“One year after our marriage I insisted that my husband tell his wife about me,” says Mukhsina, who asked that The Diplomat refer to her using a pseudonym. After her failed first marriage, Mukhsina decided to become a second wife. “I thought as a woman [my husband’s first wife] would understand me. I was so wrong. After finding out, she made my husband give me one talaq (lit. “repudiation” or “divorce,” after three of which there is no way for a couple to reconcile).”
While radicalization might be a too strong a word to describe the growing changes Islam is bringing to the social lives of Uzbek Muslims, religious observances that were long forgotten during the Soviet period and less practiced during the Karimov era are being revived under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s less restricted Uzbekistan. Polygyny has become trendy. This not only hints at the ongoing Islamic revival in the country, but also at the persistence of Uzbekistan’s patriarchal society, in which unmarried or single women struggle especially.
Islam allows a man to have up to four wives at a time as long as the wives are not close blood relatives. Article 126 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, however, states that polygyny is punishable with a fine, correctional labor, or imprisonment of up to three years. Back in 2017, in order to fight rising polygyny, Mirziyoyev pledged to pass legislation that levied criminal liability on religious figures who perform nikah ceremonies (a religious wedding ritual) without official registration from state institutions.
Although there are no official numbers, polygyny appears to be on the rise despite these measures. Unofficially, the number is reported to be in thousands. Many nikahs are performed in secret, hidden both from law enforcement agencies and the official families of men. In essence, second wives become a sort of mistress.
“This is my second marriage, it has been two years,” says Zukhra, who is referred to by her first name only. “My husband’s wife does not know about me. … I try my best so his wife will not find out.”
There are arguably two main reasons that women agree to a shadow, legally non-binding marriage. One is the status of divorced and single women in Uzbekistan. In a society where purity culture is worshiped, and both bachelors and divorced men look for virgin wives, there are not many options for widows or divorced women to remarry officially.
“As soon as they find out that you [a divorcee], have no husband, you become a bad one,” explains Feride, who also gave only her first name, speaking of her decision to become a second wife and alluding to the stigma of presumed promiscuity that single women bear. “Men would try to talk to you [with the intention of seeking casual sex], while women hate you as if you’d steal their husbands.”
Another reason women agree to become second wives are the financial struggles women face when alone. Divorced women often feel like a burden to their parents, and when agreeing to be a second wife expect financial support from men who promise them some stability. While in some cases that is how it works out, most of the time it does not.
Not so long ago taking a second wife was common among wealthy men as a way to show “prestige and respectability.” With the practice technically illegal, it’s less of a public status symbol than a fulfillment of private desires. “Kelin (fiancée) should have her own place and I will provide the rest,” reads one recent post on a local marriage-dating Telegram channel with over 200,000 subscribers. “I also intend to buy her a place in the future,” writes a 29-year-old Uzbek looking for a second wife, 18 or older.
But this promised future often does not eventuate. “My husband did not keep almost any of his promises,” Mukhsina says. “Since our son was born, he visits me once in a couple of months only. He does not help financially at all. I still live with my parents. He will not divorce me. When he visits me, he does not stay for the night as my sister wife does not allow it.”
Islamic tradition obliges men to spend one night with each wife in fair turn. Although most men claim they are marrying multiple women because it is an Islamic custom, many visit their second wives during the day for a couple of hours only. Rather than satisfying a religious imperative, they are taking advantage of the vulnerability of women, both social and financial, to satisfy their own sexual desires. The most common demand for a second wife in hundreds of ads across local Telegram channels is being beautiful, somewhat religious, and having no kids, while many others search for a virgin. Often when first wives find out, the men merely have to divorce their unofficial second wives by uttering triple talaq, leaving the second wife with no legal rights and no husband.
“First wives are confident for they rely on the legal protection of their rights. But poor second wives are not protected, even by their husbands. That is why the rights of second wives should be included in the law,” insists Mukhsina. “Only then will first wives concede.”
Her story is one of thousands of similar cases in Uzbekistan, where men, under the pretext of Islamic traditions, “cheat” on their first wives in a “halal” way. Legalizing polygyny, however, may make things worse as the practice would become even more common and the status of women remain such the same.