Politics in Kyrgyzstan is what usually grabs headlines, but the country is increasingly divided over another, less understood news-making phenomenon -- polygamy.
Rustam Khakimov, a bazaar trader in the southern town of Karasuu and the father of five children, is one of those Kyrgyz citizens who believe that polygamy is an integral part of the country's cultural tradition. Khakimov says that he would take another wife without hesitation if his income allowed.
"Considering polygamy a crime is what the West imposes on us Muslims. They [Westerners] prohibit a marriage between a man and several women, but allow a man marrying a man," Khakimov said. "If you respect the freedom of religion, let every woman decide whether she should marry a married man or not, and live according to Islamic law."
Polygamy carries a two-year prison sentence under the Kyrgyz criminal code, but, with time, the practice has shed its Soviet-era taboo, and become an illegal act that is openly acknowledged to exist. Particularly in the country's more traditionally Islamic southern regions of Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken, it is believed to be flourishing. Reliable statistics, however, do not exist. No prosecutions for polygamy are known to have occurred.
Reasons for the reviving popularity of polygamy are connected with the falling-away of secular Soviet-era mores, and the search for distinctly Kyrgyz "traditions" and "values," commented one psychologist. "Polygamy is an integral part of the mentality of local people," Tatiana Arkhipova, a psychologist at Osh State University, told EurasiaNet. "The majority of local women and men in the ... region perceive polygamy as a natural way of life forbidden during Soviet times."
Economics also plays a role. Many poorer Kyrgyz seem to feel that, amid difficult economic times, a collective approach to making ends meet is more pragmatic than an individual effort. "Polygamy exists due to the poverty of the majority of the population, and there is no way to eliminate it without improvement of living standards," said Osh-based independent sociologist Minojat Tashbayeva. "In February 2007, I interviewed 20 women for my research, and the majority of them asserted they would marry married men if they and their children are supported and taken care of. Only a few of them, from well-to-do families, condemned the very idea of polygamy."
Women make up some 50.6 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.2 million, according to government statistics, yet carry a disproportionately large amount of the responsibility for providing for their families. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that women hold 75 percent of all jobs in Kyrgyzstan, mostly in low-paying sectors. In this, heavy rates of labor migration by Kyrgyz men to Russia and Kazakhstan are also believed to play a role.
Average salaries for women in Kyrgyzstan, the Fund says, are 65 percent of the wages paid to men. No women hold seats in parliament, and few hold senior government positions -- despite statements in 2006 by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that this gender imbalance should be corrected. "Women believe that there are not enough good men in the society," said Arkhipova, the psychologist. "First wives accept other wives, fearing their husbands will divorce them if there are disagreements."
Opinions remain sharply divided about the practice. An attempt by the Justice Ministry to decriminalize the practice failed in late March, with Bakiyev expressing strong opposition to such a move. At a March 19 round table hosted and organized by Osh State University, participants condemned what they described as attempts to encourage the public to support legalization. "Polygamy is immoral," said Gulnaz, a female college student from Osh.
Other women in this predominantly ethnic Uzbek town differ. Barno and Zulaikho, wives of 47-year-old Osh resident Khabibullo Karimov, take polygamy for granted. "My marriage with my husband is blessed by Islam. There is nothing wrong about it," said Zulaikho, who is 21 years younger than her husband. "My parents and I are glad that I live happily with my husband." Both Barno and Zulaikho say that they will not mind if their husband takes a fourth and final wife, as prescribed by Islamic law. Karimov's third wife, Madina, is an ethnic Bulgarian who adopted Islam and now lives in a separate house from Karimov and his wives.
"I want to marry one more woman," said Karimov. "I have 16 children, but I would be happy to have more." All of Karimov's 16 children call his wives "mom."
Two of Karimov's elder sons study at the Kyrgyz Turkish University in the capital, Bishkek; his other sons will receive a higher education, too, he says. His five girls, however, are a different matter. Karimov cites the fact that the family lives "in the country," where there are no separate higher education institutions for women, as the reason "why my daughters will not study on after finishing secondary school."
Osh sociologist Tashbayeva believes that the need to protect the rights of subsequent wives and their children argues in favor of legalizing polygamy. "When divorcing her husband, only the first wife is eligible to defend her rights in court, whereas second, third or fourth wives do not enjoy any rights since they do not register their marriages as the law prohibits polygamy," Tashbayeva said. "Thus, by forbidding polygamy to protect the rights of women, the government actually violates the rights of second, third and, or, fourth wives... The law must equally consider all wives, regardless of whether she is first, second, third or fourth."
Hamid Toursunof is a freelance writer based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.