Well, our apartment got robbed. We lost several expensive cameras and jewelry, but they didn’t really take much otherwise (we don’t have much in the first place, they must have been sorely disappointed), but they did also manage to eat the chocolate from my roommate’s advent calendar for today’s date.
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 by phone on Nov. 27.
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, surrounded by purple walls and bearskin rugs. “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 both by common law and Sharia. Polygamy is still technically illegal, though there’s no prescribed punishment for it 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, at least twice since 2001, most recently in 2008, when the measure failed after a female parliamentarian insisted on including polyandry, or multiple husbands, as well.
More than 40 countries, almost all in Asia and Africa, still recognize polygamous marriages, even though the United Nations said in a report in 2009 that the practice “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. Twenty-six percent said they opposed it, 22 percent had no preference and 11 percent thought it would be a waste of time because the practice already exists, according to Kazinform.
The Spiritual Department for Muslims of Kazakhstan, a Almaty-based nongovernmental group that operates most of the country’s mosques, said it urges all young men to marry and start a family. If a man wants to have a second wife and hold a religious wedding ceremony, called Nikah, in a mosque, the senior wife must attend to ensure all parties are in agreement, the department said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
About 10 percent of all Nikah ceremonies in Almaty’s largest mosque now involve tokals, according to a senior cleric who asked not to be identified because the practice isn’t officially recognized. More than 3,000 couples will get married at the main mosque this year, about 30 percent more than in 2008, the cleric said.
“Tokalism has started to become noticeable,” said Ileuova of the Center for Social and Political Research Strategy. “That’s in part because 50 percent of the population is poor.”
Kazakhstan has enjoyed an oil boom that has boosted gross domestic product about 12-fold in the past two decades, to about $200 billion last year, though even Nazarbayev, the son of a shepherd, admits that the expansion hasn’t benefited everyone.
“The question is not how we develop the level of GDP per capita,” Nazarbayev, 73, said in televised comments in April. “We must see how many people we have in poverty, the gap between rich and poor. The gap is significant.”
Police used arms to suppress unrest in the town of Zhanaozen in 2011, when a strike over wages by oil workers at state-run KazMunaiGas Exploration Production led to rioting that left at least 14 people dead.
About 56 percent of Kazakh households, or about 9 million people, earn less than 36,000 tenge ($236) a month, while 1.5 million people earn less than 15,000 tenge, Nazarbayev said.
Credit Suisse Group AG estimated in a report last year that 91 percent of Kazakhs have less than $10,000 of assets, while 8.6 percent have $10,000 to $100,000. Of the 50 richest Kazakhs, six are women, though all are related to powerful men — two are daughters of Nazarbayev, one shared her ranking with her husband and another is the sister of a multimillionaire, according to Forbes magazine’s local edition.
“Fewer Kazakh girls would become tokals if there were more normal opportunities for advancement,” Janar Jandosova, director of the Sange Research Center in the capital, Astana, said by phone. “We’ve done a lot to eradicate this, but we’ve lost ground very fast in the past few years,” Jandosova said. “There is an endemic wish among women to improve their standing in society, and for too many of them the only option is to gain access to a man’s finances.”
Most tokals come from poor families and are pragmatic about their relationships, saving money for retirement or supporting relatives back home, Jandosova said.
Many of the woman were singers, dancers, TV presenters, nannies, housemaids or even friends of the men’s daughters before becoming second wives, according to Kudaikulova, the socialite and author.
Some, though, are purely opportunistic, said Gulbahram Kurgulina, author of the best-selling novel, “Tokal.” Gulbahram said she writes about polygamy to educate young women, to inspire them to be patient, not greedy.
“Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality,” Kurgulina said in an interview in an Astana cafe. Whatever their motives for becoming a tokal, nearly all strive to keep their relationships secret to avoid financial reprisals from their patrons, according to Kurgulina.
Sholpan, 20, agreed to speak about her life as a tokal on the condition that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, as did Samal the waitress.
Sholpan said she never thought she’d end up a tokal because she comes from a wealthy family. When her father took a woman about Sholpan’s age as a second wife, Sholpan refused to show respect the way she honored her mother, including by bowing as her father demanded.
As a result, her father stopped giving her an allowance and paying her college tuition, saying it was time for her to find a rich man to marry. She also lost her boyfriend at the time after his mother demanded that he end the relationship because she no longer had a dowry.
Now, Sholpan’s a tokal, driving a $53,000 Toyota Land Cruiser, carrying a $10,000 Hermes (RMS) Birkin bag and earning at least $5,000 a month. She’s also been able to travel abroad and open her own trading business. Sholpan said she met her future husband when he jumped out of his car to invite her to tea when he saw her crossing the street. Sholpan’s never met his first wife, and doesn’t think she knows he has a second.
“All my friends tell me I have a Cinderella life,” Sholpan said over lunch at a trendy restaurant in Almaty, wearing sunglasses and a headscarf to avoid being recognized. “I often spend $300 a day and have no idea where it went,” she said. “My family supports me now, saying ‘everyone gets to the top however they can.’”
While childbearing isn’t part of Sholpan’s job description, men often take second wives for that very purpose.
Anuarbek, a businessman in Almaty who asked that his surname not be used, said he and his wife decided to find a tokal to bear children because doctors told them that having a second baby would endanger her life. So, about three years ago, he married a 19-year-old village girl whom he met through her Islam instructor.
After throwing a party for about 150 people in his tokal’s village, Anuarbek moved her to live with his parents in another community. The two wives meet occasionally and have a respectful relationship, Anuarbek said, adding that his junior wife lives a simple life and doesn’t ask for luxury goods.
That’s not quite the fairy tale Samal, the waitress, said she’s dreaming about. Samal said she doesn’t need expensive handbags or fancy cars — but if she’s going to give up looking for true love, it better be worth it.
“Every woman wants to be the first and only love for a man,” Samal said. “But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to struggle alone.”
I’m reading Pride and Prejudice right now, and in some ways, this reminds me a bit of Charlotte Lucas.
I’m wondering how exaggerated this article is, but there does seem to be a very huge emphasis on marriage = financial security among women in Almaty. Even women who come from well-off families are pressured into marrying at an early age to a man who can support them. It seems to be a lot of pressure on the women, and a lot of pressure on the guys, as well (to be financially stable and be able to meet the entire needs of a family by yourself).
Thoughts, always welcome.
Hmm pretty sure it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity (let’s not forget the local Russians living in Kazakhstan), and everything to do with whether you actually can hold your own (which as foreigners, we cannot). Bazaars I am totally fine with, you get what you ask for. The fruits and veggies in larger grocery stores are expensive, they’re mostly imported from China (where they’re covered in wax or genetically enhanced), and in general they also really aren’t that fresh. We get our fruits and veggies from local sellers near our apartment, but it’s not like the bazaar where you can bargain.
There are two sellers that are near us, and I usually buy from the guy because—although a bit on the creepier side—he’s just plain nicer. He knows me by (my Russian) name, and says ‘hi’ every time I walk by. If I don’t have enough change on me, he lets me pay him back later. The other seller is just awkward and rude. And she rips me off. So screw her.
Yeah…that happened our first month here :/ I heard that the police chiefs themselves collect bribes from these cops, who are already paid very little. Ugh.
Dec 1 (yesterday) in Kazakhstan was National Day of the First President. I’m just happy we got Monday (today) off.
My German roommate this morning asked me if I had gone to the square near our apartment. “There was music and lights and everything…I asked my friend where the president was, and he wasn’t even there!” she exclaimed. “Such a ridiculous holiday.”
It does seem a little silly to be celebrating the first (and only) president of a country, especially when they’re still alive. (I wonder how it would fly in the US if Obama declared a “National Obama Day”?)
Many (mostly outside of the country) would say that this holiday is just further evidence of Kazakhstan existing as a dictator-led society. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the leader of Kazakhstan since 1989 (you do the math, that’s around 25 years), carrying his presidency over from the Soviet to post Soviet state. Although the country holds elections, it’s highly questioned as to how “democratic” this process really is (Nazarbayev won by a 95.5% vote in 2011, and it’s amazing that they were able to have a 90% voter turnout). You can’t deny that he’s a popular president, though (so it’s likely he would win these elections anyway), as most leaders are during times of relative economic stability.
Anyway, cheers! Here’s to ridiculous holidays.
I recently found out that one of my friends was robbed at gun point at his apartment by these guys dressed as the police—I was just at his apartment housewarming about a month ago. I can’t imagine how terrified he must have felt, but at least he wasn’t physically harmed.
I was always aware that there are men in Almaty who dress up as cops and go around and try to get money from people (must be easy, scaring the crap out of people and then demanding bribes), but this was the first time I ever heard of them breaking into someone’s apartment. My friend “A”, herself from Kazakhstan, told me that it’s likely they targeted him because he’s a foreigner. She added that sometimes these men get tipped off by neighbors and even landlords. “It might even be the case that it was someone at the party who sent these guys,” she said.
If you’re a foreigner and you’re living in or visiting Kazakhstan, it’s important that you remain very wary of anyone who’s dressed in a police uniform. By no means should you let them into your apartment until you have absolute and substantial reason to know that it’s safe to do so. I myself remember when around 6 am I was called on my apartment buzzer by guys claiming to be the police and demanding that I let them into the building. I yelled at them for waking me up so early and then didn’t buzz them in. Assholes.
Meanwhile, I realized today that the lady who sells produce outside my apartment has been making the prices more expensive for me (as well as my roommates apparently), most likely because we’re foreigners. I spent a large part of today constructing a dramatic scenario in my head of me confronting her about it, but I guess it’s just best to just never buy from her again. It’s a small thing, but it’s not particularly pleasant.
Just a quaint reminder of the realities of living as a foreigner in a post Soviet country.
Also, fuck the police.
Thanksgiving 2013 in Almaty, Kazakhstan!
Whereas the holidays are usually full of warm and fuzzy feelings, the holidays can actually be a bit of a depressing time for most expats. After all, you’re miles away from home, and this time seems to serve as a dull reminder of how much you really do miss your friends and family in the States.
But that’s when you open the door for making new traditions, like eating chicken instead of turkey with a bunch of obnoxiously loud and boisterous American expatriates. We took turns during dinner sharing what we were thankful for, and there were several touching moments. I think we all felt pretty lucky for having each other on this day, despite how much we may miss home. Definitely had a great time and a lot of laughs.
Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!
I had the utterly lamest and coolest Friday night. I stayed at the office until pretty late working on my personal statement for grad school, and I’m proud to say that I managed to bring it down to about 500 words. Try writing why you’re passionate about global health and worthy of being accepted to graduate school in 500 words without sounding like a douchebag—it’s pretty damn hard.
I was then rescued from hitting the ultimate low of all lows (staying longer in the office) by my friend “R”, who called and invited me out to a bar where we specifically would not drink any alcohol. We all hung out at this somewhat hidden yet trendy bar, where we sipped on tea and sat on beanbag chairs. I don’t know why, but I was in an incredibly weird and goofy mood the whole time.
As we were getting ready to leave, one of our mutual friends “G” called and told us that a girl he had a thing with was at a cafe near his apartment (according to a photo he saw on instagram). “R” then made it a bro-mission to go to this cafe and creep on this girl, so our other friend “A” drove us there. “R” and I went inside and I bought a slice of cake while “R” disappeared to look for the girl (she wasn’t there). I guess this is a thing that guys do?
Finished the wild night by eating my cake in bed while watching the first episode of House of Cards. Like a boss.
This afternoon I had my Kazakh lesson, and then I’m going to aim to submit one of my graduate school applications. My work is organizing an event at a gay club at midnight, so I think some of my friends and I are going to go check it out. Tomorrow “A” and I want to go see a movie.
Monday—who knows. Sleep and eat, possibly repeat.
I’m utterly boring and I don’t care.
Love love three day weekends.
I absolutely suck for getting back to your message so late. I think the reason for this is because, off the top of my head, I don’t know of any programs, so I thought I’d find out and reply later. Wasn’t really the case, still don’t think I know of any.
The only thing I *might* know about is that the University of Wyoming (I think) has a program…check it out?
Other than that, I would just say that you should apply for the Princeton in Asia fellowship and take my position at the NGO or teach English at KIMEP! :)