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Polygamy A Fact Of Life In Kazakhstan

Absattar Myrzabekov poses with his second (Fatima, left)  and third wives (Kulaihan, second right) and their children. His first wife says she's "happy to share."
Absattar Myrzabekov poses with his second (Fatima, left) and third wives (Kulaihan, second right) and their children. His first wife says she's "happy to share."
By Farangis Najibullah
"Almaty is for baibishes and Astana's for tokals."

This popular expression in Kazakhstan sums up the public's mood when it comes to the phenomenon of politicians having multiple wives.

"Baibishe" is a man's first wife, while "tokal" is a younger wife. Almaty was the seat of government before the capital moved to Astana in the late 1990s, leading many government figures to maintain their family homes in the old capital while jetting off to the shiny new capital for work, so the context is clear. With power comes privilege, and with privilege comes polygamy.

Technically, polygamy is illegal in Kazakhstan, and has been ever since Soviet authorities banned it 90 years ago this month. But while elsewhere in Central Asia having multiple spouses is a criminal offense, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison, in Kazakhstan polygamy has been decriminalized since 1998.

This has helped fuel a spectacular comeback that began two decades ago with the fall of communism.

The practice -- especially among the powerful or well-heeled -- has become part of the social fabric for Kazakhs, who say polygamy is on the rise both in cities and villages. There have been multiple attempts to legalize it, although none have yet made it through parliament.

It remains unclear how widespread polygamy is among Kazakhs, as there are no official statistics reflecting the trend. In one unofficial poll conducted by Kazakh media, more than 40 percent of male respondents were in favor of polygamy. Among female respondents, some 20 percent were not against the idea.

Supporters of polygamy say they see it as a tradition that exists in different forms in all societies. Many justify it in relation to Islam, which in certain circumstances allows for having multiple wives.

'I Share My Husband'

Shynar-apai, a 57-year-old housewife who lives outside the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, says she doesn't mind polygamous marriages "one bit."

The first wife of Absattar Myrzabekov, Shynar Oteeva, says polygamy is fine as long as it's in the open.
Shynar-apai shares a sizeable family home, five children, and her husband with two other women -- her husband's younger wives.

"I don't see any problem with men having more than one wife as long as they treat all wives equally and are able to provide financial support for all of them," she says. "In our family we don't divide anything. All our children call us, the three wives, 'mother.' We go to places together and take turns in doing housework."

Speaking from the point of a "baibishe," Shynar-apai says she prefers men who are openly polygamous to those who have affairs and lie about them. She says these mistresses and their children "have no rights, get no support from the man."

All The Way To The Top

Shynar-apai's situation -- or her comments on polygamous marriages -- hardly raise an eyebrow in Kazakhstan. Polygamy is more popular among well-to-do men above the age of 40. Tokals are for the most part much younger women in their 20s or early 30s.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev's estranged former son-in-law once claimed that the president also had not one, but two tokals in Astana, having left his first wife and the mother of his three children behind in the old capital.

According to Rakhat Aliev -- who lives abroad and has been convicted by the Kazakh state in absentia on treason and corruption charges, among others -- the president fathered three more young children, including his only son, by his younger wives.

Nazarbaev has never publicly acknowledged the existence of his alleged tokals or young children. Sara, the president's first and only legal spouse, on occasion accompanies Nazarbaev to official engagements.

Parliament Rejects Polygamy

Kazakhstan's parliament has twice debated the legalization of polygamy. In 2001, the legislature discussed proposals to amend the constitution to allow men to officially register their tokals as legal spouses.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) and his wife Sara vote in Astana in April.
Polygamy supporters argued that such law would acknowledge a widely accepted practice, but the proposal was nevertheless rejected.

A bill on "Marriage and Family" seeking to legalize polygamous marriages returned to parliament in 2008. But once again it failed to pass after coming under strong criticism from female lawmakers, notably Bakhyt Syzdykova, a young deputy and woman's rights activist.

"If you want to legalize polygamy then you would also have to legalize polyandrous marriages -- women having multiple husbands simultaneously," Syzdykova argued. "Otherwise, you would violate our constitution, which gives equal rights to men and women."

Islamic Marriage

Kazakhs say it won't be long before another bill seeking to officially recognize polygamy appears in parliament. In the meantime, those who wish to have more than one wife continue to take their future tokals to mullahs to conduct the Islamic marriage, "nikah."

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have prohibited mullahs from performing nikah for couples who fail to provide a certificate of civil marriage registration. In Kazakhstan, however, such barriers do not exist.

The imam of Almaty's central mosque, Bakhtiyar Hasanaliev, says he doesn't know the exact number of nikahs conducted in the mosque.

"We don't have a book of registration yet," the imam says, but estimates that "approximately 400-500 religious marriage ceremonies have taken place in the mosque since the beginning of the year."

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Central Asian from: Abroad
June 21, 2011 18:36
There are several factors that explain this. First of all, Kazakhstan has one of the lowest sex ratios in the world, especially in the 15-64 years age group, which encompasses all the marriageable ages (approx. 0.95 male/female in 2011). This mean, overall there is more than one woman for every man. Second, the country is ethnically very diverse and the majority of the population (particularly those who do not live in the two main cities) are culturally conservative meaning inter-ethnic marriages are very low. Third, there is increasing emigration of young men (and to a lesser extent women it must be said). Therefore it is not too much of a surprise that given the Islamic background, polygamy is more acceptable in Kazakhstan than elsewhere.

Another thing that must be pointed out: this article gives the impression that polygamy is desired by Kasakh men and accepted by the women (the wives). This is certainly not the case. As in Tajikistan and Kyrgizstan, there are many secretive cases of polygamy in Kazakhstan. The Myrzabekovs are among the minority, who are openly polygamous.

by: ananimus
June 23, 2011 18:58
with regards to the explanations given: none of them explain neither the Policies(!) nor the trends.
1) I don't really remember a lack of men;
2) it is considerably less diverse compared to the Soviet time;
3)if one would track statistics on immigration-it is related to the non-titular ethnicity;
4) Islamic background?neighboring Uzbeks are Islamic, but Kazakh were nomads and polytheists .
In Response

by: Turgai
June 30, 2011 07:39
Kazakhs *were*nomads indeed and although you can still see lots of traces of that in their mentality and relation to faith, they ceased to be nomads long ago and are now redefining their idenitity, of which Islam is an unavoidable part. The increasing interest for Islam in Kazakhstan is not something that is confined to the south (Shymkent and so one) but also in the north (Pavlodar etc...) and even Almaty.

Понимание роли мусульманских женщин
http://www.halifat.info/caliphate/social-system/916-muslim-women.html

Капиталистическая кампания против мусульманки
http://www.qirim-vilayeti.org/content/view/334/100/

Роль семьи в Исламе
http://qirim-vilayeti.org/content/view/2167/255/
In Response

by: Nayman from: Yeren
July 20, 2011 15:47
I don't think the Islam has began to play that much role in kazakh's life since their ruler were from Astana, but not Moskowa, at least in majority of Kazakh. We are always nomad people, it's not only about how do we get foods to eat, make room for live, it's about trade-off between people who live here in steppe and steppe lived by those people. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol 's culture are products of this long-time trade-off. We are civilization in North. Contrary to this, The Islam, as well as Buddism are products of civilization in South of us. We accept them to some extent into our behaviour, But whatever their appearence are, they are still alien, it will never change our genotype of North, phenotype of Nomad.

few examples of polygamy in Kazakhstan, i think, are not that surprising, unusual. However, although Russians mutanted our culture, and survival of some old-fashion after Russians retreated, such as polygamy, have to face a new world with even more pressures than Russians made.

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