Marhaba, a mother of four, has been abandoned by her husband in her Tajikistan village. The problem? The marriage, conducted according to Islamic rites, was never legally registered - so now he's under no obligation. And this is becoming increasingly common.
Such marriages are not uncommon: in poor and remote areas such as these, up to 30% of couples are married by a mullah and don't bother registering - a formality that fell by the wayside during the civil war of the 1990s, when many parents wanted to afford young daughters the relative security of marriage and the civil government was barely functioning. But it's only recently that husbands have started taking advantage of it, many leaving to find work in Russia, getting equally unofficial "talaaqs" or religious divorces so they can remarry and gain legal status, and leaving their wives high and dry. As Zebo Davlatova, of the League of Women Lawyers, tells the BBC, "Without official registration women have no right to demand their husbands provide them with somewhere to live or to pay anything at all to support the children," and often end up in other unrecognized marriages for security - as second or third wives. This is not unique to Tajikistan - there are thousands of such cases - and a problem for which, as women's advocates say, there's simply no easy answer.
The Muslimah Media Watch addressed the story today, and while they acknowledge the real tragedy of such situations, ask that we not view this as simply another tale of woe pertaining to women who are victims of a patriarchal Muslim culture - "the Orientalist theme of the weak, emasculated Muslim society that abuses women" - and points out that it's important to remember that "the real problem isn't the nikaah or talaaq, but the fact that neither of these are documented." Obviously it's larger cultural perceptions of women, and the dependent and vulnerable role they're forced into, that permits this sort of tragedy - but as MMW is at pains to point out, it's important not to conflate this with Islam as a whole. What is depressing to conceive of is the fact that thousands of men have been able to abandon their families so callously, and far more of a comment on human nature than anything else. It's not as if, after all, they don't know what they are leaving them to. Says Marhaba, "He registered his marriage with that other woman and I hear they live happily and in prosperity. But look at this shack me and the children have to live in now. They can't even go to school, because I can't afford it and they don't have birth certificates."