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In Kyrgyzstan, Polygamy's Rise Takes Its Toll

Kyrgyzstan's secular laws officially prohibit polygamy.
Kyrgyzstan's secular laws officially prohibit polygamy.
Ainagul is 58 years old. A native of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, she has been married for 34 years and has four children and several grandchildren. Her husband, an ambitious manager during the Soviet era, went on to start his own business and became a devout Muslim.

But Ainagul's family life changed dramatically two years ago. Her husband began to disappear regularly, often for as long as a week or 10 days at a time. When she asked where he had gone, he would be silent. But later, he admitted that he had taken a second wife.

"My husband is a religious man. He prays five times a day, follows Shari'a law. He even went on the hajj," Ainagul says. "But then he took a second wife, the same age as one of his own children, without telling or asking me. He says their marriage was blessed by a mullah, that he conducted a nikah ceremony. Would you expect such a thing from a religious man?"

Nikah, or Islamic marriage, has grown more commonplace in Central Asia as traditional Islam has moved to fill the void left by the Soviet collapse. But it has had a devastating impact on women who feel betrayed and left without the protections of civil marriage.

The news that her husband had taken a second wife came as a profound shock to Ainagul, who even now keeps the news hidden from her children, friends, and relatives. The past two years have taken their toll on Ainagul, who suffers from insomnia and nervous anxiety.

Finally, when her hands began to tremble uncontrollably, her sister -- the only person to whom Ainagul confessed her secret -- took her to Sezim (Feeling), a women's crisis center in Bishkek.

Byubyusara Ryskulova
Sezim's director, Bubusara Ryskulova, is one of Kygyzstan's leading women's rights activists. Her center offers women psychological counseling, judicial consultation, and even temporary shelter. Ryskulova says more and more women like Ainagul are coming to her center, desperate for help.

"In such a situation, we can't say you have to do this or that. We just talk to them, help them analyze their life, and look for light at the end of the tunnel," Ryskulova says.

"Ainagul was in a terrible state when she came to us. She told us she wanted to pour boiling water on her husband while he was sleeping. She was poisoned with hatred. Her hands were shaking, and she kept saying, 'I don't want to live like this. It's better to die.' "

Signs Of Improvement

It's been several months since Ainagul first came to the Sezim center, and on the emotional front at least, there are signs of improvement. But her husband's actions have forced other changes in Ainagul's life.

Although he still spends half of every month at the home he has always shared with Ainagul, he has stopped giving her money. Ainagul, who spent much of her married life raising her children and caring for the family home, has been forced to start earning money when she is nearly 60 years old.

Kyrgyzstan's secular laws officially prohibit polygamy. But as Islam has moved to fill the void left behind following the Soviet collapse, Ryskulova says some Kyrgyz men are using their newfound religious beliefs as an opportunity to take multiple wives. She says the trend is having a damaging effect on family life.

"Islamization is going on, as one can see. It's changing not only the role of women in our society, but the whole institution of family. Family relations are changing," she says.

"If one part of this process is rooted in Islam, then the second part is rooted in the socioeconomic situation. If we live in a secular country, as our constitution says, then men with more than one wife must be sued. That's not happening. So what kind of country do we live in?"

It is not only men who are embracing the change. Ryskulova says some young women prefer to marry an older, financially established man and see entering into a polygamous marriage as the best opportunity to do so. Economic hardship in recent years has also sent thousands of young Kyrgyz men abroad in search of job opportunities, leaving women with even fewer marital options.

Fears Punishment

One such woman is Gulnara. Now 27, she grew up in Bishkek with a good education and went on to work with a large firm in the capital. In a nikah ceremony three years ago, Gulnara became the second wife of her former boss, a well-to-do man in his late 40s. She now has a 2-year-old son.

Gulnara's mother, Kaiyrgul, has begun going to a Sezim center to seek help for her daughter. Gulnara is reluctant to speak to outsiders, fearing punishment from her husband. But Kaiyrgul says her daughter is depressed and vulnerable.

"Their marriage is not officially registered. If she leaves him, she'll have nothing," Kaiyrgul says.

A Muslim man can bring home another woman only if there is a serious reason -- like if his wife is sick, or infertile, or something like this.
"My daughter and the baby live in a small apartment her husband bought for them. He comes to visit whenever he wants. It's like she's in a prison in that apartment. She doesn't go out in the evenings, she's stopped seeing her friends. Every evening she's at home with the baby. When I call her on holidays, she says, 'Of course I'm at home, watching TV. What else can I do?' It breaks my heart every time."

Nikah ceremonies allow Muslim men to take up to four wives -- but usually only with the consent of existing wives and only if the husband is financially capable of providing equally and fairly for all his wives and their children. But because nikah has no legal weight in Kyrgyzstan, divorce or the death of a husband can leave a woman and her children completely bereft.

Mullah Abdyshukur Narmatov is a leading Muslim cleric in Kyrgyzstan who studied in Egypt. He says that while Islam does permit a man to take a second or third wife, there must be a compelling reason for him to do so.

"In Islam, there is no obligation to have two, three, or four wives. A Muslim man can bring home another woman only if there is a serious reason -- like if his wife is sick, or infertile, or something like this," Narmatov says. "But a man doesn't have to ask his wife's permission. What kind of a woman would give her consent?"

Sezim and other family crisis centers in Kyrgyzstan reported on March 5 that the number of women seeking urgent help has seen a 40 percent rise in the past year -- more than 8,000 women in total. More than half of these women are victims of polygamy, unregistered nikah marriages, and even forced marriages. (Bridenapping remains a significant problem in Kyrgyzstan, where men will literally "steal" a woman whose parents refuse to consent to the marriage, or to avoid paying for a wedding.)

Ryskulova is hopeful that some Muslim organizations in Kyrgyzstan will show a greater interest in focusing on the aspects of Islam that are beneficial for women. "Faith is a very good thing," she says. "It's unfortunate that women are being negatively affected because of it, due to the fact that our mullahs are poorly educated."

Mullah Narmatov also admits this.

"Unfortunately, some mullahs without a proper education don't realize their responsibility before the family they're blessing," Narmatov says. "Some so-called mullahs do whatever they are asked to. But one should not form an opinion about all mullahs based only on them."

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Eleonora Mambetshakirova contributed to this report from Bishkek

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