Tajik Divorce By Text Message Stirs Controversy
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan -- Some marriages end in a burst of anger, others with a whimper. Marina Dodobayeva's ended with an SMS.
The 33-year-old mother of two was sweeping her yard one October morning when her mobile phone vibrated with a three-word text message from her husband of 14 years.
"Taloq taloq taloq," it read – divorce, divorce, divorce.
With those words, Dodobayeva found herself among the growing ranks of women in predominantly Muslim Tajikistan whose husbands have used mobile phones to issue the "triple taloq," an Islamic ritual in which men can end a marriage by reciting the word for divorce three times.
Dodobayeva immediately called her husband, who was working in Russia as a laborer, for an explanation.
"He told me not to call him any more," Dodobayeva said, "because now he has a new family."
Islam frowns upon divorce but allows it, generally when a husband announces his intention to his wife and a cleric ratifies the decision. Except in rare cases, Muslim women are not allowed to divorce their husbands.
Clerics from Malaysia to Qatar have struggled with the impact of new technology on such proceedings. But in few places have digital innovations muddied the waters as much as in this Central Asian nation.
When Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union, religion was strictly restricted. But since independence in 1991, conservative Islamic values and customs have grown stronger.
Many Tajik marriages are undocumented, meaning it's impossible to say how many divorces have been carried out by SMS. But religious authorities say they have seen a soaring number of digitally dumped women visiting mosques with desperate pleas for help and guidance.
The growing numbers have prompted Tajikistan's religious authorities to condemn the practice, and moves are afoot to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, against it. Abdurakhim Kholikov, head of the government's religious affairs committee, blames the phenomenon on Tajik men who move abroad in search of work and end up starting new lives.
More than 1 million of the country's 7 million people are believed to be living abroad. One-third of them will not return home, according to International Labor Organization estimates.
"Labor migrants living and working abroad get divorced this way," Kholikov said.
Dodobayeva's husband, Anvar, is one of them. He was forced by mass unemployment to seek work in Russia, leaving his family behind. The couple never registered their marriage, diminishing Dodobayeva's already slender prospects of securing alimony.
"I feel bad for the children. He won't even call them," she said.
Tajik legal expert Rakhmatullo Zoirov said courts can oblige salary-earning husbands who divorce to pay child support, but it's difficult to enforce those decisions on migrant workers.
"The majority of migrants have no fixed place of work and calculating the amount they should pay in alimony is impossible," Zoirov said.
As is customary, Dodobayeva has been living with her husband's family. With her marriage effectively over, she now faces pressure to move out.
"Maybe they won't throw me out for the sake of their grandchildren," she said. "They are their family, after all."
Similar questions have come up elsewhere in the world.
In 2001, Islamic authorities in Singapore ruled divorce by text message to be forbidden. The same year, courts in the United Arab Emirates allowed divorce by SMS provided certain conditions were met, while a Muslim scholar in Qatar decreed that divorce by email was acceptable.
Two years later, an Islamic court in Malaysia ruled that husbands could initiate divorces by text message. The decision prompted a flurry of animated public discussions and much soul-searching about how ancient Islamic customs could be squared with fast-developing, often impersonal, forms of communication.
In some cases, the immediacy of mobile phone technology can backfire on the text message sender.
A court in Saudi Arabia ruled last year that a husband's declaration of divorce by text message in the heat of an argument still remained in force after he calmed down and changed his mind.
The verdict was reportedly greeted with glee by the man's wife.