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Page last updated at 23:34 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 00:34 UK

Legal limbo for Tajik Islamic brides

By Shamsiya Qasim
BBC Persian, Dushanbe

Marhaba's youngest daughter
Marhaba's youngest daughter was born after her father went to Russia

Marhaba is a 32-year-old mother of four from Yazgulam, a village in the mountains of south-eastern Tajikistan.

Five years ago her husband left her, but he is not obliged to pay her any alimony or child support because her marriage, like many in Tajikistan, was conducted according to Islamic rites and was never officially registered.

It is estimated that up to 30% of all marriages in Tajikistan are unregistered.

In this poor and predominantly Muslim country many people, especially in the countryside, simply go to the local mullah for a "nikaah" or Islamic marriage.

The practice became especially widespread during Tajikistan's brutal civil war in the 1990s.

This was when Marhaba herself was married, at the age of just 15.

Destitution

At that time poverty, violence and fear of rape meant parents tried to marry off their daughters as soon as they could.

Getting to a state registrar's office amid the chaos of war was neither practical nor a priority.

In the decade since the fighting ended, the wave of unregistered nikaah marriages has been followed by a corresponding wave of "talaaq" or Islamic divorces, leaving thousands of Tajik women and children destitute and completely unprotected by the law.

"I was pregnant with my fourth child when my husband left me," says Marhaba.

"I found out later that he had married again, but this time legally. He registered his marriage with that other woman and I hear they live happily and in prosperity. But look at this shack me and the children have to live in now. They can't even go to school, because I can't afford it and they don't have birth certificates."

No recognition

Zebo Davlatova from the League of Women Lawyers says there are thousands of women like Marhaba in Tajikistan.

Aynihal Babanazarova
Many uneducated and jobless women in Tajikistan... end up becoming second or third wives simply to survive
Aynihal Babanazarova
Women's rights campaigner

"Without official registration women have no right to demand their husbands provide them with somewhere to live or to pay anything at all to support the children," she says.

Tajikistan's secular courts do not recognise nikaah as proof of marital status and unless women can provide an official marriage certificate issued by the state, they can't ask a court to intervene when their marriages end.

In Marhaba's case this means that she now survives by renting out one of the two rooms in her tiny house to another family.

Her mother tries to help out when she can.

Very occasionally her husband sends her a few dollars from his new home in Russia.

Emigration to Russia is another factor that has made the plight of many women caught in the unregistered marriage trap even worse.

Hundreds of thousands of Tajik men have left to seek work in Russia in the past two decades since independence.

With little prospect of finding work at home, increasing numbers are choosing to stay in Russia, marrying women with Russian residence rights, and leaving their Tajik families behind.

Legalise polygamy?

Aynihal Babanazarova, who runs women's rights group Perspective Plus, says that the dire economic situation and the exodus of men is actually pushing more Tajik women into unregistered marriages out of sheer desperation.

"Many uneducated and jobless women in Tajikistan have no option but to agree to a nikaah " she says. "They end up becoming second or third wives simply to have some means to survive."

The situation has led some campaigners to consider radical measures like legalising polygamy to ensure that all wives have some security under the law.

"Legalising polygamy would be a complete contradiction of our constitution which claims equal rights for both the sexes" says Ms Babanazarova.

"There just isn't an easy answer to this problem."



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