On October 31, Uzbekistan issued a law prohibiting the promotion of polygamy. Now “promoting cohabitation with two or more wives” or its encouragement is punishable with a fine of 15 to 30 times the government’s standardized fee and fine rate (totaling approximately $400-$730 in 2023) or with up to 15 days of administrative arrest.
In recent years, social media influencers have made second wives a frequent subject of humor, while for others, it’s seen as an opportunity to revive the sunnah — the practices of Prophet Muhammad.
Just this August, blogger Chechenka (real name Gulzoda Abdullayeva) was brought to court for “disturbing the public order.” An Instagram video she posted in which she gifted a second wife to her husband as a birthday present went viral, causing a wave of public controversy. During the court session, the blogger conveyed her regret, explaining that her actions were meant as a joke. She pleaded with the court to consider her situation as a mother of two children with a third on the way. She was given a warning by the court.
Polygamy is illegal in Uzbekistan. Article 126 of the Criminal Code defines polygamy as “cohabitation with two or more women on the basis of a common household” and it is punishable with a fine of 50 to 100 the government’s standardized fee and fine rate (totaling approximately $1,340 – $1,680 in 2023) or with up to three years of correctional labor, or imprisonment, or parole. In this context, cohabitation means a sexual relationship between husband and wife while within a common household, according to legal textbook author M.KH. Rustambaev (2018). This, however, does not mean that two or more wives live in the same house at the same time. As long as the man spends on shared life expenses such as utility bills, kids’ education, a room or apartment repair, etc. it is considered cohabiting on the basis of a common household.
While cohabiting as a couple under a Shariah marriage is sufficient for legal liability, couples having an affair and living together are exempted from legal consequences. Human rights advocates argue that this approach could potentially be viewed as an infringement upon freedom of belief, constituting persecution.
Earlier, in the 1990s and early 2000s, having a second wife was often viewed as a status symbol, a marker of wealth, “prestige and respectability” – something only men who could afford to support two families dared. Some argue that the phenomenon was partly due to a slightly imbalanced gender ratio, with fewer men compared to women in the country. Another reason cited was decreased social welfare following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, after which women had less access to employment and income. The early 2000s also marked a period where many men started leaving the country, migrating to Russia and other countries in search of work. It has become normal for male migrant workers to visit their families in Uzbekistan once in a year and establish a second family in Russia too.
Justifying polygamy by pointing to a shortage of men in the country does not hold up under scrutiny today, if it ever did. Currently, the population of Uzbekistan stands at around 36 million people, comprising 18.1 million men and 17.8 million women. Until 2007, the country maintained a slight surplus of women over men, though this margin remained within a hundred thousand. For example, in 2000, there were 12.1 million men compared to 12.2 million women; in 2005, 12.9 million men compared to 13 million women. Since 2015, however, the male-female ratio has increased in favor of men.
Not only is the total number of women in Uzbekistan now lower than men, but among the core adult population – those eligible for marriage – there are fewer women than men – 8.4 million men aged 15 to 44 versus 8.2 million women and girls of the same age category as of 2023. The age of marriage is 18 for both genders, but under certain circumstances, girls are allowed to marry at 17.
For the past two decades, having a second wife has become another trend, affordable for any man who dares to seek one. Many second wives, at the same time, complain how neglectful their husbands are toward them and their children, especially in terms of financial support. Although reportedly thousands of men have second families either abroad (particularly common among migrant workers in Russia and other countries) or at home, in the past five years only 38 men have actually been charged with polygamy.
Deputy of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis Shahnoza Kholmakhmatova in a recent interview with a local news outlet explained how the increase of unregistered marriages (a majority of which are due to men taking second or even third wives) is violating the rights of women and children in terms of child support, establishing paternity, and claiming for inheritance.
“It is sad that the number of children born in families without legal marriage is increasing. This causes social problems,” she said.
In 2020, more than 16,000 newborns were registered by single mothers and within one year, the number increased to 19,000.
Most men take their second wives in secret, and hide them from their formal wives as long as possible. Many second marriages end with talaq once a first wife finds out. Under Islamic jurisprudence, to dissolve a marriage, men only need to utter the word talaq (“repudiation” or “divorce”) or similar expressions such as “you are free now” or “your head is open now” three times. Because Shariah-based nikah marriages are legally non-binding, such a divorcee cannot claim for any property or support. Similarly, if a shared husband passes away, a second wife has no legal right for inheritance.
The new amendments may prompt social media users to be more careful while discussing polygamy, but they are unlikely to halt or reduce polygamous practices. Encouraging girls, especially with the involvement of their parents, to include a clause specifying monogamy in marriage agreements could be a step toward addressing undesired polygamous marriages.