In Shahnoza Idrisova’s wedding photo, the 27-year-old economist is dressed in white and accepting a water-filled bowl from her new mother-in-law, a ritual normally performed by both bride and groom just after marriage.
Her groom, however, is a continent away from the ceremony working as a translator in Tunisia. Just moments before the photo was taken, the couple had exchanged their vows via an online video chat service.
Idrisova’s husband is one of hundreds of thousands of Tajiks living and working abroad, making Skype an increasingly popular way for young couples separated by distance to tie the knot.
“We’d been dating for 10 years when Parviz got a job contract and abruptly left abroad earlier this year,” Idrisova says. “My father didn’t allow me to join him without being married to him. We didn’t want to wait another five years until he returns, so a Skype marriage was the solution.”
There are no official statistics on how many Tajiks have married via Skype, but we spoke to five couples who said they performed the Islamic wedding ceremony nikah through the video chat service, which they say is becoming even more common in more the country’s rural areas.
Tajikistan is a major source of cheap migrant labour across central Asia, especially to country’s such as Russia and Kazakhstan. That, combined with a predominantly Muslim population – where relationships outside of wedlock are generally frowned upon – have made the need for Skype all the more pressing for young couples.
Though just 17% of the population have access to the internet, when it comes to family matters young Tajiks like Idrisova are taking full advantage of new technology.
Alambi Murodova, a housewife from Tursunzoda, west of Dushanbe, has a 29-year-old son living in Canada who recently got married via Skype.
Her son, Saidehson, and his 24-year-old bride Sayora courted online for two years before making their vows in a ceremony that included a modest banquet in the town centre and a ceremony that spanned the 10,000 kilometres between them.
“Like any parent, I dreamed of my son’s wedding, but he couldn’t come home for financial and visa reasons,” Murodova said.
The young couple began married life apart, with Sayora living with her in-laws and her husband staying abroad. Murodova says that they plan to unite soon, and Saidehson has been trying to obtain a visa for his new wife.
Getting a visa out of the country isn’t easy for newlyweds: the staunchly seculargovernment refuses to recognise Islamic marriage ceremonies – whether conducted over Skype or in person – unless the couple first marries at the civil registry office.
Marhabo Zununova, head of the Family and Marriage Centre in Dushanbe, also warns that dating and marrying strangers via the internet raises the risk of human trafficking, particularly when it involves younger women.
Some Tajik mullahs also dispute the validity of Skype marriages on religious grounds, in a country where a wave of divorces by text message prompted Islamic leaders to issue a fatwa against such annulments.
But many believe Skype marriages are here to stay. “If bride and groom are compatible, [the] marriage will work out well, it doesn’t matter how they met and how they got married – on the internet or in the city,” says Zununova.
“There are many happily married Tajik couples who met online. Skype marriages will be a norm, too, eventually.”