Tajik Polygamy: 'Secret' Second Wives Confront Risk, But Often It's Too Late

Tahmina Khojaeva is fighting to hang on to the newly refurbished apartment in Dushanbe where she and her husband are trying to raise their newborn twins.

The problem is the other man, whom she describes as her former husband in a nearly four-year polygamous marriage.

Thirty-five-year-old Khojaeva says she split from him two years ago, after she insisted that she wanted to "start a family." Now he wants Khojaeva, who has since married, out of the residence although he reportedly acknowledges that it was a joint investment.

But Khojaeva knows she cannot provide legal proof of her first "marriage," making it all but impossible to exercise any rights toward what she regards as her property.

Tajik law stipulates hefty fines and up to two years of hard labor for offenders of the country's ban on polygamous marriages.

But still, such illegal unions have become a hard fact of life for many in the past two decades in post-Soviet Central Asia's least prosperous country, where economic woes have pinched and hundreds of thousands of men have fled to Russia to find work.

One of the results has been the legal limbo of "second wives" who find themselves at the mercy of already married men who feel free to exit the religiously consecrated unions without a trace.

In the predominantly Muslim country, polygamous marriages are sealed with a private religious ceremony, skipping the traditional feast and wedding party. Unlike simple romantic relationships, such unions require an Islamic divorce if the couple part ways.

Tajik law doesn't recognize religious marriages or divorces, although a majority of Tajiks adhere to Islamic marriage traditions and conduct a religious ceremony after the civil one before a registrar.

Polygamous unions in Tajikistan frequently involve relatively affluent men seeking a younger second or third wife. Such "marriages" can take place with or without the knowledge of the first wife, who remains the man's only legal wife in the eyes of a court.

Khojaeva tells RFE/RL that she agreed to become a "secret second wife" to a wealthy businessman who could provide her with financial stability.

Having lost both her parents, Khojaeva says she had to spend most of her 20s working as an entertainer to provide for herself and her younger siblings.

"He married me for my looks," she says, adding that a second wife "never becomes a real wife."

"He would come here to temporarily escape problems in his family, his first wife and their six children," Khojaeva says of her former partner. "Men visit their second wives as if they are going on a holiday, where a young and beautiful woman serves them. When I wanted children, he left me."

Khojaeva's former partner did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment for this story, but sources close to the man confirmed the apartment was a joint purchase.

Some men have children with their second "wives," although such women are officially single mothers under the law.

'The Alternative Isn't Any Better'

Safargul, a Dushanbe woman who asked not to use her full name, says she is the second wife of a man with whom she has two young children.

The man provides for Safargul and their children, she says, but visits them only during weekends. The most painful part is that it's all secret and she can't tell anyone they are a family, she adds.

"When we bump into each other in the street in front of his friends or family, my husband pretends that he doesn't know me or our children. He passes by like a complete stranger," Safargul says. "The children get confused."

Safargul says she is determined to stay in the relationship despite the complications, as she sees no better alternative for herself.

Jobs can be hard to come by in Tajikistan, a country of some 8 million people. Hundreds of thousands of Tajik men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s spend most of the year working as migrant laborers in Russia, returning home only in winter.

The tragic case of a 28-year-old "second wife" from the southern town of Norak made headlines in Tajikistan when she took her own life by jumping into a river in July, reportedly after being beaten by her husband.

The body of Alifmoh Khudoinazarova, who was two months pregnant at the time of her death, was found a month later.

Her family says poverty and a failed marriage prompted Khudoinazarova to become a second wife to a man "who convinced her he had a second house and resources and promised to look after her."

Divorced and unemployed, Khudoinazarova, who had left school at the age of 15, didn't see any other opportunity for herself, the family says.

Her mother, Nozanin Bobieva, says the man beat Khudoinazarova and told her to "go and complain to whomever you want."

A Tajik court found him guilty of polygamy and of driving her to suicide, but spared him a jail sentence and ordered him to pay a $1,300 fine. His family says it was unaware of any "second wife" and had never met her.

Still, many Tajiks believe polygamy is in the country to stay.

In some cases, wives are aware of each other's existence and appear to get along well.

Legalization Not An Option

The Tajik parliament's committee for social and family affairs says there are no official statistics on polygamous marriages in the country, as such couples cannot register their union.

Authorities have in the past rejected calls to legalize polygamy and insist it is incompatible with the country's secular system and would weaken the institutions of family and marriage.

Some officials from the Islamic Renaissance Party, before that party was banned in 2015, argued that allowing polygamy would reflect the realities of the country and protect the rights of women in polygamous marriages.

The government has taken the opposite tack, imposing steps to prevent such marriages. Such measures include fines and criminal liability for clergymen who conduct Islamic marriage ceremonies for couples without investigating whether either is already married.

The state religious committee wants to ban all but officially registered imams from conducted Islamic marriages, known as nikah. Tajik law does not recognize nikah, although most couples conduct such religious rites after their civil ceremony.

Prosecutors in Dushanbe's Shohmansur district say they are currently probing a complaint by a 24-year-old woman who accuses her former partner of luring her into a polygamous marriage. The woman claims her partner told her he was divorced and rushed her into a religious marriage, promising they would later go to a registrar.

She is also suing the mullah who conducted the religious ceremony. The mullah reportedly admits "making a mistake" by not checking but insists he genuinely was unaware that the man was already married.

The case is still under investigation.

Written by Farangis Najibullah. RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondents Abdullo Ashurov, Barot Yusufi, and Zarangezi Navruzshoh contributed to this report.