It was the onset of winter, still in the early stages of a bloody civil war, and Aziza Saidova couldn't imagine things getting any worse.
"It was like my world was falling apart," Saidova recalls of those dark days in 1992, seven months into a Tajik civil war that would end up lasting five years. "My town was devastated by war, my husband had been shot dead, and at the age of 26 I was a widow with a 2-month-old baby."
By war's end Saidova's situation was hardly unique for women, with more than 25,000 widowed in Tajikistan's southern and eastern regions, and the spouses of thousands more missing.
Many, like Saidova, were still of child-bearing age; her newborn was among 55,000 children left fatherless by the war. Many, including Saidova, would consider ways to move on with their lives once fighting officially ended on June 27, 1997. And many, recalls Mullah Khomurad Rajavov, imam of a mosque in the southern town of Kulob, turned to religious authorities for guidance.
"After the civil war there was complete chaos. Many women didn't know their husbands' whereabouts; they didn't know if their husbands were dead or alive," Rajavov says. "They would seek advice from us. There were many discussions."
Widows received some assistance from local governments and international organizations in the form of humanitarian aid and job-training programs, alleviating some of the strain of being thrust into the role of family breadwinner.
However, according to women's rights activist Huriniso Ghafurova, there was a feeling within Tajik society that more had to be done to restore a sense of normalcy to the young widows' lives.
Some contemplated their prospects for remarriage. But while that option was often pushed by family members, it was frowned on by some traditionalists in the majority-Muslim country.
"I was not sure whether it was acceptable to marry another man when my husband had lost his life at such a young age," recalls Saidova, whose journalist husband Ahrori Sharif was killed at the age of 28.
Clarity on that and other questions came when the Islamic Center of Tajikistan, then the country's highest religious authority, met in the capital in search of "ways within Islam for our women to rebuild their lives," according to Mullah Rajavov.
In a fatwa issued in 1997, the Islamic Center outlined softened restrictions that freed up many women to pursue new lives.
In the event of the death of a woman's husband, whereas she would normally be expected to mourn for one year, the widow would be required to mourn for a period of four months and 10 days under the new fatwa. After that time, sufficient to ensure that the woman was not pregnant with her late husband's child, she would be free to marry again.
If pregnant, Rajavov explains, "she should wait until delivering the child, and after that she can remarry if she so wishes."
The fatwa also affected women whose husbands were missing. "In some Islamic traditions, a woman whose husband is missing is required to wait until her missing husband's age reaches 99," Mullah Rajavov explains.
"The situation prompted the Islamic Center of Tajikistan to issue a fatwa ruling that women whose husbands were missing should wait for four years," he adds. "And after four years, if they had not heard anything from their husbands, the women would be allowed to remarry."
Life Goes On
Mullahs also spelled out that there would be no requirement that the new husband be a relative of the deceased, and that widows would be free to choose their new husband.
By war's end, more than 25,000 women were widowed in Tajikistan's southern and eastern regions, and the spouses of thousands more were missing.
Many women, of course, did not opt to remarry. Many are still waiting for missing husbands to return home; some are lauded for sticking to tradition by mourning their husband and dedicating their lives to their children.
But for thousands of young widows like Saidova, who went on to remarry at the age of 32 and have two children with her new husband, the involvement of religious leaders was vital in helping them make choices that would reshape their lives.
"[Mullahs] would explain what is expected from us. They would tell us life should go on, and that the mourning period is only four months and 10 days; and that after the death of her husband a wife should obey the mourning period and then try to find a suitable man to remarry."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL Tajik's Service