Rose remembers the message texted from her husband in Russia as if it happened yesterday. ‘Talaq [divorce], talaq, talaq,’ she says bitterly. ‘That was it. My life was over.’
It sounds dramatic, but for Rose – a rural Tajik woman with five children – the divorce was a humiliating and shocking blow that she has yet to come to terms with. ‘No visit, no phone call, no letter. Nothing,’ she says. ‘Just a text.’
Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan is experiencing a strange new disintegration of its own. Divorce-by-text, issued by men who have travelled to Russia to seek work, has become so popular that the government has issued a fatwa against the practice. It has said it will consider imposing jail sentences for men who pronounce the talaq – the declaration of divorce – by electronic methods.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet Republics and almost half its GDP is earned by migrants working abroad. In 2010 alone, 800,000 Tajik men left their homes and families to look for work in Russia. As a result, divorce rates have sky-rocketed. For Tajik women, abandonment and divorce is a deeply shameful thing – they are often shunned and denied property rights and child support.
Bibifaiz is 30 and has four children. She and her husband used to farm a small parcel of land on a mountain slope, but erosion and irregular rainfall meant yields were poor. Two years ago, her husband left for Russia. With food prices soaring, Bibifaiz started finding it more and more difficult to feed her family as a single mother.
In February last year, Bibifaiz joined an all-woman dekhan (collective) – a community initiative led by Oxfam which has helped women to secure ownership certificates for local land and to set up village committees to share advice. In a country where cotton-farming dictates the economy and where local farmers are increasingly landless, the project is proving life-changing for the women involved.
‘Before this, we were renting the mountain land and losing lots of money when our crops failed,’ Bibifaiz says. ‘Now, things have changed. The land is irrigated. We are farming organically and our yields – carrots, beans, potatoes, onion, maize and wheat – are already high.’
Bibifaiz says she can now support her family with the food she grows on the farm. The surplus food is sold for a profit and shared amongst the women.
‘We also support each other emotionally,’ she says. ‘Most of us have been divorced, have husbands in Russia, or are widows. Working together – on the farm and in our committees – we share advice and solve problems. If we hear of a woman who has been thrown off her land after her husband has divorced her, we intervene, support her, and tell her of her rights. Family is sacred and can’t be destroyed by a mobile phone.’