In Azerbaijan, polygamy is forbidden by law, but there are numerous families where the man is effectively married to multiple women – a fact often lead only thinly veiled.
Azerbaijan, as a secular state, does not recognize polygamous marriages.
Article 12 of the 1999 Family Code of the Azerbaijan Republic states that, “Marriage is not permitted between individuals of whom one or both are in another marriage” (12.0.2.). Nevertheless, the popularity of such marriages has significantly grown over the twenty-five years since independence.
In the opinion of lawyer Elchin Sadiqov, “Based on this article, we can formally consider polygamy to be unlawful in Azerbaijan, but no sort of penalty is provided for violating this point of the article. Because of this, polygamous marriages, unregistered, of course, are in principle not prohibited for men or for women.”
As for children born within such marriages, Sadiqov says that, “In accordance with article 44.3. (on establishing a child’s parentage) of the Family Code, the paternity of an individual who is not married to the child’s mother is established by both the child’s father and mother jointly filing applications with the appropriate organ of the executive government”.
According to Sadiqov, the legal process for establishing acknowledgement of paternity is also regulated by several articles of the Family Code.
Living in a polygamous marriage
Gabil (name changed) was born to a multi-child family in a sleepy little village in Azerbaijan. Gabil was a good student and went to Belarus to study at university: relatives of his had lived in Minsk since Soviet times. There, Gabil got to know a female student named Alena (name changed) and by graduation the couple had decided to get married.
This news caused an uproar in Gabil’s home village. In some districts of Azerbaijan, “marrying a Russian” is effectively a branding, a stigma. Azerbaijani men go to other countries of the CIS for work, to study, or for other reasons, and it sometimes happens that they meet a “foreign woman” there. Gabil’s family was decisively opposed to the marriage and put forth an ultimatum: “It’s her or us!”
Gabil chose Alena, but lost his family: his relatives cut all ties with their ‘ungrateful son’. They wouldn’t help out even when the young couple moved to Baku and began renting an apartment, overcoming domestic issues.
The marriage turned out to be a happy one: Gabil worked as a businessman in the oil sector, and in the mid-aughts the couple built a home on the outskirts of the city and planned to have a child.
And suddenly Gabil’s older brother called, saying his mother’s health had suddenly declined and it would be good to come and say goodbye. Gabil rushed to his home village, worried he would find his mother already deceased. But at the home he found a party: relatives had all come over and would come up and congratulate him. But as it turned out, they were in no way celebrating Gabil’s return home, but rather… his wedding!
His perfectly healthy mother and older brother announced that the family would no longer interfere in his life, let him live with “that woman”, but here he would have a wife from among his own people. They had decided to marry Gabil to a young relative. Moreover, they had already brought the bride, and she could not now be returned to her father’s house – this would be a disgrace for the entire family.
A distraught Gabil was told by his brother that the wedding ceremony would be performed by a local mullah, without any sort of “papers from the civil registry”, so there was nothing illegal about this. After the marriage, the young wife would stay to live in her mother-in-law’s home, would help around the house, and all that would be required of Gabil is that he send money and sometimes visit his spouse.
“According to the customs of our grandfathers and fathers”, the older brother finished his speech and brought the young woman into the room. And so Gabil saw his fiancé for the first time: there was no point in resisting any further. The mullah entered the room, read them the nikah, and from that moment, “by the will of Allah”, they became man and wife…
Several days later, Gabil returned to his home in Baku. It goes without saying that he told Alena nothing, and life continued. But several months later, someone knocked at the door of their Baku home. At the door Alena found a stranger holding a young, pregnant woman by the hand. The stranger – her husband’s older brother – told Alena that he had brought Gabil’s family.
Alena was in shock. But Gabil, who had immediately returned home, confirmed everything. “We can no longer live like that, you must support your family yourself”, said the brother through his teeth and left a dismayed Gabil with the two, crying women…
At first Alena was in a terrible state, cried each day, and planned to leave, but Gabil was inflexible. He could not toss aside his second, pregnant wife. When Alena realized that she couldn’t get a divorce and return to Minsk, she came to terms with the situation. They divided up the home between the two women: the upper, second floor for Alena, and the lower floor, where the kitchen is located, for Gabil’s second wife. Soon a son was born, and the second wife looked after the child while also caring for the entire family. And so, gradually, things came together.
The wives didn’t have much contact, but there was also no conflict between them. The neighbors treated the situation with understanding, and the government took no interest.
With time it began to seem to Gabil that, although his relatives had deceived him, everything worked out for the best, and that he really did need his second wife. The family is living together to this day, and they already have two children.
Historically, polygamy has been practiced in Azerbaijan, with the exclusion of the seventy-year Soviet period. During the time of the USSR polygamy was persecuted fairly severely (in accordance with article 235 of the Criminal Code of the USSR, polygamy was punished by imprisonment of up to one year, and corrective labor during that same period or a heavy fine). However, even in those times there existed such ‘social units’, particularly in the countryside.
Mehriban Zeynalova, head of the NGO Chisty Mir [Pure World] believes that such families come about first and foremost as a result of socio-economic factors, and only secondly because of factors like mentality and religion.
“There really are not very many such instances, this primarily takes place in the southern regions of the country. The problem is that girls don’t receive the necessary education, which down the road plays a negative role in their lives, often they can’t provide for themselves”, says Zeynalova.
Zeynalova believes that society must give more attention to the development of female entrepreneurship in the country. For example, if special, interest-free credit were introduced for women, this might, in the long run, bring about economic independence for many of them.
Are there statistics on such cases in Azerbaijan?
Elgyun Safarov, head of informatics and analytical research at the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs of Azerbaijan, responded to our inquiry saying that they do not have statistical information about such polygamous families, and that they have not received complaints related to these sorts of problems.
“But the employees of our committee have often taken part in judicial processes addressing issues connected with these sorts of families. This is particularly the case for women who have entered nikah with citizens of Turkey and Russia. Problems arose in such cases concerning property and parental rights. But in accordance with the Family Code of Azerbaijan, all citizens, regardless, have parental rights, and marriage plays no role in this. So children born in such marriages have rights to both alimony and inheritance.
The law places no restrictions on religious marriage, i.e. on nikah, but I can say that there exists an unofficial directive to put a stop to such occurrences. We made an unofficial request with the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus that before performing a religious marriage their mullahs request the corresponding, official marriage documents from the young newlyweds. But I personally am not inclined to think that this rule is being effectively implemented”, said Elgyun Safarov.
“In order to really put a stop to such instances, we must make an effort to educate the populace, reform present legislation, and continue our research”, concluded the expert.
Are there really impediments to nikah, and do those members of the spiritual leadership who must perform this rite first request a marriage certificate from citizens?
The Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus effectively refused to respond to this question, redirecting our inquiry to a different phone number that had been switched to a fax line.
In the modern realities of Azerbaijan, the spread of polygamy is ‘facilitated’ by several important social factors. These are, undoubtedly, the consequences of prolonged regional military conflict, the mass emigration of able-aged men from the country, and general poverty and unemployment, especially in the countryside.
Theologian and scholar Elshad Miri, member of the Council of Religious Experts, believes that Islam in no way encourages polygamy, but merely allows for it.
The theologian says that this is stated in the third ayah (verse) of the surah (chapter)
: “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”
Religious scholar and rights activist Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu commented as follows regarding our question about marriage in Islam.
“The family in Islam is the sacred hearth. This is a spiritual union between spouses, given divine blessing in its creation. The Islamic juridical system stipulates a primary and secondary system. A marriage with one wife is the primary norm.
But in case of need, Islam also allows for the possibility of polygamy. But this is not really a norm and is also conditioned by special requirements, which in practice can only be observed via an incredibly diligent manner. And the cornerstone of this manner is the concept of fairness”.