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Polygamy A Fact Of Life In Kazakhstan

Absattar Myrzabekov poses with his second (Fatima, left) and third wives (Kulaihan, second right) and their children. His first wife says she's "happy to share."
Absattar Myrzabekov poses with his second (Fatima, left) and third wives (Kulaihan, second right) and their children. His first wife says she's "happy to share."
"Almaty is for baibishes and Astana's for tokals."

This popular expression in Kazakhstan sums up the public's mood when it comes to the phenomenon of politicians having multiple wives.

"Baibishe" is a man's first wife, while "tokal" is a younger wife. Almaty was the seat of government before the capital moved to Astana in the late 1990s, leading many government figures to maintain their family homes in the old capital while jetting off to the shiny new capital for work, so the context is clear. With power comes privilege, and with privilege comes polygamy.

Technically, polygamy is illegal in Kazakhstan, and has been ever since Soviet authorities banned it 90 years ago this month. But while elsewhere in Central Asia having multiple spouses is a criminal offense, carrying a maximum penalty of two years in prison, in Kazakhstan polygamy has been decriminalized since 1998.

This has helped fuel a spectacular comeback that began two decades ago with the fall of communism.

The practice -- especially among the powerful or well-heeled -- has become part of the social fabric for Kazakhs, who say polygamy is on the rise both in cities and villages. There have been multiple attempts to legalize it, although none have yet made it through parliament.

It remains unclear how widespread polygamy is among Kazakhs, as there are no official statistics reflecting the trend. In one unofficial poll conducted by Kazakh media, more than 40 percent of male respondents were in favor of polygamy. Among female respondents, some 20 percent were not against the idea.

Supporters of polygamy say they see it as a tradition that exists in different forms in all societies. Many justify it in relation to Islam, which in certain circumstances allows for having multiple wives.

'I Share My Husband'

Shynar-apai, a 57-year-old housewife who lives outside the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, says she doesn't mind polygamous marriages "one bit."

The first wife of Absattar Myrzabekov, Shynar Oteeva, says polygamy is fine as long as it's in the open.
Shynar-apai shares a sizeable family home, five children, and her husband with two other women -- her husband's younger wives.

"I don't see any problem with men having more than one wife as long as they treat all wives equally and are able to provide financial support for all of them," she says. "In our family we don't divide anything. All our children call us, the three wives, 'mother.' We go to places together and take turns in doing housework."

Speaking from the point of a "baibishe," Shynar-apai says she prefers men who are openly polygamous to those who have affairs and lie about them. She says these mistresses and their children "have no rights, get no support from the man."

All The Way To The Top

Shynar-apai's situation -- or her comments on polygamous marriages -- hardly raise an eyebrow in Kazakhstan. Polygamy is more popular among well-to-do men above the age of 40. Tokals are for the most part much younger women in their 20s or early 30s.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev's estranged former son-in-law once claimed that the president also had not one, but two tokals in Astana, having left his first wife and the mother of his three children behind in the old capital.

According to Rakhat Aliev -- who lives abroad and has been convicted by the Kazakh state in absentia on treason and corruption charges, among others -- the president fathered three more young children, including his only son, by his younger wives.

Nazarbaev has never publicly acknowledged the existence of his alleged tokals or young children. Sara, the president's first and only legal spouse, on occasion accompanies Nazarbaev to official engagements.

Parliament Rejects Polygamy

Kazakhstan's parliament has twice debated the legalization of polygamy. In 2001, the legislature discussed proposals to amend the constitution to allow men to officially register their tokals as legal spouses.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) and his wife Sara vote in Astana in April.
Polygamy supporters argued that such law would acknowledge a widely accepted practice, but the proposal was nevertheless rejected.

A bill on "Marriage and Family" seeking to legalize polygamous marriages returned to parliament in 2008. But once again it failed to pass after coming under strong criticism from female lawmakers, notably Bakhyt Syzdykova, a young deputy and woman's rights activist.

"If you want to legalize polygamy then you would also have to legalize polyandrous marriages -- women having multiple husbands simultaneously," Syzdykova argued. "Otherwise, you would violate our constitution, which gives equal rights to men and women."

Islamic Marriage

Kazakhs say it won't be long before another bill seeking to officially recognize polygamy appears in parliament. In the meantime, those who wish to have more than one wife continue to take their future tokals to mullahs to conduct the Islamic marriage, "nikah."

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have prohibited mullahs from performing nikah for couples who fail to provide a certificate of civil marriage registration. In Kazakhstan, however, such barriers do not exist.

The imam of Almaty's central mosque, Bakhtiyar Hasanaliev, says he doesn't know the exact number of nikahs conducted in the mosque.

"We don't have a book of registration yet," the imam says, but estimates that "approximately 400-500 religious marriage ceremonies have taken place in the mosque since the beginning of the year."

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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