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Polygamy Common In Turkmenistan, But Still Illegal

AFP, Ashgabat

Turkmen businessman Murad Nurmamedov divides his time between two wives, which may be socially acceptable but ironically it makes him a criminal in the eyes of the law. Despite a formal ban, polygamy is still widespread in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, especially in rural areas and among the Turkmen Nokhurli tribe. "I know many male Nokhurli who have two or even three wives, but they do not talk about it openly," said Nurmamedov.

Polygamy has a long history in Turkmenistan, but it was outlawed by destroying Islamic legal institutions when the country came under Soviet rule. Reacting to the Soviet injustices on Turkmen Muslims, President Saparmurat Niyazov last year announced a plan to legalize polygamy.

The Turkmen leader proposed allowing a man to marry again if he had the written permission of his first wife, but President Niyazov has since failed to push ahead with the plan. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Nurmamedov says he favors moves to legalize polygamy. "Then I will no longer have to hide the fact that I have two wives," he added. The 39-year-old married his first wife Dzhamal, his cousin, when he was 20 and she was 18. Both members of the Nokhurli tribe, their marriage was arranged by their fathers and was not registered in either of their passports.

Nurmamedov met his second wife, 24-year-old Gulya, while on frequent business trips to Ashgabat. They married four years ago in a ceremony recorded officially at the registry office. "Gulya did not wish to live with me as a concubine. In addition, we had children and people look down on a female Turkmen with children and without a husband," he said.

Nurmamedov could easily divorce his first wife, "but I don't intend to do that," he said. "I respect Dzhamal. She bore me two children, and she has a lot of meaning for me, not just for the Nokhurli, but for all Turkmen. Gulya and I also have two children." Apart from their wish to avoid any official scrutiny, Nurmamedov's wives live apart because they belong to different tribes. But Gulya, the second wife, is undisturbed by Dzhamal's existence. "It is an ancient Nokhurli tradition and I respect it," she said.

Polygamy is thought to be widespread among the Nokhurli tribe, as, historically they come from the isolated Nokhure village, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the capital Ashgabat. A Russian historian Galina Vasilyeva in her study Turkmen-Nokhurli, published 40 years ago, wrote that agreements about the marriage of underage Nokhurli were quite traditional. A Nokhurli would sometimes take as his second wife the widow of a brother or close relative in order to continue providing her rights and save her from becoming a destitute. A second wife could also be taken upon the recommendation of the first one, if the first failed to produce any children.

The practice may sometimes tend to be the domain of the rich, as it is becoming today. "Not every man can support several wives nowadays," said Nurmamedov. "I can as I have a profitable business. But there are many without work. Some are even unable to feed one family." Due mainly to the financial burden, Nurmamedov has little intention of taking on a third wife.

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