Polygamy is practiced in all parts of Central Asia. For centuries Islamic law dictated how societies in this region behaved and polygamy was a traditional part of life for many.
Soviet authorities could not totally eradicate the practice during the Communist era and, since the fall of the USSR in 1991, polygamy has crept back into practice.
This is especially true -- though not exclusively -- about Central Asia's rural areas. The highest officials in Central Asia have at one time or another come out against the practice but the idea of legalizing polygamy still comes up.
Most recently the issue has appeared in Kyrgyzstan, and this time the legalization of polygamy has a strong advocate: Justice Minister Marat Kayipov.
"There is a definition for crime," he said recently. "It is something that is dangerous for society. Is a man who has two or three wives and takes care of their children, dangerous? If the government would arrest the man who takes care of those two or three families -- this would be detrimental to the state because then the state should take care of those families, and the state would have to take care of the man arrested as well. Is that useful for society?"
But those that oppose polygamy seem to have one strong ally, President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
President Opposes Polygamy
Dosaly Esenaliev, the head of the president's press service, gave Bakiev's opinion on the issue to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
"President [Bakiev], during a meeting in Kant, has expressed his critical opinion of the practice of polygamy, a topic that is being discussed in our society," he said. "[The president said that] we live in the 21st century, our people are very well educated, and intellectual. And he added that it's sad that some people are raising this issue, as if there are not more important problems [to be concerned about]."
Those who support the position of Justice Minister Kayipov on legalizing polygamy -- and that includes ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu -- point to the massive migration of Kyrgyz men to Kazakhstan and Russia to work as migrant laborers.
Kyrgyz officials estimate that some 800,000 men leave Kyrgyzstan for at least several months every year to find employment outside the country. Some do not come back to Kyrgyzstan for years or at all. Supporters of polygamy claim that it is the wives and families of those men who do not return who could benefit from polygamy.
Illegal But Practiced
Legal or not, polygamy is practiced in Central Asia and is rarely prosecuted. Kyrgyz director Nailya Rakhmadieva filmed a documentary -- "Elechek" -- about the sad case of a woman whose husband took a second wife, causing the first wife great emotional, financial, and societal difficulties.
In Prague last year to promote her film, Rakhmadieva said the resurgence of polygamy in Kyrgyzstan inspired her to make the movie.
"Polygamy is becoming a typical and widespread occurrence and society is already accepting this as normal and for [most of] the people it is not considered a problem," she said. "It is interesting that people become accustomed to [polygamy] and don't even try to fight against it. For that reason the idea occurred to me because many people I know have fallen into this situation although they are completely modern people -- civilized and educated people -- but for some reason this has happened to them."
Kalyicha Omuralieva of the Kyrgyz Jeri (Kyrgyz Land) Party says that if supporters of polygamy are serious in their claims about polygamy's benefits for society, then there should be some rules that go along with its legalization.
Omuralieva told RFE/RL that the men calling for the legalization of polygamy seem to be thinking about younger women as candidates for a second, third, or fourth wife. The men practicing polygamy are not typically marrying older women with children, but rather very young women.
Omuralieva suggested that if officials are serious in their statements that polygamy can be beneficial for widows and help eradicate prostitution that there should be a rule: "first, they should marry only widows older than 36, and those with children."
Omuralieva followed this by saying "[the initiators of the move to legalize polygamy] say it might reduce prostitution, so let's write in this law that those men who will marry a prostitute will be given a special medal."
Galina Kulikova, the coordinator of the My Country party, seemed concerned that the idea of polygamy is receiving the kind of support that it is.
Islam Allows Polygamy
"[Supporters of polygamy] were given the chance to speak, especially our respected Justice Minister Marat Kayipov, who is actively fighting for polygamy in open letters," she said. "The ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan has taken this [issue] up with both hands. Our government is initiating similar legislation. There is an attack on the gains reached in our country since the years of the Soviet Union."
Jamal Frontbek-kyzy is the leader of the Kyrgyz Muslim women's NGO Mutakalim. She said that while polygamy is permitted under Islam, there are conditions a man must meet if he enters into multiple marriages.
"Islam permits polygamy and it could be allowed [in Kyrgyzstan, because] the Koran says that a man can have two, three, or four wives," she said. "But in the case of polygamy there are two issues: a husband must be able, physically and materially, to satisfy all of the wives. If he can meet both those requirements he can have [more than one wife], but he must be fair to all of them."
With the backing of people like the justice minister and the country's ombudsman, the debate on polygamy will probably go further than it did when the idea was first raised. But even if legalizing the practice is rejected again it is becoming clear that there will always be some in Central Asia who favor the idea and those who will engage in the practice whether it is legal or not.
(Venera Djumataeva from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)
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