May 11, 2003
Uzbekistan's second wives' club cloaked in pain
Polygamy's appeal is rising in this post-Soviet, heavily Muslim country as the standard of living and opportunities for women decline
By Cheryl Collins, Special to the Tribune.
The grandmother in the gray suit had listened quietly to the free-wheeling discussion about marriage by a group of Uzbek women in this conservative Islamic stronghold for several hours without saying a word. When she finally spoke, she began her tale in a careful, emotionless tone.
"I have three children from my first husband, and two by my second," she said. Then, although her voice remained steady, tears began to fall. "I give the impression that everything is OK on the outside, but inside I feel terrible."
Manzura is a second wife. But her husband was not divorced or widowed before she married him. Manzura's husband has two wives.
Second marriages are not legally recognized and carry the stigma of lower status. Often, such marriages are painful and hidden--much like the unspoken rules that govern this traditional society.
Polygamy is on the rise in Central Asia, according to women's groups, anecdotal evidence and discussions with a wide range of men and women. Statistics are few.
Several factors have boosted polygamy's appeal: a steadily declining standard of living due to corrupt, mismanaged governments; the resurgence of Islam after years of suppression during the Soviet era; the emigration of men abroad in search of work; and declining opportunities for women in the limited official economy.
Shifting social mores and the uncomfortable reality of arranged marriages come to light when the door is opened on this once-taboo subject in a region that seems to be pulled forward and back simultaneously.
In traditional Uzbek society, young men's parents choose their brides.
The strain of arranged marriages often sends men to seek companionship--and more--outside marriage. Many here say the second wife is the one married "for love." However, it is still considered much less desirable to be a second wife than a first wife.
"I must do everything by myself," Manzura said as tears streamed down her face. "I don't want anyone to live as a second wife."
After the Soviet republics in Central Asia gained independence in 1991, there came a renewed interest and emphasis on Islam, the proper practice of which was often half-remembered, at best.
During the Soviet period, polygamy was illegal, although it apparently continued in a limited way.
According to the Koran, a man is allowed up to four wives. However, the first wife must consent to additional wives, the marriages must not be hidden and each wife must be treated equally in all matters. Traditionally, the wedding vows are witnessed by an imam, or Islamic teacher.
"The problem is that men read in the Koran that four wives are permitted and stop reading there," said Elena Bekirova of Sabr, a women's crisis center in Samarkand. The duties and responsibilities that accompany multiple marriages are mostly disregarded.
During the Soviet period, a number of "unofficial" imams often presided at weddings. These often self-taught, self-declared imams still perform second marriages, offering a fig leaf of legitimacy.
Uzbekistan is Central Asia's most populous country and home to two U.S. air bases close to Afghanistan.
Namangan is the largest city in the fertile Fergana Valley, often considered the Islamic heart of Central Asia and home to a conservative brand of Islam that has made it a frequent target of government crackdowns.
According to many people here, second wives are most often kept secret and almost always live apart from first wives.
Further, these women have no legal status. Often, second wives are housebound and isolated, especially in impoverished rural areas, where there has been a steep increase in polygamy.
Abdulhai Tursunov, director of the Kirgiz Mulla, a religious school in Namangan, agrees that most men who are taking multiple wives are not following proper religious practice and that women are mostly unaware of their rights under Islamic law.
Some say the solution is to legalize polygamy in order to standardize practices and ensure that women who are in polygamous marriages are legally protected.
In neighboring poverty-stricken Tajikistan, in which a devastating civil war in the 1990s led to thousands of deaths, a group of women has petitioned the government to legalize polygamy. In a limited survey sponsored by the World Health Organization there in 1999, one female in 10 over the age of 14 was found to be in a polygamous relationship.
It is imperative to discuss polygamy, Bekirova said, because "young women have a right to know what is waiting for them. They don't realize they don't have legal rights."
For Manzura, her isolation was crystallized when her husband refused to attend the wedding of their daughter. A day that is normally one of the most joyous in this family-centered society was instead darkened by bitter shame.
Women urged to wed
As the economic security of the Soviet system fell away and the standard of living has declined, the traditional goal of marriage has gained new importance.
Previously, women married after they finished their education, said Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva of the Women's Resource Center of Tashkent. As the advanced education that was free and easily available during the Soviet period has become a luxury--available to only a few in a process riddled with corruption--the age at which women are marrying is dropping.
"The main goal of women--and especially their parents--is marriage," Tokhtakhodjaeva said. "Their parents drill it into them. Men are urged to study and work."
For some men, having more than one wife is a status symbol, because only wealthy men can afford to keep more than one household.
In a generation of young people exposed to images from Russia and elsewhere of lives and luxuries that are available to few, many young women are seeking older men to marry for their wealth, unfazed by the lowered status of second wives.
Said one young woman, an aspiring singer, "All our songs are about love, because we never marry for love."