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Tajik women turn to polygamy for survival

Madina Shogunbekova
August 20, 2023

Dire economic conditions are spurring an increasing number of women in Tajikistan to enter polygamous marriages. But it comes at the price of limited rights and social stigma.

A Tajik bride
Many Tajik brides aren't their husband's only wivesImage: Boaz Rottem/IMAGO

For some years now, polygamous marriages have been on the rise in Tajikistan, likely due to the growing influence of religion and the mass exodus of young men abroad.

High poverty rates and a tough job market have contributed to nearly 1 million of the country's approximately 9 million citizens finding employment outside of Tajikistan.

Their remittances are a key source of income for many families and make up roughly 20-30% of the country’s GDP, according to data from the World Bank and World Economic Forum.

This is one reason why many divorced Tajik women apear to support the right of men to marry multiple times: polygamous marriages are mainly sought by high- and middle-income men and many women see this as their only way to secure financial security for themselves and their children. 

Though the state does not recognize polygamous marriages, Sharia law allows Muslim men to have multiple wives. These unions are consecrated by a mullah without the marriage being officially registered with the state.

'The only way to survive financially' 

According to activist and psychologist Firuza Mirzoyeva from the Tajik organization Public Health and Human Rightsthere are several reasons polygamy is becoming more widespread. Women are willing to become second, third or fourth wives to make their private lives socially acceptable, she said.

"It also has a material aspect. For many rural women who haven't received higher education — and some don't even have a high school diploma — to belong, so to say, to a man, is the only way to survive financially."

Activist Mirzoyeva pointed to the Khatlon and Sughd regions as examples. There, girls are prepared for matrimony from an early age, while education is considered "superfluous."

Many marriages would give women "security" and provide them with a certain status, she said: "Society has a negative attitude toward unmarried and divorced women and considers them 'old maids.' Even if a woman is successful and independent, society does not approve."

Unhappy marriage to a successful business

Amina comes from Isfara, in the northern Sughd region, but moved to the capital, Dushanbe, with her parents a long time ago. After she finished ninth grade, her parents married her off.

"They chose a husband for me. I didn't even know what he looked like, but I knew he was two years older than me," Amina said. She lived with him in his parents' house, but after just a couple of months he left to work in Russia.

"At first he came once a year and stayed for a month. Then he stopped coming at all. Finally, I learned that he had married a second time and was living with his new family. Then I decided to leave him because he didn't want me and our children anymore," Amina says.

His parents refused to let her take custody of their three children because she lacked financial means. She still visits them often.

Unwilling to live alone and in poverty, Amina agreed to become the third wife of a 46-year-old man who would "lovingly take care" of her and help her get back on her feet.

He bought her an apartment and a car, and also helped her to start her own business. Now Amina owns a beauty salon and a clothing store. The support of her second husband makes her very happy, she said.

'Only fit to be a second wife'

Manizha is from the western Hisor region. She married at 19 and divorced after just four months due to frequent conflicts with her mother-in-law.

"That's how the traditions are: If you are divorced, then you're only fit to be a second wife. Fate leaves you no other choice. Family and society unfortunately no longer accept me," she said.

A wedding in Tajikistan
A wedding celebration in Hisor, TajikistanImage: Yegor Aleyev/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Immediately after the divorce, Manizha received offers to become a second or third wife through the Nikah, a traditional Islamic marriage ceremony, with the promise of providing for her financially.

"At first I refused, because I hadn't yet processed the traumatic separation from my first husband. But because of my financial situation, and because I didn't have an apartment, I had to consider the offers," Manizha added.

She soon became the second wife of a local official. "Fortunately he's very young, only 27 years old," she said.

Her new husband spends three days a week with Manizha and the rest of the time at his house with his first wife and two children. According to Manizha, the first wife knows about the second marriage and doesn't mind.

"Being a second wife is my decision, I was not forced into it. At the moment, I'm very happy that there is someone in my life who takes care of me," she said. "You can't go against traditions and culture, I have to take life as it is and thank Allah for everything he has given me."

'Nowhere to go'

Sitora, originally from the Khatlon region, works in the capital Dushanbe where she rents a room. The 29-year-old was in a relationship, but it didn't work out. Now she believes her age won't allow her to become a first wife — that's why she's considering becoming a second wife.

"My parents won't accept me anymore because they've been waiting for me to get married for a long time. I have nowhere to go. My small salary doesn't allow me to rent this room in the long run, especially considering that prices are skyrocketing and wages remain meager."

A wedding in Tajikistan
Tajik authorities turn a blind eye to polygamy, feminist activist Firuza Mirzoyeva saysImage: Yegor Aleyev/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

She has long dreamed of a better quality of life and starting a family: "I'm ready to become a second, third or fourth wife. If it helps me to avoid loneliness and provides financial stability for future children, then why not?"

Limited rights and social stigma

Still, being a second or third wife comes with limited rights and the associated social stigma. Without the official registration of a marriage, women in these types of relationships have no legal protections or property rights.

"If children are born in such a marriage and they are registered in the father's name, only they can expect any financial support or inheritance," activist Mirzoyeva told DW. 

Polygamous marriages pose significant risks for women, especially if the husband leaves or dies, as there is then no one left to care for the wife or her children. "A whole generation of children born in such marriages is tainted with society's prejudices," Mirzoyeva said. 

First wives often view second marriages negatively, though they are forced to put up with it because of their financial dependence on their husbands. 

The Tajik authorities also turn a blind eye to many marriages because they fear that countermeasures could mean a path to an economic abyss for many women, according to Mirzoyeva.

"If serious attempts were made to change the situation, many women would slip below the poverty line, which would lead to some being forced into prostitution," she said.

"Even if some of them could earn enough money for an independent existence this way, they would not be accepted in society."

This article was originally written in Russian.