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Dr. Helene Thibault on polygyny in Central Asia

Professor of Nazarbayev University Helene Thibault in an exclusive interview for CABAR.asia speaks about the reasons and the attitude of the Central Asian society to polygamy, and also discussed the impact of migration on polygyny, its future dynamics.

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Dr. Helene Thibault

Helene Thibault is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Nazarbayev University. She specializes in ethnography, religious identity, secularism, Islam, and marriage and sexuality in Central Asia. Currently, Professor Thibault is studying gender issues, in particular, polygyny in Central Asia. In an interview for CABAR, Professor Thibault spoke about her research on polygyny in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Polygyny is not uncommon across Central Asia. What has informed your choice of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for your research project?

I conducted fieldwork in Tajikistan in 2010 for my Ph.D. dissertation on the so-called Islamic revival in that country. I spent a year there, and the issue of polygyny was coming up all the time – not so much because I was researching religious communities, but it was just something that people were discussing a lot. So, I was interested in what the situation was like in Kazakhstan. Then I saw an article in an online media about “The hottest tokals in Kazakhstan.” I was surprised because the idea of polygyny seemed like something fairly casual and glamorous in this article. I thought that the situation in Kazakhstan might be different from Tajikistan, where people talk about polygyny; but not that publicly. Then there was another article titled “I do not want to be the boring wife,” where a young woman talks about her decision to become a second wife as she didn’t want to be kelin (a daughter-in-law in Central Asian cultures), which I found to be quite interesting as well. So my previous research and these online articles triggered my interest in studying polygyny in Kazakhstan.

For reference: A polygamy is a form of marriage in which a person is simultaneously married to several spouses. Commonly, researchers distinguish between male polygamy (polygyny) and female polygamy (polyandry).

And since I am a political scientist doing comparative politics, I was interested to see the dynamics between the two countries (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).  The institution of marriage is very much connected to social values, laws, and the economic situation of a country. Many people say that women in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan become second wives because they are in a precarious financial situation, or that they want to make easy money without working. So it was interesting for me to see the difference between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which share a similar culture and a Soviet past, but have divergent economic situations. Even though polygyny may be common in both countries, I think that the reasons behind it are different.

It is virtually impossible to find accurate data on the number of polygynous unions within these countries. Still, is it possible to speak about  either an upward or downward trend in the number of such unions in the recent decade? 

Yes, it is problematic because these unions are not registered anywhere. Makash Tatimov, who was a Kazakhstani demographer claimed in 2014 that polygyny concerned 2% of marriages in the country. This share is not that significant in absolute terms, but probably, it has grown. I want to emphasize, however, that polygyny concerns people from all layers of society. I think the portrait is more nuanced than the general idea that tokal is a young woman married to a richer man. A lot of middle class and poor people also engage in polygyny.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to speak about the exact numbers. One way to get a sense of the number of polygynous marriages or their general trend is to talk to imams and ask them if they have noticed an increase in such unions. Most people, even not so religious ones, would do neke (marriage contract in Islam; also – nikah), which is performed by imams. In Kazakhstan, there was an attempt to implement a law to oblige imams to request proof of marriage before performing neke, but it did not succeed. Still, imams are probably aware of the marriages they are facilitating, so reaching out to them to get a sense of data might be useful.

What is the role of imams in encouraging the institution of polygyny in these countries?

Very few imams are against polygyny since, in Islam, such unions are allowed. The Muftiyat in Kazakhstan has even published and distributed content that contains information on polygyny and the circumstances when it is permitted. I saw one such book, which is entirely in Kazakh. While it is difficult to say whether the Muftiyat encourages polygyny, it is likely that this institution favors this practice.

It would be interesting to investigate the extent of control that the state has over the Muftiyat. Although this institution is largely supportive of the state and maintains good relations with authorities, it might have a different agenda. At the same time, religious institutions cannot go too far; because secular values are strong, especially in Kazakhstan.

What are the public attitudes towards polygyny in these countries?  What is the role of the media in shaping public opinion on polygyny?

Polygyny is a frequently discussed topic, which has generated a significant public reaction in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The former grand mufti of Kyrgyzstan publicly said that he had a second wife. This incident sparked a considerable debate. Interestingly, polygyny is illegal in this country, but the mufti faced no prosecution. So, it is puzzling to see that polygyny is discussed so freely even though it is de jure a “criminal behavior.” 

Regarding public opinion, most people, especially women, tend to be against polygyny, according to surveys I conducted in Kazakhstan. At the same time, it also depends on the framing of the questions. When I framed the questions in terms of the protection of women’s and children’s rights, the potential legalization of polygyny was perceived quite differently. Some people are against polygyny because it contradicts the principle of the separation of state and religion. However, once you frame the question in terms of protecting the rights of women and children from polygynous unions – people may become more favorable towards polygyny. It is worth noting that the lack of judicial protection under these unions mostly affects women; since fathers can always recognize their children.

One of my MA students (in Kazakhstan), Aruzhan Sagadiyeva, has been researching how the topic of polygyny has evolved in Kazakhstani media over the years. There were discussions to legalize polygyny in the country in 2001 and 2008, but these did not succeed. So, the student hypothesizes that these discussions might have been used to distract people from the more “threatening” and politically sensitive topics. For instance, in 2001, there was an attempt to register an opposition party in the country. At that very moment, the legalization of polygyny surfaced in the public discourse; and this might have been a part of a “deliberate strategy.” There are no results for this study yet – but it would be interesting to study the role of media in shaping public opinion on polygyny.

What similarities and discrepancies can you mention about the causes of polygyny in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? 

In Kyrgyzstan, polygyny is connected to poverty and labor migration, and these two aspects are distinct from Kazakhstan. Many Kyrgyz migrants move to Russia, get married there, and do not come back, leaving many women without a husband. Since it is difficult to make a living in Kyrgyzstan for single women, they would enter a polygynous marriage. Another difference is the issue of shame and social pressure.

Single women in Kyrgyzstan are often perceived as not very respectable, even if they have children.
 Single women are also gossiped about; and may even be perceived as a threat by other women, who fear that their husbands might cheat on them. So, social pressure to get remarried is stronger in Kyrgyzstan than in Kazakhstan.

In Kazakhstan, the issue of remaining single may not necessarily be as shameful, but is still not an attractive option – probably because of the need for companionship. While some choose to become second wives due to financial reasons, other women I interviewed, who were second wives, were financially independent and did not live with husbands. One of the interviewed men joked that his second wife, a businesswoman, had supported him financially. Pressure for women in Kazakhstan might be not so much to get married but to have children. Another distinct characteristic is that in Kazakhstan, people also view polygyny as a solution to the demographic problems of the country.

In both countries, people often refer to the past and say that polygyny is rooted in their traditions. If my understanding of local history is correct, polygyny is even a pre-Islamic tradition that continued with the Islamization. At the same time, in Kyrgyzstan, I interviewed young women in Muslim dating agencies, and these women were religious but still were all against polygyny. So, it may well be the case that while religious people understand and respect the concept of polygyny, they would not want it for themselves. I think that there is a similar situation in Kazakhstan, where women say that polygyny is in the local traditions but prefer not to enter such unions themselves.

In Central Asia, people also tend to justify polygyny by referring to men’s sexual needs.
Some argue that if women are frigid, then the husband may want to have another partner. This is quite disturbing since this patriarchal view of the sexuality of marriage disregards women’s sexual needs.

In your project description, you talk about the impact of external migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia and internal migration within Kazakhstan on polygyny in these countries. Could you please elaborate on these?

The idea about internal migration as a factor behind polygyny came to me when I read an article titled “Baibishe v Almaty, tokal v Astane” (The first wife (elder wife) in Almaty, and the second wife in Astana), and I wondered whether this was the case. People indeed tend to move to big cities in Kazakhstan. Since many men work in the major cities and their families remain in other regions of Kazakhstan, I thought that internal migration might have been fueling polygyny. But I do not have the evidence to support that, so it is just an assumption.

As I have mentioned, labor migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia may partially account for the phenomenon of polygyny. And although there is a legal framework prohibiting simultaneous marriages, it is not enforced. If migrants do not inform the Russian government that they are already married, the government cannot know. Weak enforcement also becomes a problem when the legalization of polygyny to protect second wives and children is discussed. Some people say that legalization makes little sense given the poor enforcement of laws.

Recently, my research assistant, Zhibek Aisarina, interviewed a woman in Kyrgyzstan, who was a first wife. She was in a precarious situation, as she was left alone with four children after her husband found a second wife and stopped visiting his children. When she filed for divorce, he did not sign the papers. Thus, while women’s rights are protected on paper, prosecuting people engaging in polygyny remains difficult. I also think there is a lack of willingness to do that in Kyrgyzstan because some politicians themselves have second wives.

To what extent is the legal framework clear about the definition of polygyny? How difficult is it to formally prove a polygynous union in these countries?

In Soviet times, polygyny was illegal throughout the union, and it remains as such in Kyrgyzstan. Yet, in Kazakhstan, it was removed from the Criminal Code in 1998, so there is no basis for the prosecution of people engaged in polygynous unions. Interestingly, while Kazakhstan is considered to be an authoritarian state, its laws on marriage and sexuality are quite liberal, in my opinion. Homosexuality is not illegal; an attempt to forbid gay-propaganda was scrapped, there is no regulation regarding simultaneous marriages with multiple partners, and prostitution is also not illegal. Although Kazakhstan has the administrative and bureaucratic capacity to act on these rules, there is a “liberal space” in terms of the organization of private life. In Kyrgyzstan, there are stricter rules, but they are not being enforced. This may be linked to the lack of willingness on behalf of the politicians and the state capacity problem that makes enforcement particularly difficult. There may also be a gender issue at a play. As women are less influential, parliaments may consider that polygyny is not as a critical issue that they should act on.

You have already mentioned that in Kyrgyzstan, polygyny is punishable by up to two years in prison, whereas, in Kazakhstan, no legal consequences exist. What might account for these differences in the legislature?

I am very puzzled by this. Another perplexing thing is that in Kazakhstan, prostitution is also not illegal unless it is coerced, involves minors, or takes an organized form, like brothels. So it is very perplexing that Kazakhstan as an authoritarian state doesn’t regulate this realm.

It is important to note that there is a lack of interest in legalizing polygyny either. Legalization is probably unpopular among men because it gives them more responsibilities and would make them more accountable to their relationships. I think that the status quo in Kazakhstan is a convenient arrangement for a lot of people.

What are the implications of the rise of feminism and greater emphasis on women’s rights on the institution of polygyny in both countries?

In the beginning, I assumed that some women (maybe not a majority of them) are not interested in the traditional role of kelin. It is difficult to be a kelin, as this role entails many responsibilities and much pressure. So, I thought that maybe more independent women are comfortable with being second wives because they retain a certain level of independence. I talked to a woman in Taraz whose husband had two wives. She was comfortable with this family situation because she had a stressful job and needed some “Me” time. Her husband comes from a very conservative family, and she refused to live with them. So, he took a younger wife as a full-time kelin to live with his family and “save honor.” But his real love, who lives somewhere else, displayed a lot of independence. I interviewed two other women who were in very similar situations in Nur-Sultan. Both were in their late thirties, were divorced, and met guys they liked…but who happened to be married. They decided to pursue this relationship nevertheless. These two women stroke me as very independent; they had a good job, their own apartment and were very happy to have a “part-time husband”. So yes, you could say that this might be connected to feminism since it challenges the traditional gender role of the man as the caretaker. That being said, I think it’s important to distinguish between the realities of urban-educated women and those of rural women who enjoy less opportunities in life. The story of the kelin from Taraz who was brought to the husband’s family to save honor is an example of that. She came from a poor family, and her parents “gave her” to a wealthier one. For rural women like the girl that I mentioned, entering such polygynous unions might well be a survival strategy.

What do you think about the influence of religious revival on polygyny in both countries?

In Kyrgyzstan, Islamic revival might be significant in explaining polygyny; since people there are more religious than in Kazakhstan. However, the ladies I interviewed in Muslim dating agencies said that there is a difference between permissions and obligations in Islam. In Islam, polygyny is permitted but is not an obligation. So Muslim women have the right to refuse that their husbands have second wives. Still, there might be pressure from religious communities that good Muslims have to obey the laws of Islam. Despite greater religiosity in Kyrgyzstan, I think the most important factor is women’s economic vulnerability and labor migration. In Kazakhstan, polygynous unions happen in urban settings with non-religious people so Islam is not very significant. Generally, I don’t see a strong connection between religious revival and polygyny. I think the economy is a lot more significant than religion in informing people’s choices of relationships.

What are your thoughts on the future of polygyny in the region? Will it become more widespread given the existing trends or will the number of polygynous unions decline?

I think it depends mostly on the state of the economy and female economic empowerment. As long as women, especially divorced ones, find themselves in precarious economic situations, they might envisage becoming a second wife. It also depends on the social acceptability of polygyny. So far, it remains pretty taboo and people who are polygynous do not feel comfortable talking about it to their relatives or acquaintances. If it becomes more accepted, we might see more of them. It is unlikely that polygyny will be legalized because it would be too unpopular. When I conducted focus-groups in Kazakhstan, most people expressed strong feelings against the legalization of polygyny since they associate it with Islam and for them, it would mean that Islamic law now prevails. In their opinion, it would violate the separation of religion and state, a political principle that is vital to preserve. Finally, the legalization of polygyny would be hard to justify if polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands, something already suggested by former member of Parliament, Bakhyt Syzdykova) or same-sex marriage are not. If lawmakers want to revise the definition of marriage in the law, they will open a Pandora’s box.

Dr. Thibault is also currently investigating mating strategies, sexual behavior and related attitudes in Kazakhstan and she needs your help in answering this survey! You can access the survey via the link below:


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.


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