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In Kazakhstan, inequality and polygamy may go hand-in-hand

A poll has found that 41% of Kazakhs, or nearly 8 million people in the country, favored legalizing polygamy, Bloomberg reported yesterday. That’s considerably higher than in 2004, when an unofficial survey by local newspaper Express K found that 40% of men were in favor of legalizing polygamy, while over 70% of women opposed it. (Bloomberg says the latest poll was published last year by state news service Kazinform, but it was actually conducted two years ago on Quorum.kz, a Kazakh news website, so it’s not clear how scientific it was either.)

If polygamy is indeed rising in popularity, that may be partly due to Kazakhstan’s growing inequality. The economy has blossomed in the years since independence in 1991, largely due to the country’s lucrative oil industry. But a report released in 2008 found that both income inequality and poverty have also risen considerably. The gap has in turn created a pool of impoverished women willing to marry already-wedded men for the promise of financial stability. “Becoming a tokal [second wife] would be a fairy tale,” one woman from southern Kazakhstan told Bloomberg. A presidential candidate in the country’s 2011 election publicly announced his support for the practice, suggesting it as a means of marrying off Kazakhstan’s single women.

Polygamy exists in a strange legal limbo in Kazakhstan: It was decriminalized in 1998, meaning that while the law on marriage forbids it (link in Russian), it can’t be punished because the criminal code doesn’t mention it as an offence (Russian). A survey published by Pew Research earlier this year found that among Kazakh Muslims, who are roughly 70% of the country, some 62% think polygamy is morally wrong and only 13% think it’s acceptable—a stronger skew against polygamy than in most Muslim communities around the world. However, the Spiritual Department for Muslims of Kazakhstan, the NGO responsible for running the bulk of the country’s mosques, indirectly supports polygamy: While it doesn’t carry out marriages to second wives, it allows religious ceremonies celebrating them to be held in its mosques as long as the man, his current wife, and second bride are present.

Kazakh lawmakers tried to push through a bill that would have legalized polygamy first in 2001, and again in 2008. If the polls are accurate and its popularity is going up, they might succeed next time.

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