Toqal / Tokal (Kazakhstan)

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Toqal / Tokal ­čç░­čç┐
Kazakhstan map.png
Location: Kazakhstan
Definition: Second or ╩╗unofficial╩╝ wife
Keywords: Kazakhstan ÔÇô FSU ÔÇô Central Asia ÔÇô Gender ÔÇô Masculinity ÔÇô Women ÔÇô Kinship ÔÇô Family ÔÇô Marriage ÔÇô Sexuality ÔÇô Status ÔÇô Elite ÔÇô Religion ÔÇô Islam ÔÇô Public service ÔÇô Patronage
Author: Nursultan Suleimenov
Affiliation: Alumnus, Law School, Warwick University, UK

By Nursultan Suleimenov, Alumnus, Law School, Warwick University, UK

Toqal is a Kazakh term that denotes a second or ╩╗unofficial╩╝ wife of a married man. This term has both the negative connotation of a morally reprehensible practice and a common association with wealth, such as in the Kazakh proverb ╩╗if a Kazakh gets rich, he takes a second wife.╩╝ The term derives from the Kazakh words, an adjective ╩╗toq╩╝, meaning well-fed, and a verb ╩╗al╩╝ for taking. The combined meaning communicates a simple message: If one can afford it, and is able to take care of her, why not get another wife (Khegay 2018). The roots of the phenomenon are associated with the tradition of polygamy, practised in other parts of the world for religious or demographic reasons (Vallely 2010).

Before Kazakhstan became the Soviet republic in 1931, Kazakh men had an official right to marry more than one wife, but no more than four women in total. However, only wealthy people from noble families could afford several wives (Najibullah 2011). A large family with several wives was a sign of a manÔÇÖs high status. Such marriages had to be registered in the mosque. The main function of the Kazakh polygamy was to solve the demographic crisis. A man could marry the toqal if she was a widow of a deceased relative (usually a brother), if there were no children in the first family, or with consent of his first wife.

Becoming part of the Soviet Union has resulted in de-legalisation of this tradition in Kazakhstan, as the Bolsheviks abolished polygamy in Russia and adjourning territories in 1917 (Yarmoshchuk & Zhetigenova, 2019). This created a discrepancy between the law and practice in Kazakhstan during the Soviet period. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, polygamy in Kazakhstan remains officially prohibited, but it is decriminalised. In law, there is no provision for a ╩╗second marriage╩╝ but there is a concept of ╩╗cohabitation╩╝, which does not entail the same rights as official marriage (The Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, "On Marriage (Matrimony) and Family" 2019). In practice, male polygamy exists in Kazakhstan, as indicated in the open admission of Gabidulla Abdrakhimov, the former head of Shymkent, the third-largest city in Kazakhstan, and advisor to prime-minister Mamin: ╩╗I love both of my wives.╩╝ To the question if polygamy was permitted by law he replied: ╩╗Allah allowed me to do this╩╝ (Yensebayeva 2019).

Kazakhstani parliament discussed the possibility to legalize male polygamy twice, in 2001 and 2008 (Shaykov 2008). Their main arguments were pragmatic (the need to improve the demographic situation); religious (polygamy is in men's nature and part of Muslim culture); and social (to accommodate for the needs of single women with the current imbalance between the number of women and men and to give them legal protection as a formal spouse). Some deputies pointed out that current practices of marrying a toqal have broken with Muslim and ancient Kazakh traditions. In Islam, the second wife could only be married with an official consent of the first wife ÔÇô baibishe. There is also a provision that a man is obliged to ensure an equally worthy existence for all his wives. However, the canons of the Islamic marriage law are based on the assumption that monogamous marriage is the most reasonable and relevant religious concept of godly fear and piety. The second, third or fourth wife is a canonical exception, which is condescendingly allowed by the Islamic marriage law, but is determined by a number of possible circumstances. Sharia law does not contain calls for polygamy and does not consider it mandatory (Hussain 1965).

In Turkmenistan, where Muslim population amounts to nearly 90 percent, polygamy is legally prohibited since September 2018, as spelt out in the Family Code and the Criminal Code. Moreover, the Turkmen legislation includes the definition of polygamy as ╩╗cohabitation with two or more women at the same time when jointly managing a common household.╩╝ The Turkmen Criminal Code states: ╩╗A man who has several wives may face up to 2 years of corrective labour or a large fine╩╝ (Katsiev 2018).

As testified by a baibishe, polygamy is not an issue if it takes place ╩╗in the open╩╝ (Najibullah 2011). Yet the contemporary practice of starting second families in Kazakhstan often resembles the covert extra-marital relationships in non-Muslim societies. This makes the status of toqal closer to an ╩╗official lover╩╝ than to a ╩╗second wife╩╝. Since 2000, the use of the word toqal has become more prominent in Kazakhstani society. The economic growth in Kazakhstan due to the extraction and export of natural resources allowed a significant increase in income for the male population. The phenomenon of toqal became associated with businessmen and officials with higher salaries. Women from the second, unofficial family, began to be called toqal in reference to the long-standing Muslim tradition of polygamy in Kazakhstan.

In 1998, the capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty to Astana in 1998 (renamed as Nur-Sultan in 2019). An unintended consequence of the change was the need for officials to relocated, often without their wives and children, who were left behind in the old capital. This gave them the opportunity to start a second family. Because of officials living parallel lives in the two cities, the new capital Nur-Sultan is called the ╩╗Toqal city╩╝ in the vernacular, while the old capital Almaty is called the ╩╗city of Baibishe╩╝ (Yarmoshchuk and Zhetigenova 2019).

The pragmatics of becoming the toqal are commonly associated with access to financial wealth. Indicative of the heavily masculine culture, every appointment of a young woman to a high position in Kazakhstan is followed by rumours about whose daughter or toqal this woman might be. Other stereotypes include a toqal either being a ╩╗kept woman,╩╝ ordinarily by a much older man, or someone who hopes to become the only wife one day. Some research draws a distinction between toqal-wives and toqal-lovers (Kaziyev 2017). Toqal-wives are usually ambitious women, considered ╩╗high-maintenance╩╝ and unaffordable for an average Kazakhstani man. They have an excellent education, often under the patronage of their agashka (Oka 2018: 86-88). They engage in business or charity affairs and earn considerable income. They often have children with their protege. Toqal-lovers are often financially independent and have professional skills and knowledge. They are described as looking for romance in relationships and the opportunities to lean on a ╩╗strong male shoulder.╩╝ Their ╩╗husbands╩╝ may be middle-income Kazakhstani who can take responsibility for ╩╗protecting and caring╩╝ for them and their children.

However, the toqal status has legal and social drawbacks for women. It does not carry legal protection and does not offer the right to property as a spouse. Toqal may not have the paternity of the child registered, because marriage is registered only in the mosque, and she is thus not be entitled to child support if the relationship gets strained (NUR KZ 2015). Social condemnation of society is aimed mainly at toqal rather than the man who starts the ╩╗second family.╩╝ Becoming a toqal is seen as a womanÔÇÖs voluntary choice. Kazakh TV presenter Laila Sultankizy, the toqal of a well-known businessman Kairat Berkinbaev, according to media reports, expressed her position on being a toqal:

We live in a period of transformation, adaptation to changing living conditions as part of the global community. We are no longer the Kazakh steppes we were before the USSR. The influence of world cultures, both positive and negative, forms a new nation. So far, we are not doing very well. We are losing traditions that are important to us, and not everything that we are adopting we truly need. Our family institution is in a serious crisis. One of us will have a family or two - it is not so important if our families are happy. Who needs our achievements and economic recovery if we are unhappy in the simplest and most necessary thing - in the family? Meanwhile, I, Laila Sultankyzy, having seen myself in the list of the seven most famous toqal of Kazakhstan in the press, declare that I am a WIFE (Sultankizy 2013).

While some Kazakhstani believe that it is normal to have a wife on the side, many toqal consider themselves offended to be called lovers since they consider themselves wives. However, a toqal has no guarantees that she and her children will not be outlawed at some point in the future.


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Katsiev, A. 2018. ╩╗Polygamy officially banned in Turkmenistan╩╝, Mir24,

Kaziyev, T. 2017. ╩╗Toqal Life╩╝, Prikaspiyskoy kommuny,

Khegay, M. 2018. ╩╗Filolog Khakim Omar: Blagodaria tokal sostoyalas' kazakhskaia natsiia╩╝, Karavan, 09 January

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NUR KZ. 2015. ╩╗Pochemu kazakhstanskiye devushki stanovyatsya tokal?╩╝, NUR KZ, 30 September

Oka, N. 2018. ╩╗Agashka (Kazakhstan)╩╝, Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Volume 1, 464

Shaykov, A. 2008. ╩╗Uzakonit' mnogozhenstvo ili net?╩╝, Zakon, 20 March

Sultankizy, L. 2013. ╩╗Laila Sultankizy o fenomene "tokal" v Kazakhstane╩╝, L'OFFICIEL, 13 January The Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan "On Marriage (Matrimony) and Family", 2019. Zakon,

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Yensebayeva, M., 2019. ╩╗Gabidulla Abdrakhimov "ischerpal kredit doveriia" za god. Vspominaem samye gromkie sobytiia╩╝, InformBureau, 30 July