Addressing concerns that women are increasingly being left destitute as divorce rates rise and living standards fall, Tajik lawmakers think they may have found the solution -- making prenuptial agreements mandatory and legally binding for marrying couples.
The proposed change was sent to parliament in November as an amendment to Tajikistan's family law. And despite skepticism by some who argue the Tajik people are not ready for the relatively common Western practice -- which can include agreeing prior to marriage on the division of property, finances, and even offspring in the event of a divorce -- the bill is widely expected to pass.
Authorities in the predominantly Muslim country with a staunchly secular government say the bill -- initiated by the state women's committee -- is designed to ensure women's financial well-being after divorce. But officials also insist that men's rights will be protected, too.
The state statistics committee has reported that some 9,000 divorce cases were recorded in 2016, a 4.4 percent increase over 2015. And as the number of women divorcees has risen, so have concerns that they and their children are being left without shelter and income.
Young married couples in Tajikistan often live with the husband's family, or, if the family is particularly well-off, in a separate home provided by the husband's parents and registered in the husband's name.
While family courts commonly order husbands to pay alimony and child support, in reality there is no guarantee that such payments will be made.
Compounding the problem is that many Tajik men work as undocumented migrant labors in Russia and elsewhere abroad, making it difficult for courts to get an accurate assessment of husbands' incomes.
Nowhere To Go
The idea to make prenuptial agreements compulsory was first floated in 2010 as a means of combatting prostitution. It resurfaced in 2015 and gained traction when a 23-year-old woman divorcee was stabbed to death by her former father-in-law following arguments over her living arrangements.
The woman and her two children had reportedly been living in her former husband's family home near the southern town of Kulob because she had nowhere else to go. The former father-in-law was reportedly furious with a family court ruling that said the woman and her children should continue residing in his house.
In 2011, Tajikistan introduced compulsory prenuptial contracts for marriages between Tajik citizens and foreign nationals. "Prenups" for such marriages are drawn up by the authorities and include provisions for children and the Tajik national's living arrangements in the event the couple parts ways.
Prenuptial contracts involving Tajik couples are otherwise extremely rare, with the authorities estimating there have been only three or four such contracts in recent years, all of them initiated by women entering a second marriage. The women reportedly indicated they had faced financial hardship after their first marriages fell apart.
Men's Rights, Too
While the idea behind making prenuptial agreements is primarily aimed at protecting women divorcees, potential grooms should not be discouraged by the prospect of having to sign a prenuptial agreement.
Khariniso Yusufi, a lawmaker and former head of the state women's committee who was an early advocate of compulsory prenups, told RFE/RL in November that "the interests of both wife and husband" would be considered.
The parliament's family-protection committee says it hasn't yet been finalized whether the marriage contracts would be written by officials or by the marrying couples within guidelines set out by the government.
Although no date has yet been set for debate, the legislature is known to approve legislation proposed with government backing.
At least one official, Justice Minister Rustam Shohmurod, has expressed reservations about the proposed measure, however.
Speaking to reporters on January 25, he said the implementation of such a law would be "difficult," and warned about potentially unfavorable consequences. "Such restrictions run the risk of men refraining from officially registering their marriage," he suggested.
Closing 'Nikoh' Loophole
Tajik marriage ceremonies normally include registration at the Civil Registry Office followed by the Islamic matrimony ritual known as "nikoh," but some couples forgo the official service and opt for the nikoh only.
Tajik laws do not officially recognize nikoh and require religious figures to perform the Islamic marriage ceremony only after the couple presents a civil-marriage certificate -- part of an effort to prevent polygamy and child marriages.
Apparently wary that compulsory prenuptial agreements could lead to a rise in unofficial marriages, lawmakers have already drafted another bill aiming to close the loophole.
The bill -- drafted by the state religious-affairs committee -- stipulates that only state-appointed mosque imams have the right to perform an Islamic marriage ceremony. Currently, any mullah or religious figure can conduct nikoh for a small fee, which allows room for some to perform nikoh without demanding a marriage certificate as required.
Tajik social-affairs expert Jovid Juraev welcomes the authorities' efforts aimed at protecting women, and calls for mandatory prenups to be implemented despite "inevitable difficulties in the beginning."
"Obviously, prenups are foreign to our traditions and mentality," Juraev says. "But if we use excuses...and don't implement it, the situation for women would never change."
Juraev says mandatory prenups will help to strengthen the marriage institution as it sends a message to men that they can't easily walk out of marriage without facing financial consequences of divorce.