A recent scandal surrounding the arranged marriage of a 57-year-old Chechen police chief and a 17-year-old school girl prompted heated media discussion on the legal marriage age and polygamy in Russia. The girl became the officer’s second wife, as permitted under the Muslim faith predominant in Chechnya. Despite the bride going on TV to state she was marrying of her own free will, many found it hard to believe, particularly amid allegations of an intimidation campaign against the bride’s parents by her husband-to-be, demanding they surrender their daughter. The online debate became so intense it prompted Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to urge men to “stop their wives” from using WhatsApp.
Sadly, the Russian Children’s Rights Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov came out in defense of the marriage. He said he could not confirm that the 17-year-old bride’s rights had been violated by the wedding. “Let’s not be prudish. Emancipation and sexual maturity happen earlier in the Caucasus. There are places where women are already shriveled by the age of 27 and they look 50 by our standards,” he said. In support of this view various references were made to 19th century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s characters in ‘Eugene Onegin,’ 17-year-old Tatiana and her nanny who married at 13 years of age; Shakespear’s 13-year-old Juliet and Lev Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova, who fell in love when she was 13 in `War and Peace’ were also cited.
Hundreds of photos have been uploaded with the hashtag (#сморщеннаяженщина) which means `ShrivelledWoman’ on Instagram in response to the Ombudsman’s comments to protest the oppression of women in Russia in general and in Chechnya in particular. Later, Mr Astakhov apologized for his words. However, the new term ‘Astakhov Age’ has been swiftly introduced into contemporary Russian language and many demanded the Ombudsman’s resignation.
The minimum legal marriage age in Russia is 18 [under Section 13 of the Russian Family Code]. In some circumstances local authorities can permit the parties to marry if they have reached the age of 16.
At the same time, regional legislation may specify exceptional circumstances in which persons may be permitted to marry even earlier than that, effectively legalizing child marriage. Notably, in Bashkortostan, the threshold age is 14 years.
In 1744, the marriage age for brides was 13 and 15 for grooms. The upper threshold for getting married was 80 years of age. In 1830, Tsar Nicholas I increased the marriage age for both men and women by three years. On 3 November 1965, the United Nations recommended the minimum marriage age be not less than 15.
Polygamy is illegal under Russian federal law. However, it remains permissible in traditional practice for Chechen men. In these circumstances and considering Russian Family Law does not permit the registration of an official partnership, the reassurance of the Chechen leader Mr Kadyrov that all legal norms, religious practices and local traditions had been observed in the case 17-year-old school girl and police chief are irrelevant and lead to the inevitable conclusion that the marriage in question is invalid.
This in turn effectively means that the ‘wife’ has no legal rights to seek support from her ‘husband’ or to claim any joint property of the parties or to inherit after her partner’s death, irrespective of the length of the relationship, children born to them, or any other circumstances.
Despite the Children’s Ombudsman referencing the Russian Constitution’s caution against interfering in people’s private affairs, it seems that this is one issue that requires not only public but firm state interference. Considering Islam is the second largest religion in Russia, the issues of arranged child marriages and polygamy have to be given particular attention by the government. The Koran does not define a minimum age for marriage. Islam encourages women to marry at a young age, so they can have children, which is seen as a woman’s duty. The religion allows for multiple marriages.
In providing for the marriage of immature teen girls, Russian Family Law fails to provide protection of their legal rights.
A recent study revealed that 87% of Russians oppose polygamy for the majority of the population. The figure, based on a poll conducted by VTsIOM, represents a 4% increase in the proportion of Russians that disapprove of taking more than one wife since 1999, when a similar poll was conducted. 10% said they supported the idea of polygamy, a significant drop from the 18% who backed the practice in 1999.
Respondents were more lenient with regard to the practice of polygamy among the country’s Muslim population, though those figures have plunged by more than half in the past 16 years. 33% percent now support the notion of Muslims taking a second partner, compared with 70% in the earlier survey.