After suffering years of physical abuse at the hands of her husband, a beating in the street was the last straw for 43-year-old Shamsigul Khulova. Her humiliation prompted her to leave her husband of 18 years, the father of her six children. But to her alarm, authorities would not recognize a divorce, thus threatening to deny her a property and custody settlement.
The state was reluctant to sanction her divorce because, from the official standpoint, she had never been married. Authorities cited “the fact that we were not registered in the registry office, and stated that I have no rights to the house or to the children,” Khulova explained. Like many women in post-Soviet Tajikistan Khulova had opted for an Islamic marriage ceremony, or nikaah, conducted by an imam.
No reliable statistics exist, but legal experts say many, if not most, marriages in Tajikistan today are not officially registered with the government, and are therefore not recognized under Tajik law. “Marriage registration is extremely important for women to protect their financial security, no matter what happens in the marriage,” according to Marcellene Hearn, a lawyer with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative in Dushanbe. Most couples that opt for the nikaah never get their vows legally documented.
With the state playing less of a role in Tajiks’ lives, new couples are often unaware of the need to register, says Azita Ranjbar, a Fulbright scholar researching Tajik women’s access to justice. Others complain about the distance to the registry office. Following Tajikistan’s civil war from 1992-97, “people just stopped registering,” she added.
With divorce rates climbing in Tajikistan, the issue of spousal rights is becoming increasingly salient. Labor migration -- involving hundreds of thousands of Tajik men leaving the country in search of seasonal work, heading primarily to Russia -- is straining many marriages, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Under Tajik law, women are entitled to 50 percent of a couple’s property upon divorce. Yet, research by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), shows that around 80 percent of women in divorce cases are denied property rights and child support, usually because they lack registration.
Authorities are interested in addressing the issue. For starters, on April 11, the head of the State Religious Affairs Committee has announced that a divorce announcement delivered by text message, often sent by migrant husband abroad, is not valid -- even if the marriage lacks official registration. Officials also are trying to raise public awareness about the need for an official registration certificate.
Eventually, with the help of a local non-governmental organization, Khulova obtained a divorce settlement following a court battle, a process documented in a March report by the Eurasia Foundation that examines the topic of access to the justice system, “Equal Before the Law? A Study of How Citizens Experience Access to Justice in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan."
“We appealed to the court again,” Khulova said, “and it was decided to divide the house into two parts; 1,200 square meters for me and 1,000 square meters for my ex-husband.” (A video accompanies the study.)
But her case remains an exception.
The issue is connected with a growing trend -- legal under Islamic law, but forbidden by the state -- for men to take more than one wife. In the conservative Rasht Valley town of Garm, for example, Ranjbar estimates that approximately 80 percent of marriages are polygamous. The second, third and fourth wives are not registered.
Firuza was the wife of a Tajik farmer living near Dushanbe. When her husband came back from working in Russia he brought a woman with him, a second wife.
“He told me I could stay in the house, but I would have to come second to this new woman,” Firuza told EurasiaNet.org on condition her last name not be printed. “I wanted to leave him, but the lawyers told me they could do nothing for me as I had no registration. In the end, I left him, but now have to rely on the charity of my brother who has a large family to support himself.”
Islamic tradition is not the issue, imams in Tajikistan contend. The crux of the matter is finding a better way to blend tradition with the state’s legal framework. “We are working with the government to encourage couples to register their marriages. I tell every couple I perform the nikaah for that they need to register,” said a Dushanbe imam, Habibkhon, who would only give his first name.
In a country like Tajikistan, where conservative social attitudes remain deeply entrenched, divorce remains a risky option for women as a means for resolving marital unhappiness. Informal mediation can offer solutions more palatable than formal courts, ensuring “people stay civil and harmonious within the local community,” suggested Ranjbar, the Fulbright scholar. This is especially the case in rural areas. To highlight her point, she described situations where women obtained a court-sanctioned divorce and settlement, only to face social stigmatization in their home villages.
Firuza confirmed that post-marital life can be an isolated one for a woman in Tajikistan. “I am shunned by many people in my village,” said Firuza, who lives with her brother and his family. “They [villagers] say I am not welcome and ask me where my husband is.”