Times are changing in Central Asia. As the republics gradually shed the trappings of Soviet life, including a legacy of secularism, people of the region are beginning to return to some of their old religious and cultural traditions, including the Islamic practice of polygamy. Over the past decade, polygamous families have emerged throughout the region and are starting to gain social acceptance.
Prague, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Polygamy is a criminal offense in each of the five nations of Central Asia, except Kazakhstan. In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, there have been few cases in which someone has actually been prosecuted for polygamy, and there are now increasing voices to legalize it.
The reasons behind these calls are economic, religious, and traditional, but the idea enjoys far from universal acceptance.
An old joke says that if an Uzbek man gets rich, he builds a new house, but when a Kazakh man comes into money, he gets another wife. Rakhmatjon Qoldoshev, an independent journalist in Uzbekistan, puts the joke into historical context: "Traditionally, to have several wives was a symbol of prosperity and was something to be proud of. Still, I often hear people saying with obvious pride that their fathers had up to six wives, and they treated their wives equally well. Even today, when men get luck and money, as a symbol of well-being, they get two or three wives."
Worsening economic conditions in the region are regarded as one of the main reasons behind the surge in polygamy, an accepted part of the Islamic faith as long as husbands adequately provide for their wives. Because the practice is still officially illegal, there are no reliable statistics on the number of polygamous marriages in the region, most of which are performed in secret. Women and young girls from impoverished families become the second or third wives of relatively prosperous men.
Qoldoshev explains: "You know, that there are not so many rich men among Uzbeks [or other Central Asians]. There is an old fear about how miserable your life would be if you are married to a poor man. That's why some women prefer to be the second or third wife of a rich man rather than to be only wife of a poor one, because they believe to be well-dressed and well-fed is much better than a daily fight with poverty. This issue is directly connected to the economic situation. Poverty is not a new phenomenon in the region, and that's why it has suppressed many other values."
A young Uzbek woman, who is the second wife of her husband, says she accepted this status in order to get help and support from a man: "When I became divorced with a child from my first husband, I agreed to become the second wife of my current husband. He promised to take care of us. If women in my condition [divorced] have to face such a destiny, others should try to understand her. But at the same time, if the first and legal wife of your husband is against a polygamous family, there are will be a lot of difficulties. I can tell it because of my own bitter experience."
The issue is particularly acute in Tajikistan. Tens of thousands of men were killed during Tajikistan's brutal 1992-97 civil war. Many others have left for Russia or other countries in search of jobs. A group of Tajik women -- mostly the wives of polygamous husbands -- recently wrote a letter to the country's parliament, asking for their status to be legitimized.
Nargiz Zakirova, a local journalist in Tajikistan, has investigated the issue of polygamy in the country. She says there is an increasing need to legalize the practice to protect the rights of women and children in polygamous families: "In these second [or third] marriages, there are of course, children. These children, like their mothers, are deprived of any rights. This is a big source of the problem. In order to identify legal fatherhood, there are many documents that should be collected. Some men deny their paternity, and not all men give their names to children from second or third wives."
But Layli Babaeva, a deputy in the Tajik parliament, is against the introduction of legal polygamy. She believes the issue is not a significant one and that polygamy is declining after a boom in the postwar years: "Nobody will introduce such a law in our legislation, first of all. Secondly, our current laws do not deprive children from second or third marriages their rights. According to our laws, if you prove that you are cohabitating with a man, then regardless of whether you have a stamp or not [registration of a marriage], a man has to support and help that woman. Their children have the same rights like ones born out of wedlock."
The former mufti of Central Asia, Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, says any boom in polygamy in Central Asia should not be interpreted as a return to Islamic tradition: "If you assess current cases of polygamy as a sign of Islamic revival, it would be very superficial and groundless because Islam is not a religion of which polygamy is a main dogma. It's true that Islam permits polygamy, but there should be many important conditions met for that. If you look at the attitude of these newly polygamous men toward Islam, then you'll see that most of them do not practice any Islamic rules but rush into polygamy and justify it as legal from an Islamic point of view. Mainly, they are acting to satisfy their sexual desires."
Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva is a director of the Women's Resource Center and author of several books on issues concerning women and Islam. She agrees that difficult economic conditions are forcing many women to consider polygamous marriages. She believes, however, that the main reason is attributable to their traditional upbringings: "I think in a traditional family, girls are taught how to walk on the track -- you should do this and that. If they stray slightly from this path, they are regarded as bad girls. There is no freedom given to girls in traditional families. That's why when they grow up, they accept life as they are supposed to and follow those 'shoulds' and are not ready to cope with difficulties independently. In these families, girls are told, 'When you grow up, you will marry and your husband should feed you and take all your problems to his shoulder.' If there is not such a man, then young women should start looking for him even as a second or third wife."
Tokhtakhodjaeva says life is often tough for women who do not follow these unwritten rules of traditional society in Central Asia. That's why few women, she says, dare to chase their dreams. "We have many sayings which say if you are not with others, you are out of the tide. If a woman is not married, she feels guilty because society looks at her with judgmental eyes. If a woman is alone, she is regarded, first of all, as ugly and undesired by men. Secondly, as a person with weak societal values. And third, as someone with psychological or physical defects. Society doesn't even consider that maybe she has her own values and wants and waits for somebody whom she loves. Due to pressure, a single woman lives in constant guilt and to escape it, she marries the first man who proposes. In this case, she does not do any good for society, but obtains a status and sacrifices herself in return."
Tokhtakhodjaeva believes polygamy is not the answer. She says it is high time governments in the region started to create better opportunities for women to be able to support themselves economically. She says government must prepare the ground for changing the region's traditionally submissive views toward women.
(Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)