Divorce by SMS Rife Among Tajik Migrants

by Rajashri on Sep 29 2009 8:04 PM

Divorce actually means more than an end of marriage - it causes untold mental anguish, especially if the spouse never saw it coming.

Nodira knew that life would be difficult when her husband left their home in Tajikistan for a job packing lorries in distant Russia, but they had two children and needed the money to survive.

What she never imagined was that their marriage would end, not with a bang or even a whimper, but with the tinny beep of a message on the inbox of her mobile phone.

"Talaq, talaq, talaq" -- three short Arabic words flashed across the tiny screen and 29-year-old Nodira was divorced.

"I was shocked after reading that SMS. I instantly thought it was a mistake or someone's evil joke. I had bad thoughts in my mind, I wanted to hang or drown myself, or drink vinegar from such shame," she said.

Stuck working abroad for years at a stretch to escape Tajikistan's crushing poverty, some men have begun divorcing their wives using short mobile text messages (SMS), sowing confusion, heartbreak and destitution back home.

"What did I do wrong?" Nodira wonders. "This question is still torturing me. I was looking after my husband's parents, was cleaning the yard, washing, cooking for a big family. Everything was on me all these years."

Tajikistan, a deeply conservative majority-Sunni Muslim country whose rugged mountain peaks form the soaring borders of Afghanistan and western China, has the dubious distinction of being Central Asia's poorest state.

Following a brutal civil war that killed tens of thousands and decimated the economy in the 1990s, Tajikistan suffered an exodus of its labour force to more prosperous regional powers such as Russia, China and Kazakhstan.

The outflow of migrants and their exposure to new technologies gave Tajik men new and inventive ways to dissolve their marriages, said Dorsultan Shonazirova, a lawyer specializing in women's rights issues.

"This whole problem with divorces appeared with the beginning of labour migration in Tajikistan in the beginning of the 1990s," she said.

Under mainstream interpretations of Sunni religious law, a man needs only to pronounce the word "talaq" (divorce) three times to divorce his wife, several Islamic scholars in the region told AFP.

But experts say that he must do so in the presence of his wife, which means that any divorce done by SMS or email should not be viewed as valid.

"Divorce of a wife by her husband via SMS is not acceptable and contradicts Islamic law," said Kobildzhon Boyev, head of the department that studies fatwas, or religious decrees, at Tajikistan's Islamic Centre in Dushanbe.

Still, he admitted that the centre had been "seeing more such cases throughout the country."

It is unclear how many women have been divorced by SMS -- although some suspect they already number in the thousands -- because most affected women hide the news out of a deep sense of shame, Shonazirova said.

Many women have few legal options because they lack proper documentation of their marriages, usually because they were isolated from the central government during the years of lawlessness following the Soviet collapse.

"Not all the girls had official registration of their marriages, but in the event of divorce the law should protect their rights to obtain alimony for their children and to split their household in half," Shonazirova said.

"Our Muslim clergy and men's parents have to call for the respect of Muslim traditions, so that these text message and phone divorces are not recognised."

But in an isolated and impoverished country still struggling to rediscover its religious traditions after decades of Soviet-enforced atheism, getting out the clergy's message of disapproval can be difficult.

Khalima Shamsova, 24, was separated from her husband for the better part of five years, during which time she said she suffered endless abuse from his family, whom she had been living with and taking care of.

Angry that she knew how to read -- which they took as a sign of immodesty -- her husband's family convinced him to divorce her via SMS, leaving her to care for their nine-month-old daughter on her own.

"It was scary in the beginning that I had to raise my kid without their father. God is merciful, I have my hands and feet and I'll go to work as a yard-keeper, if it's possible," Shamsova said.

"I won't allow my daughter's early marriage. I won't let her go through what I did. I?ll let her get an education and find a profession."