Always an Unregistered Wife, Never a Bride

A Tajik bride. Image via Mikhail Romanyuk.
A Tajik bride. Image via Mikhail Romanyuk.

When I first read the BBC’s article on Tajik women who are left destitute because their Islamic marriages (nikaah) were not recognized by the secular government in Tajikistan, I have to admit that I cringed and felt a bit defensive. Here was another story portraying Muslim women as poor victims of Muslim men but, even more importantly, of Islam itself. The headline reads “Legal limbo for Tajik Islamic brides (emphasis added)”. Throughout the article, there is the constant reference to Islamic marriage and Islamic divorce, not just marriage and divorce. The real problem isn’t the nikaah or talaaq, but the fact that neither of these are documented. I wish the BBC had emphasized that more than the fact that they’re Islamic marriages or divorce.

However, I couldn’t remain disappointed in the story, for as much as I disapproved of  the Orientalist theme of the weak, emasculated Muslim society that abuses women, the point made is a legitimate one. There are unfortunately far too many Muslim men who abuse the non-legal status of Muslim marriages in secular countries and leave women destitute with children that they never see again.

This isn’t only a problem in Tajikistan. I have seen this happen first hand in the Muslim community in my own home town. I would imagine that this happens in various countries. Some Muslim men will convince women to get a nikaah without getting any legal documentation of the marriage (this is issue becomes even more urgent when the marriage is polygamous). Unfortunately, women in these marriages have little recourse if their marriages dissolve. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to seek spousal support, and in the case of the women discussed in the article, child support as well.

“Without official registration women have no right to demand their husbands provide them with somewhere to live or to pay anything at all to support the children,” she [Zebo Davlatova, League of Women Lawyers ] says.

The article points out that some of the men in these marriages seem forced out of them for economic reasons such as emigration to Russia for work. However, often these types of marriages are abusive men who leave them at will with no type of economic or social repercussions.

“I was pregnant with my fourth child when my husband left me,” says Marhaba.

“I found out later that he had married again, but this time legally. He registered his marriage with that other woman and I hear they live happily and in prosperity. But look at this shack me and the children have to live in now. They can’t even go to school, because I can’t afford it and they don’t have birth certificates.”

Lamentably, I have seen similar situations happen to women I know personally: women who are often second, third, fourth and sometimes even the first wives in marriages that are not legally recognized by the state and thus left in a vulnerable situation economically if the marriage ends. This should be an embarrassment for Muslims but it often seems that not much is being done to prevent these scenarios from occurring.

The BBC looks at women’s rights groups in Tajikistan who are trying to make things better for women in these marriages and to bring more attention to this issue. There were no quotes from any Muslim scholars on the abuse of nikaah by men. Perhaps the BBC did not interview any, but if my personal experience is any indicator, the more likely possibility is that this issue isn’t even receiving a lot of attention from Muslim scholars. Hence, I am glad that an organization like the BBC is giving light to this issue, even if it is embarassing and maybe even shameful for Muslims.

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