She looks beautiful in her young bride’s outfit. When she speaks in her Samarkand dialect about the recent wedding, her brown-green eyes sparkle and smile widens. Nafisa is 18 and newly married. There is probably nothing unusual about an Uzbek girl marrying at that age, except Nafisa lives in New York and goes to high school.
I met her recently when I visited the high school in southern Brooklyn to attend an event. I was talking to the event organizers and participants, including many Uzbek students, when I found out that Nafisa was married. To say I was surprised is to underestimate my reaction. Now, imagine how I felt when I learned that she was one of five newly married Uzbek girls in the school. One of them was pregnant.
I asked Nafisa why she got married so early, while still in high school.
“My mothers’ friend, who is now my mother-in-law, came to visit us and she saw me. She said: “Oh, I want you to marry my son”. Later, I met her son and I agreed to the marriage because I liked him”, she says.
Her husband is 24 and works as a truck driver, Nafisa adds.
Another girl walking in the school’s lunchroom in her beautiful bride outfit with a sparkling headpiece after the event is Farangis. She is 19. When I ask why she got married so early, she looks puzzled. In her world, 19 is not young. Her mother had a baby at that age, she says.
“Is that the reason you got married while you are still in high school?” I ask.
“No”, she says with a lot of confidence. “The reason is love”.
Early marriages are nothing unusual for Uzbeks. According to the UNDP, the average age of female marriage in Uzbekistan is 20, with 60 percent of women marrying between the ages of 20 and 24. Of women over the age of 16, 65 percent are married. The legal age of marriage for women is younger than men – 17 versus 18 - with special exceptions granted for even younger marriages.
Under the Soviet rule, Uzbekistan was one of two republics where the official marriage was 17 for girls and 18 for boys, whereas the rest of the Soviet Union allowed marriages starting from 18 and 19, respectively for girls and boys.
When the Soviet rulers made that exception for Uzbekistan, they referred to local traditions and customs before the Uzbek SSR was formed, when Uzbeks married their daughters off even at earlier age.
Before the 1917 revolution in Russia, which eventually brought the Bolsheviks to power in newly created Soviet republics in Central Asia, ethnic Uzbeks used to marry their daughters even earlier.
According to some sources, however, the practice started after the mass Russian colonization of the region in late 1800s. As a Jadidist Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy (Kadiri) wrote in his renowned novel “Days Gone By” (“O’tkan kunlar”), Uzbeks were afraid of Russian conquerors raping young girls and therefore started marrying their daughters off as soon as they reached puberty. Before that, he wrote, “neighbors and acquaintances would start inquiring about a girl [for potential marriage] after she turned 18”.
During the Soviet times, the tendency changed slightly with educated urban girls wedding in their mid- to late 20s, while teen marriages were still prevalent among less educated and rural population.
In the last 25 years, the process reversed once again. Nowadays, even the parents of college and university students try to arrange the daughter’s marriage before she reaches the age of 21-22. For example, in medical schools where female students are seen as the most desirable wives and daughters-in-law, most girls are married by the third academic year and some have a child or two before graduation, although it takes at least seven years to complete the studies.
Young Uzbeks brides
It is necessary to point out that getting married and starting a family is the same for Uzbeks. A first baby is expected to arrive within a year after the wedding. A bride who fails to deliver on this expectation is likely to experience intimidation from her husband and mother-in-law as well as other relatives and neighbors. A woman considers contraception only after having a first child.
The practice of teen marriages is wide-spread among ethnic Uzbeks in countries other than Uzbekistan. Shohruh Saipov, a journalist from an Uzbek-populated Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, wrote to me via Facebook, that Uzbek girls marry at the age of 16, earlier than their Kyrgyz peers. My friends from Kazakhstan also said Uzbeks marry off their daughters earlier than ethnic Kazakhs. As we see, even some Uzbeks living in the U.S. still adhere to the tradition.
In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the official age for marriage is 18 for both sexes. Also, Kyrgyzstan is the only state in the CIS that signed the 1962 UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1997.
Negative consequences of teen marriages
In the U.S., there is strong evidence of the direct link between teen marriages/pregnancy and higher poverty rates throughout life. A poster in New York City public buildings warns teen girls: “If you have a baby after you have a college degree and a job, your chances of not being poor are 98 percent higher”.
In Uzbekistan, the statistics on the correlation are difficult to find. There have been discussions between state officials, UN agencies and the mahalla (neighborhood) councils about raising an official age for marriage to 18, but no change has been made yet. However, there are efforts to raise awareness on negative effects of teen marriages. Podrobno.uz reported recently that following more than 180 marriages of female college students (aged 15-18) in 2012-2013 school year in the Syrdarya region, groups of female activists, including elderly women who have children and grandchildren, teachers, doctors, psychologists, writers and journalists, have organized meetings with the youth to talk about bad consequences of early marriages.
A school teacher from Tashkent and a recipient of many state awards for her teaching, Ozoda Sharipova, tells me on the phone from Tashkent that in schools, the administration and teachers oppose students’ marriages and “do not let them happen”.
“We would talk to both parents. We would get the district and city departments of education involved, if necessary. I would say: “She is young. Physically, she is not ready to have children. And she is not ready emotionally. She is not ready in terms of education because a mother must be informed and preferably educated in order to raise smart children”, says Sharipova.
Many doctors also seem to oppose the practice of teen marriages.
A gynecologist from Tashkent Dilfuza Karimova says: “A few years ago, I used to talk to mothers who brought their teen daughters for a check-up before the wedding, about cons of starting a family at such an early age. I don’t do that anymore because they don’t listen. They go their own way”, she says.
“Although most young women have miscarriages these days,” she continues. “And almost 100 percent of young mothers-to-be are taken to hospital at least once during pregnancy because the well-being of a mother and a baby is threatened due to weak health”.
Nafisa and Farangis told me in separate interviews that they want to have a baby soon.
“Because that’s what you do, right?” Nafisa says.
They both have stay-at-home moms who are ready to take care of a grandchild.
How do they see the future? Don’t they want to go to college?
Yes, say both.
“I want to be a nurse”, says Nafisa.
Farangis says she wants to become a teacher.
Then both quickly collect things and rush home where they have to cook dinner for husband, parents-in-law and husband’s younger siblings. They tell me they will also prepare everything for breakfast.
How about homework?
“Yes, homework too”, says Nafisa absent-mindedly. Farangis just smiles.
I wish them good luck.