Jalil Buriyev left Uzbekistan for Russia two decades ago, when he was just 18. He started out working as a lumberjack in Abakan, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Khakassia, and made what was then considered good money. After four years, he returned home and married Sanobar, a woman from his village in southeastern Uzbekistan’s Kashkadarya Province.
Despite tying the knot, Jalil continued to spend most of his time in Abakan, where 10 years later he married a local ethnic Khakas woman called Ilona. Sanobar, with whom he had two daughters, reluctantly gave her blessing.
“What was I supposed to do? My husband has been working there for 20 years and comes home every two years. I never imagined he would betray me in this way. I went to the imam for advice. He told me that if a man is able to provide for two families, then he is free to go ahead and marry,” Sanobar told EurasiaNet.org.
Earlier this year, Jalil returned to his home village with his Khakas wife and their six-year-old daughter in tow.
“I decided to introduce Ilona to my parents and, of course, to Sanobar. My wives have found common ground, and Sanobar has taken in my Russian daughter like her own,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Ilona said she was afraid to visit Uzbekistan at first, but agreed after much persuasion from her in-laws.
“The excitement and fear passed when I met Sanobar and my husband’s parents. Before getting married, I adopted Islam and began to learn Uzbek. Jalil is a very caring husband. He does not drink and he makes good money. We have a big house in Abakan and I am happy,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Unlike Jalil, Nodir Zafarov is not so eager to speak openly about his second family in Kazakhstan. The 31-year old is from Namangan, a conservative Ferghana Valley city. He is married to a fellow Namangani and has a son.
Eight years ago, he opened an Uzbek bakery in Almaty, Kazakhstan. To ensure his business prospered, he insisted on keeping close tabs on the bakery and began returning home more seldom.
“One time in Almaty I met Sabina, who ran a hairdressing salon next to our bakery. She is a Uyghur. First we made friends, and eventually we decided to get married through the Islamic [marriage] rite of nikah,” Zafarov told EurasiaNet.org.
But as Zafarov explained, if his first wife finds out, he will be forced to return home without delay, so he is keeping the nuptials secret for now.
In contrast to those two men, Aziz Nurullayev, 34, a taxi driver in Moscow, is eager to forget about his wife and daughter in Uzbekistan. He has married a Russian woman with whom he has two sons, and has not been back to Uzbekistan for five years. Nurullayev declined to explain how this situation has come about, but said that he is determined to remain in Russia for good.
Similar examples of polygamy among migrant laborers can be found in almost every town and village in Uzbekistan. All the same, the issue has almost never been discussed in local media.
That changed a few weeks ago after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stated publicly that new legislation was needed to combat polygamy more robustly. His main target appears to be the clerics that he said propagate the practice. “To stop this lawlessness we are drawing up a draft bill,” Mirziyoyev said on June 19. “Every mullah that performs the nikah rites without a witness or marriage registration documents will be punished.”
Despite the taboo nature of the issue, local authorities are regularly confronted by women demanding that the government somehow force their husbands to return home, or at the very least provide financial assistance. Life as a solitary mother is miserable and hard in Uzbekistan.
“Of course, local district administrations and women’s committees try in their own way to help these women. Often the wives of migrants are forced to come to terms with the situation, but only on condition that the husbands pay some kind of child support,” Muhabbat Nusratova, a deputy with a local district council in Kashkadarya Province, told EurasiaNet.org.
Sergei Abashin, a St. Petersburg-based expert on Central Asia, said that it is virtually impossible to determine the scale of polygamy among Uzbek migrants.
“This is inevitable. People are separated from their families for entire months and years. Some of them find temporary partners in Russia who then turn into permanent partners. As far as statistics go, if such cases occur among, let’s say, even 0.1 percent of those who migrate, you are still talking about 1,500 to 2,000 people. And over a number of years, the total number could have grown to tens of thousands of cases,” Abashin said.
As Mirziyoyev argued, if polygamy is so ubiquitous in Uzbekistan, it is religious figures at the local level that may bear some responsibility.
An imam in Kashkadarya Province, Bobokhon Rahimov, told EurasiaNet.org that the practice typically gets his blessing.
“If a man is able to provide for both families, then there is nothing reprehensible about it. These are also traditions of Islam. But if a man who is living abroad has already broken off with his first wife back in his homeland, he should declare talaq [a Sunni Muslim marriage annulment rite]. Or the wife can apply three times for the husband to declare talaq. If this does not happen, then the woman has the right to remarry,” Rahimov told EurasiaNet.org.
If clerics take a liberal view on polygamy, authorities are on paper less forgiving. Uzbek law dictates that polygamy or cohabitation with two or more women is punishable by a stiff fine or up to three years in jail.
Only two offenders have ever faced penalties, however.
In 2012, Yakub Normurodov, the head of a local education department in Surkhandarya Province, was convicted for polygamy. And two years earlier, the head of police in the city of Gulistan was dismissed over the same offense.
Sahiba Hayitova, a blogger and journalist living in Moscow, told EurasiaNet.org that many migrants usually exploit Islamic customs to satisfy primal urges. And sometimes their goals are far more pragmatic – marriage with a Russian citizen greatly simplifies the process of securing the documentation needed to obtain permits for permanent residence.
“I am certain that most Uzbek women would never give their consent for their husbands to begin a new family in Russia. But when they face such problems, they are forced either to support themselves and their children independently, or to turn to their parents for help,” Hayitova said.