Turkmenistan: One wife or two?

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Polygamy has staged a comeback, though opinion is split on legalisation.
Life as the second wife in a polygamous marriage isn’t easy for Gulshat Ovezova. After 12 years of marriage, she is still shunned by his relatives who refuse to recognise their two children. Support from her husband is also distinctly lacking.
“My husband believes his main obligations are to his first family,” said Ovezova, who lives in the Turkmen village of Bagir, south of the capital Ashgabat. “My children and I come afterwards.”

Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov rejected a proposal to pass a law legalising polygamy five years ago, meaning only a man’s first wife is his spouse in the eyes of the state.

The practice continued unabated, however, moving underground with women’s crisis centres reporting that up to 40 per cent of calls now come from second and third wives like Ovezova who live without basic rights for themselves and their children.

One crisis centre worker thinks the only solution is to legalise polygamy.

“As underground polygamy is quite widespread, it would be more expedient to pass an appropriate law and thus protect the personal and property rights of women in polygamous marriages at a legal level,” said the employee, who works with victims of domestic violence.

Ovezova agrees, “If [a] law is passed permitting a man to have many wives, and my husband officially marries me, then my children and I will be protected by the law. I will have the same rights as his official wife, and my children will become full members of his family.”

Others see a polygamous relationship as a way out of the economic difficulties suffered by so many Turkmen women. Enebai, who came from the provinces and now works as a prostitute in Ashgabat, said her life would have been different if only she had found a husband – even one she had to share.

“If I had had a husband who could look after me and my children, I wouldn’t have become a prostitute,” she said.

“After graduating from school or university, many women here cannot find work. And if a young woman has no husband or work, there is only one choice for her – to go and sell her body and earn money. If the law permitting polygamy was passed officially here, then there would be far fewer women like this.”

Other adherents of polygamy point out the practice is allowed under Islam and is acceptable if men follow Islamic laws stating that those with numerous wives should treat them equally and provide for them financially.

“If a man can marry, and if his first wife agrees, then why not?” said another crisis centre worker. “There are different life situations, when a woman gets sick, or age places some restrictions or there are physiological reasons and demands. There are a lot of factors when, without humiliating his first wife, a man can take a second wife.”

Centuries ago, polygamy was seen as crucial to sustain and grow a Turkmen population decimated by wars and epidemics.

The practice died out in the Soviet era but has found favour since the country regained its independence, particularly among the wealthy who consider having multiple wives as a status symbol.

That extends to members of the ruling elite, many of whom also have polygamous relationships.

At least one parliamentary deputy, however, has pledged to stamp out the practice, saying it is immoral and “the result of the unhealthy desires of rich people for whom one house and car are not enough”.

Merjen-apa, a mother of five children, also deplores the trend towards polygamy and remembers the Soviet days with nostalgia.

“Life has changed,” she said. “With the consent of their parents, young women go to become the wives of rich men. This is wrong. There should be one family, and love and mutual understanding between husband and wife should reign there, and the children should see how the father loves and respects their mother.”

A female lawyer working for the communications ministry calls polygamy “humiliating towards women” and “an infringement of their rights”. “No woman truly wants to share her husband with any other woman on the planet,” she said.

Human rights activist Islam Taganov insists that Turkmenistan must turn its back on multiple marriages if it is to develop into a modern nation.

“Perhaps the system of polygamy is acceptable in Muslim countries, but it will never be supported by democratic or capitalist countries,” he said. “Perhaps this is why our president didn’t sign this law, because after all the country wishes to develop according to a model of democratic society.”

Others including a male resident of Mary, Turkmenistan’s second city, have more selfish reasons for opposing any legislation to legalise polygamy.

“The fact that men have a second family does not at all mean that they are prepared to marry all their women officially,” he said “An official marriage imposes certain obligations, and not every man is prepared for this responsibility. I would like to believe that our president would never sign a decree to pass this law.”

By IWPR staff in London (WP No. 14, 17-Nov-05)