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Central Asia: Kazakhstan Debates Polygamy Amid Regional Rise In Popularity

In Tajikistan, men can only have one wife by law, but the idea of legalizing polygamy was raised following the country's 1992-97 civil war (file photo) (RFE/RL) Want a second wife? Then simply get your first wife’s consent and prove you can financially support another family. A new draft law in Kazakhstan would allow any man who is able to meet those two requirements to take a second, third, or even a fourth wife.

Proponents of legalizing polygamy say the new bill will help improve the demographic situation in the country. They cite Islamic customs, which allow Muslim men to marry up to four wives. And they say the new bill would give more rights to the wives and children of polygamous husbands.

Tangribergan Berdyungarov, a Kazakh parliamentarian, says the legislature is likely to hold a session soon to consider the issue. “The proposed bill is named ‘On Marriage and Family.’ There have been unofficial talks to legalize polygamy in Kazakhstan," he says. "I believe every deputy has his or her own opinion on the matter, and it will be reflected in the voting.”

If Polygamy, Then Polyandry

Berdyungarov tells RFE/RL that he opposes the new bill. He has many supporters in parliament -- mostly women like deputy Bahyt Syzdykova, who calls the issue “nonsense.”

Speaking at a televised roundtable in Astana on May 7, Syzdykova said she would propose legalizing polyandry -- allowing women to marry more than one man -- if parliament legalizes polygamy. “After all, men and women in our country have equal rights according to our constitution,” she said. Syzdykova added that there is more need for a law giving greater rights to children born out of wedlock than any legalization of polygamy.

A woman from the city of Almaty voices a similar opinion. “Many women have become the second or third wives, but neither they nor their children have rights," she says. "I don’t want to see the word ‘polygamy’ [in the new law], but I would like to see that men have obligations and are held responsible for all their relationships and the children born outside [official] marriages.”

Polygamy has been practiced in Central Asian Muslim societies for centuries. Even during the Soviet era, some men took more than one wife, although only the first marriage was considered legal.

Kazakhstan decriminalized polygamy in 1998, but it remains a crime in the four other Central Asian countries. A man can face up to two years in prison for having more than one wife, but the practice is rarely prosecuted.

'Bring Happiness'

The Kazakh parliament has held debates on legalizing it several times in the last decade. The first initiative came from the League of Muslim Women of Kazakhstan. Amina Abdukarim Qyzy, the organization’s leader, has said that polygamy would increase the country's population and "bring happiness to many men and women."

A 2004 poll by the “Express K” daily suggested that some 40 percent of Kazakh men supported legalizing polygamy. In the same poll, more than 73 percent of women said they wanted to be the only wife of their husband. Only 22 percent of women said they would not oppose living in a polygamous marriage, but only if wives lived in separate apartments and were equally and adequately provided for by a husband.

Murat Kulimbet, deputy editor in chief of “Kazakhstan Eylderi” magazine, supports legalizing polygamy. He says up to 30 percent of men in the country’s south, where Islamic traditions have always been stronger, have more than one wife.

Polygamy has become more popular in Central Asia as people have returned to Islamic traditions following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Through "nikah," or Islamic marriage, a Muslim man can take up to four wives with the consent of his current wives and if he is financially able to provide equally and fairly for new wives and children. Nikah, however, has no legal force in the region's secular states. Therefore, in the case of divorce or the death of a husband, the second and third wives of the man and their children have no rights.

In recent years, Muslim-dominated societies from Azerbaijan to Russia’s Bashkortostan to Central Asia have seen attempts to legalize polygamy, but parliaments have always rejected them.

Benefits Of Legalization

In Kazakhstan and Russia, polygamy proponents say it would help raise sagging birthrates and stave off demographic crisis. In other countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where thousands of men go abroad in search of work amid high unemployment at home, some people say the wives and children of those men who do not return would benefit from the legalization of polygamy.

In Tajikistan, the idea was raised after the bloody 1992-97 civil war, when the number of men decreased significantly. A group of Tajik women -- mostly the wives of polygamous husbands -- wrote a letter to the country's parliament, asking for their status to be legitimized.

Most observers see a direct correlation between polygamy and economic welfare. Many women agree to become the second or third wives of relatively wealthy men, as they are not financially able to provide for themselves. There is also reportedly an increasing number of cases where men take young girls as their second or third wife from parents who can barely make ends meet. The parents often give their daughters away for a financial reward.

“There may be a need for [polygamy] only among the rich in Uzbekistan," says an Uzbek man working in Kazakhstan. "Nowadays, most families can hardly make ends meet, and millions of Uzbeks work in Russia and Kazakhstan. I don’t think [legalizing polygamy] is an urgent issue in Uzbekistan. Well, not from men’s point of view.”

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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