The Many Faces of Polygyny in Kazakhstan

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As a soft authoritarian state whose society is considered relatively socially conservative, Kazakhstan’s regulation of sexual practices and marriage blends liberal lifestyles with patriarchal outlooks. The issue of polygyny has been well researched in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, often in light of women’s economic vulnerability, the re-traditionalization of gender roles, and increasing religiosity. In contrast, this paper highlights the cosmopolitan, sometimes glamourous, character of polygyny in oil-rich Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, many associate polygyny with women’s economic vulnerability and opportunism, others with the country’s perceived demographic problems, and still others with religious traditions and patriarchal oppression. However, interviews and focus groups I conducted in 2019-2020 reveal that becoming a second wife (locally referred to as tokal) represents a way for some women to retain independence in their relationships.


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