husband abandons them.
And obtaining official documents provides protection for underage girls.
It is a contest between state and religion and, as Frontbek kyzy noted, this idea of forcing responsibilities on mullahs has come up before but in the end not been instituted.
Azattyk’s Gulaiym Ashakeeva contributed to this report, which was based on material from Ashakeeva, Kanymgul Elkeeva, and Eleonora Beyshenbek kyzy