Personal motivations for the increase of polygyny in Kazakhstan

Project: Research project

Call title (Call ID)

Social Policy Grant

Project Description

This research focuses on the phenomenon of polygyny in Kazakhstan and seeks to investigate the personal incentives for men and women to establish a polygynous relationship. In the last two decades, there has been an increase in the number of second (non-official or unregistered) marriages in Kazakhstan. Apparent to polygyny, the phenomenon has become the object of many discussions in Kazakh society. High profile cases involving wealthy businessmen have made the news, exposing the glamorous lifestyle of second-wives, or tokals as they are called locally. Bills to legalize polygamy were presented to the Parliament in 2001 and 2008 but were rejected both times (Najibullah 2011).
Given its illicit character, there are no reliable statistics on the extent of the phenomenon in Kazakhstan. In 2013, a senior cleric working at Almaty's biggest mosque declared that around 10 per cent of all Nikah ceremonies (Islamic marriage) in the mosque involve tokals (Gizitdinov 2013). In 2014, the late demograph Makash Tatimov estimated that polygyny concerned 2 per cent of Kazakh families (Akhmetbekov 2014). Interestingly, Tatimov refers to polygyny as "civic marriage". Even if it appears to be quite common, its social acceptability is uncertain. A survey published by Pew Research in 2013 found that among Kazakh Muslims, 62 per cent thought that polygamy was morally wrong and only 13 per cent thought it was acceptable. However, men and women appear to have different opinions on the issue. In 2004, a local newspaper published the results of a survey that indicated that 40 per cent of men were in favor of legalizing polygamy, while over 70 per cent of women were opposed to it (Ferdman 2013). Researchers and experts argue that the legalization of polygamy would represent a way to protect women's rights (Tanalinova 2003). Others emphasize that it could solve the country's demographic problem (Akhmetbekov 2014). The country has indeed a small but significant demographic imbalance between men and women, which is more acute in urban areas. According to Makash Tatimov, there were 850,000 more women of marriageable age than men in 2014 (Akhmetbekov 2014). Official statistics from 2014 also show that women count for 51,72 per cent of the Kazakh society and men for 48.27 per cent. The gap is more acute in urban areas and the demography of Astana also reflects that gap: 421,277 women against 393, 158 men (UN Data).
Whereas the topic appears to be widely discussed in the media, there is a surprisingly small amount of academic literature on the issue on polygyny in Kazakhstan in both Western and Russian journals. In Central Asia, the cases of Kyrgyzstan (Commercio 2015) and Tajikistan (Cleuziou 2016; Hegland 2010; Kasymova 2006) have started to attract scholars' attention. In these two countries, the phenomenon is seen in light of poverty, labour migration, and retraditionalization. Yet, Cleuziou paints a subtle portrait of polygyny tells us that women's motivation should also not be explained by financial incentives but also by their desire "to ensure her moral respectability as much as increased economic security" (2016, 80). Increasing polygyny also often goes hand in hand with the resurgence of Islamic practices that help legitimize the practice (Commercio 2015). Yet, the portrait is somehow different in Kazakhstan, which society is less traditional than the Kyrgyz's or Tajik's. Indeed, it appears that polygyny in Kazakhstan involves rather privileged urban members of the society and not necessarily poor residents of more traditional rural regions of the country (Gizitdinov 2013, Dyusengulova 2016).
Existing scholarship on intimate relationships between young women and older men, sometimes referred to as "transactional sex" explains the practice almost exclusively in terms of economic survival and, consequently, "often portrays the women involved as victims" (Masvawure 2010, 858). Yet, in her study of South African young women, Leclerc-Madlala (2003) notes that many who engage in affairs with wealthier men are from the lower or upper middle-class and seek to either attain a modem lifestyle, or maintain an already privileged class position. Following this line of thought, this research investigates the possibility that by engaging in relationships with married men, young women not only conform to expected female behaviour of finding a partner and raise a family, but also "pursue images and ideals largely created by the media and globalization" (Leclerc-Madlala 2003, 213). Yet, prevailing paternalistic ideas can also influence men as having more than one wife or partner is often perceived as a sign of prestige and wealth (Akhmetbekov 2014; CAA Network 2016). This research seeks to make sense of polygynous arrangements in Kazakhstan, determine its nature and scope and understand the factors that sustain such relationships. Additionally, the research aims at giving agency to both men and women in their decision to enter a polygynous relationship as well as to put the phenomenon within the broader context of economic hardship. However, my intention is to escape the economic deterministic explanation and broaden the field of potentials in terms of explaining polygynous arrangements. More specifically, my aim is to determine what distinctions can we make between men's and women's motivations for engaging in a polygynous relationship? The method proposed is qualitative in essence and relies on ethnographic data collection over a period of eight months in the city of Astana.
Effective start/end date10/3/176/1/19


research focus


  • Islam
  • Polygyny
  • Polygamy
  • Kazakhstan
  • Tradition
  • Marriage