Given the choice between love and money, Samal, a tall, curly-haired woman of 23 from a village in southern Kazakhstan, would take the cash. Struggling to pay rent and tuition from her salary as a waitress in Almaty, the commercial capital, Samal says she would drop her boyfriend in a heartbeat if a wealthy older man offered to make her his second wife.
“Becoming a tokal would be a fairytale,” she says during a break at the café where she works, using the Kazakh word for the youngest of two wives, who traditionally gets her own flat, car and monthly allowance.
The gulf between rich and poor “exploded” in Kazakhstan after it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and it has still not closed, according to Gulmira Ileuova, head of the Centre for Social and Political Research Strategy in Almaty. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was in power for more than two decades, undertook a state asset-sale programme in the 1990s that enriched a group of insiders at everyone else’s expense, said Ms Ileuova.
That gap is fuelling a revival of polygamy, which has become a status symbol for affluent men and a ticket out of poverty for young women. The practice of taking more than one wife flourished in this Central Asian nation for centuries, first as part of its nomadic culture and later under Islamic sharia law, until the Bolsheviks outlawed it in 1921. The trend has spawned two best-selling novels and a television talk show.
“It has become prestigious to have a tokal,” Ayan Kudaikulova, an Almaty socialite and author of one of those novels, said in an interview in her café, surrounded by purple walls and bearskin rugs. “They are like Breguet luxury watches,” said Ms Kudaikulova, wearing a red Alexander McQueen trouser suit and an Alain Silberstein timepiece. “Unfortunately, not having a junior wife is now shameful for wealthy men.”
Before the Soviets took over after the Russian Revolution of 1917, many rich Kazakhs would buy second wives from parents, often with livestock, which helped to spread wealth. Those unions were governed both by common law and sharia. Polygamy is still technically illegal, though there is no prescribed punishment for it as there is in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where the maximum penalty is two years in prison. Indeed, Kazakh lawmakers have tried to legalise polygyny at least twice since 2001 – most recently in 2008, when the measure failed after a female parliamentarian insisted on including polyandry, or multiple husbands, as well.
More than 40 countries, almost all in Asia and Africa, still recognise polygamous marriages, even though the United Nations said in a report in 2009 that the practice “violates women’s human rights and infringes their right to dignity”. A poll published last year by the state-owned news service Kazinform found that 41 per cent of Kazakhstan’s 17 million people favoured legalising polygamy. Twenty-six per cent said they opposed it, 22 per cent had no preference and 11 per cent thought it would be a waste of time because the practice already exists, Kazinform found.
“Tokalism has started to become noticeable,” said Ms Ileuova. “That’s in part because 50 per cent of the population is poor.”
Samal said she does not need expensive handbags or fancy cars – but if she is going to give up looking for true love, it better be worth it. “Every woman wants to be the first and only love for a man,” Samal said. “But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to struggle alone.”
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