Polygamy offers young women of Kazakhstan a ticket out of poverty

Gulf between rich and poor fuels revival of a practice which has become a status symbol for affluent men and a ticket out of poverty for young women

Almaty

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.”

©The Washington Post/Bloomberg

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum