Many hesitate to call it out, but courtship in Uzbek society is rife with lowkey prejudice in terms of skin color, ethnicity, and locality. As courtship has moved into digital spaces, it more prominently reveals the bigoted preferences of the elderly seeking a perfect match for their grown-up children. In addition, polygamy, which is illegal in the country, is often openly promoted in online spaces.
“Sovchilik,” matchmaking, is an old tradition in Central Asia, including among Uzbeks. The elderly, mostly parents and/or aunts, visit a potential bride’s house and discuss the matter with her parents. For the majority, the most important factor is the match of families in socio-economic terms and only then the approval of the youth themselves, if it is ever needed.
Before the internet era, finding a bride was a matter of recommendations. Anecdotal evidence suggests “notebooks” containing a list of potential brides in major cities with contact details, addresses and basic biographical portraits (age, parents’ job, etc.) of girls being sold to desperate mothers-in-law-to-be. Until very recently, searching for a bride at local universities was very common – brides with high education are valued, although not always supported in their careers after marriage. University administrations and teachers are reported to sell students’ data for $5 each or less despite the practice being illegal. Only recently did universities start stating clearly that they do not present female student data to outsiders.
With the rise of the internet, arranged marriages moved to a digital space stretching from the homeland to the United States. The Telegram messaging app is central given its extreme popularity among Uzbeks. By 2020, around 18 million Uzbekistanis actively used Telegram, spending more time on the app than watching TV. Unlike other messaging platforms, Telegram uses relatively less data, while some mobile internet providers even offer internet packages that do not charge for using Telegram at all. Combined with its user-friendly platform, it quickly took off with the majority of users being 18-44 years old.
Enter the matchmaking social media pages.
Local matchmaking service groups have gained popularity. Their platforms serve one purpose – to post anonymous profiles of potential brides and grooms. The profiles are submitted to group admins on a variety of social media platforms and the waiting period begins. Quite like in dating apps, profiles contain basic information such as age, height, weight, occupation (but not the photo), and also specific details of or for a potential partner. These details, which outline what a person is looking for, inadvertently reveal many forms of bias, bigotry and prejudice.
“Today I went to a wonderful family. An educated girl, born in 1998. Light skinned, beautiful and a tall girl,” says an Instagram page sovchilar_rasmiy that claims to go around districts in Tashkent, check out unmarried girls, and sometimes stalks them at universities, meets their parents and then sells girls’ data on Instagram. Girls are selected like products at bazaars and light-skinned ones are much preferred, especially in urban areas. Our female friends inform us that sometimes matchmakers call their house and directly ask about their skin color.
Locality is another source of hidden bigotry. While finding a match from the same region is a matter of practicality, Tashkentis search for a Tashkenti partner because of their prejudice towards people from other regions. People from regions, in the eyes of some Tashkent urbanites, are second-class, unmannered people and are frequently called harip, a derogatory word for a villager. “Looking for a girl originally from Tashkent, not from other regions,” says Bakhodir in his post in a Telegram group “Yor-Yor Sovchilar,” looking for an 18-28-year-old match. While Bakhodir’s post is mild, some do not hesitate to demand that their future spouse have parents and grandparents also born and raised in Tashkent.
But perhaps the most common prejudice is the one toward other ethnicities. Although Central Asians are famous for their hospitality and friendliness, older generations are much against inter-ethnic marriages for their children. Although there are reportedly over 130 ethnicities and nationalities living in Uzbekistan, according to a government report, as of 2021, 84.4 percent of the population are Uzbek (up from 71.2 percent in 1989 when the last official census was conducted), while only 4.9 percent are ethnic Tajik, 2.2 percent Kazakh and only 2.1 percent are Karakalpak. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Uzbeks consider Tajiks, for example, as “quarrelsome, fierce” and thus do not approve if their sons or daughters want to marry one. In matchmaking tradition, families would rather choose a close relative, such as a cousin or a second cousin, rather than someone from another ethnicity.
Some Uzbeks marry citizens of other countries (1,900 of the overall 233,000 marriages registered in 2022 were between citizens of Uzbekistan and other nationalities), however, not all of them are inter-ethnic marriages. Uzbeks, especially men, even when they move to other countries, seek an Uzbek partner believing that they make a more obedient wife. In the United States, where there are around 60,000 Uzbekistanis, the “Sovchilar America” Telegram channel has almost 15,000 members that post potential bride/groom profiles. One difference is when women submit their profiles, they often include an extra unit of information that says qiz bola (girl), a term locally used for virgin girls. Uzbek society worships purity culture, even outside the country, but it is one way only – girls should stay virgins until marriage, preserving the honor of their families, boys are not held to the same standard.
At the same time, those social media pages have become a platform for men to find second wives too. Polygyny is illegal in Uzbekistan and is punishable by fines or imprisonment, yet hardly any men are charged for it as no one files a formal complaint. Sovchilik uz, a matchmaking Telegram page, provides a service posting potential bride and groom profiles for $1.5-$7 on four different Telegram pages. In one of those pages, SOVCHILIK UZ with almost 140,000 subscribers, we counted 714 profiles posted in March 2023 and found that 25 percent (133 profiles) were men looking for a second wife. These are often men in their thirties and forties who want a young wife, 18 and above – while the age of consent for sex is 16 in Uzbekistan, the official marriage age is 18 and above. Second marriages are often carried out in secret, without the knowledge of the first wives of the husband’s family, essentially making second wives halal mistresses.
In Uzbek society, only the married are treated as full adults and marriage is encouraged from an early age, even though for many women it is a kind of curse. Matchmaking and arranged marriages in which young people (in most cases) cannot decide who they want to spend the rest of their lives with mean that couples get to know each other only after the marriage. In the past, both men and women were motivated to learn to tolerate each other since divorce was largely frowned upon, but that trend has changed. The divorce rate more than doubled over the past decade growing from 18,000 in 2011 to almost 40,000 in 2021. In a 2021 survey Ijtimoiy Fikr, Social Opinion, 41 percent of participants indicated a lack of mutual understanding as a cause for conflicts in families.
For couples, who met each other a couple of months before marriage, understanding each other is difficult. Based on a survey conducted in four regions of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan over five years, research institute Mahalla and Family found that 30 percent of divorces were due to regular disagreements between spouses and lack of mutual affection, while another 21 percent were caused by interference of other family members into couples’ lives. With divorce a more accepted and accessible option, there is less motivation to work through problems; but women, more than men, are confronted with stigma and challenges after becoming divorced. Divorced men can find a new, young wife; a divorced woman cannot become a virgin again.
The older generation of Uzbek society still deny that matchmaking and marriage arrangements are not working out as in the past. Their prejudiced approach in terms of ethnicity, locality, and other socio-economic parameters in finding a perfect match also worsens the situation. The youth, however, are far too afraid to show any disrespect to their parents due to their traditional and religious upbringing. Moreover, unlike in the West, young people are largely financially dependent on their parents until their early thirties or even forties, living at their parent’s house, and having their weddings and university studies financed by their parents. This means parents retain significant power over the destinies of their children – and those destinies are often envisioned with a specific type of match in mind.