Last year prior to the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Kyrgyz Minister of Justice Marat Kaypov proposed to legalize polygamy as a means of fighting poverty and prostitution among women. Although his idea drew public attention, the parliament avoided discussing the minister’s proposal. Since then, Kaypov used different media to promote his idea, bringing more pro-legalization arguments. Recently, Kaypov used the platform of “Open Kyrgyzstan,” a venue for public discussions sponsored by the Soros Foundation in Bishkek, to claim that legalization of polygamy is an urgent issue in Kyrgyzstan.
This time Kaypov added more arguments to his proposal, such as defending the rights of children born out of wedlock or to common-law families and men forced to abandon them to escape persecution. On the other hand, according to Kaypov men who give their names to second and third wives do so at risk of criminal prosecution under the existing legislation. But for some men, as Kaypov further argues, legal charges for polygamy are not an obstacle to continue sharing the household with several women.
“Since polygamy became a crime, our men lost sense of responsibility and even sense of their dignity because … most of those involved in this crime are acting secretly” (Akipress.kg, July 23), Kaypov notes. But if polygamy is legalized, he believes, those men will be more willing to accept legal responsibility for their multiple wives and children.
The minister estimates that over 30,000 children, or roughly 30% of all newborns each year are born outside of legal marriage. Nevertheless, only a handful of men are legally charged with polygamy in any given year. Women themselves are willing to become second and third wives, but the law limits their wish and even right to a better family life, he says. “Since women want this [polygamy] themselves, they marry men who already have one or two wives. This can not be regarded as a crime” (open.kg, July 23).
Criminalization of polygamy even forces women to marry foreigners, and more than 30,000 women left Kyrgyzstan by marrying abroad: “These are young, beautiful, educated, healthy young women, who would agree to be second and third wives,” Kaypov complains.
Besides his view on the rights of women and children, Kaypov adduces a historical argument: the Kyrgyz had to survive and regenerate during their long history. Polygamy, according to the minister, was one of the ways of such regeneration among the Kyrgyz even in the pre-Islamic period (open.kg, July 23).
In fact, polygamy in various forms is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. High-ranking politicians are infamous for having several wives in addition to their legal spouses. Oblast governors, ministers, and the top hierarchy of the ruling regime are known to have informal wives and children. Polygamy has thus turned into a given fact among well-off men even in urban areas (msn.kg, February 29). Kaypov’s suggestion to legalize polygamy could well reflect his participation in a debate on the issue with other political officials, albeit in non-public spaces.
The rise of polygamy in Kyrgyzstan also coincides with the growing authority of religious institutions, mostly in the countryside. At times religious marriages are an ample source of remuneration for the religious clergy. However, in cases of divorce, the mosque fails to protect women’s rights to land and property.
The number of underground polygamous marriages registered by Muslim clergy substantially increased since the early 1990s. Kyrgyz sociologists explain this trend as the result of poverty and women’s unemployment. Extensive migration of the male population to Russia and Kazakhstan in search of earnings contributes to polygamy.
Female deputies in the Kyrgyz parliament focus on more urgent problems before Kyrgyzstan such as economic development and education. Roza Abdraimova, an MP, argues that polygamy must be treated as a crime, on a par with some other forms of criminal behavior, such as corruption. If polygamy is legalized, other forms of crime would be seen as having an equal moral basis for legalization.
Although Kaypov’s proposal is unlikely to become a law at least in the near future, his active participation in pro-polygamy discourse generates more supporters daring to speak up publicly about legalization. Others, however, react by proposing certain restrictions on women’s participation in the public life under the guise of protecting women’s rights. For example, several political officials have proposed extending maternity leave for up to three years for wives to raise healthy children. Such measures, according to some women activists, would reduce women’s chances for employment.
Kaypov’s lobbying for legalization of polygamy, in effect, intends to protect of the richer stratum of society from criminal persecution. The idea reflects the general elitist system of decision-making in Kyrgyz politics. Not least, Kaypov’s initiatives speak for the generally weak level of professionalism among Kyrgyz politicians.