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Becoming extra wife is fantasy in Kazakhstan

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

Given the choice between love and money, Samal, a tall, curly-haired 23-year-old woman from a village in southern Kazakhstan, would take the cash.

Struggling to pay rent and tuition on her salary as a waitress in Almaty, the Kazakh commercial capital, Samal says she'd drop her boyfriend in a heartbeat if a wealthy older man offered to make her his second wife.

“Becoming a tokal would be a fairy tale,” Samal says during a break at the cafe where she works, using the Kazakh word for the youngest of two wives, who traditionally gets her own apartment, car and monthly allowance.

The gulf between rich and poor “exploded” in Kazakhstan, the world's largest uranium supplier and the second-largest oil producer in the former Soviet Union, after independence in 1991, and the gap hasn't closed, said Gulmira Ileuova, head of the Center for Social and Political Research Strategy in Almaty.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power for more than two decades, undertook a state asset-sale program in the 1990s that enriched a group of insiders at everyone else's expense, Ileuova said.

That gap is fueling a revival of polygamy, which has become a status symbol for affluent men and a ticket out of poverty for young women. The practice flourished in this Central Asian nation for centuries, first as part of its nomadic culture and later under Islamic Sharia law, until the Bolsheviks outlawed it in 1921. The trend has spawned two best-selling novels and a television talk show.

“It's become prestigious to have a tokal,” Ayan Kudaikulova, an Almaty socialite and author of one of those novels, said in an interview in her cafe. “They're like Breguet luxury watches,” Kudaikulova said, wearing a red Alexander McQueen pantsuit and an Alain Silberstein timepiece. “Unfortunately, not having a junior wife is now shameful for wealthy men.”

Before the Soviets took over following the 1917 Russian Revolution, many rich Kazakhs would buy second wives from parents, often with livestock, which helped spread wealth. Those unions were governed by common law and Sharia. Polygamy is illegal, though there's no prescribed punishment as there is in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the maximum penalty is two years in prison.

Kazakh lawmakers have tried to legalize polygyny, having two or more wives, twice since 2001, most recently in 2008. The measure failed when a female parliamentarian insisted on including polyandry, or multiple husbands, as well.

More than 40 countries, most in Asia and Africa, recognize polygamous marriages, even though the United Nations said in 2009 that it “violates women's human rights and infringes their right to dignity.”

A poll published last year by state-owned news service Kazinform found 41 percent of Kazakhstan's 17 million people favored legalizing polygamy.

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