Islam may approve of men having more than one wife, but the Tajik authorities are not prepared to legalise the practice.
By Nargiz Zakirova in Tajikistan (RCA No. 151, 4-Oct-02)
Newspapers across Tajikistan are carrying lonely hearts adverts from widows and single women desperate to meet Mr Right - and they don't much care if he's already married.
It's one of the only ways such women can gain financial security in this poverty-stricken country, which lost tens of thousands of its young men during the brutal 1992-97 civil war.
Adverts with the line "I want to become a second wife" are becoming increasingly common in the country - even though polygamy is illegal. The practise is allowed under Islam, but the predominantly Muslim republic forbids it.
This secular state inherited the majority of its legislation from the former Soviet Union, to which it belonged until the latter's disintegration in 1991.
Polygamy is punishable with a fine of up to 830 US dollars or two years hard labour. Courts had started criminal proceedings against 20 offenders over the last year and a half.
But police find it hard to secure convictions, as one of the wives must make a written declaration against her spouse.
The women who choose to marry polygamists face a number of difficulties, and are now demanding the authorities recognise their status.
"No one forced me to become a second wife, it was my own choice. I feel like a protected and happy woman, although my life is not an easy one," said Zarina Kabilova, from the Khatlon Oblast in the south of the country.
The mother-of-three was widowed 1993, when her husband became one of more than 100,000 people to die in the civil war. Over 25,000 Tajik families lost breadwinners during the conflict.
The war is not the only reason why there is a lack of eligible Tajik bachelors. The republic's decade-long economic downturn has prompted hundreds of thousands of men to find work in Kazakstan and Russia.
For six years, the uneducated and untrained Zarina struggled on as a dishwasher, cleaning lady, waitress, and shuttle trader, earning barely enough to support her family. So when she met a man who asked her to become his second wife, she didn't hesitate.
Despite the practise being unlawful, many men see having more than one wife as something of a status symbol, and it is common even among the country's officials.
Women who marry polygamists want the practice decriminalised, as its current status is causing them growing problems: their children have difficulty confirming paternity, claiming inheritance and social benefits.
However, senior government official Latofat Nasriddinova, head of the committee for women's affairs and family, told IWPR that the rights of women would be infringed even more if polygamy was legalised.
"This is a temporary phenomenon, and regardless of whether it is demanded by the times we live in, it must not be made lawful. We must fight for monogamy and strengthening of the family," he said.
Gulafzo Savriddinova, vice-speaker of the lower house of the Tajik parliament, is split on the issue. She believes that the law should punish polygamists, but sympathises with their wives and thinks that their rights should be protected in some way.
Mukhiddin Kabiri, deputy head of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, said legislation was unlikely to stop the growth in polygamy and criticised the hypocrisy of officials who spoke out against the practice while taking more than one wife themselves.
"The current political leadership of Tajikistan is not yet ready to legalise polygamy in our country, although this phenomenon has become a reality," he told IWPR.
One polygamist IWPR spoke to questioned why polygamy was illegal if a man was capable of supporting more than one wife.
"I don't understand why in our country prostitution is considered an administrative violation and polygamy is considered a crime. It means that walking the streets is far less of an offence that becoming a second wife and leading a decent way of life," he said.
Nargiz Za kirova is a reporter with Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper