HUSHERI, Tajikistan -- When Ruzigul Mahmadsaid disappeared from her village in Tajikistan amid a conflict with her in-laws in October, her parents feared the worst.
There has been a growing trend of suicides among young brides in recent years in the Central Asian country, where the abuse of daughters-in-law is common. In the most extreme cases, women have bound themselves to their children and jumped into rushing rivers.
The 22-year-old Mahmadsaid escaped that tragic end. She reappeared in November after fleeing to a women's shelter in the capital, Dushanbe, and now lives with her parents.
But her disappearance for more than a month from her in-laws' home has put the spotlight on the plight of young Tajik brides, many of whom suffer verbal and physical abuse from their in-laws.
'When a young woman moves in with her in-laws, she is the new body in the house, the one that everything gets taken out on,' Alla Kuvatova, a sociologist at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL. And when tragedy strikes, 'investigators tend to side with the girl's parents-in-law, because they are older, and because society itself thinks that the girl is also to blame.'
Experts say a dire economy has compounded the often-suffocating relations between in-laws and brides, upon whom much of the housework inevitably falls.
A joint study published in 2016 by the Women's Committee, a local research organization, and the British charity Oxfam found that 97 percent of men and 72 percent of women in Tajikistan believed that a woman must tolerate domestic violence in order to keep her family together.
Knife Wounds Deemed A 'Suicide'
A spate of court verdicts in recent years had appeared to signal that in-laws no longer enjoyed complete impunity in how they treat their daughters-in-law, although young women continue to have little protection.
Since 2018, several mothers-in-law -- and in at least one case, a father-in-law -- have been sentenced to prison for driving young women to suicide, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of eight years in jail.
SEE ALSO: Tajiks Jailed For Driving Their Daughters-In-Law To Suicide Through Verbal, Emotional, And Physical Abuse
The most recent and prominent example was Bibikalon Nazirova, the mother-in-law of 25-year-old Manora Abdufattoh, who died at home in June.
Nazirova was originally sentenced to seven years in prison for driving her daughter-in-law to suicide. But her term was shortened to five years last month, a decision that has enraged rights campaigners and Abdufattoh's family, who believe that she was murdered, citing the 26 knife wounds to her stomach and neck.
'A judge of the Supreme Court considering the appeal said that [he had taken] the convict's sex into account,' Abdufattoh's father, Abdufattoh Misokov, vented after the verdict. 'What kind of justice is this? Is my daughter, who lost her life because of [Nazirova], not a woman as well?'
A Lucky Escape But An Uncertain Future
When Mahmadsaid disappeared from her village, about 30 kilometers from Dushanbe, her mother suspected her in-laws. 'I would ask her: 'Are you living well? How is your mother-in-law?' She told me that they were always telling her, 'We don't care, just deal with it,'' Bulbul Musafirova told RFE/RL's Tajik Service last month before her daughter reappeared.
Mahmadsaid's father, Muhamadsaid Avazov, told RFE/RL that the two families had long been at odds. He said that the bullying of his daughter began when he failed to build a crib for Mahmadsaid's first child.
Baraktulla Ashurov, Mahmadsaid's now-estranged husband, said his wife told his family that she was visiting a doctor for a check-up on the day she disappeared. The day before, he claimed that they had gone to the bazaar together to buy clothes.
Mahmadsaid only decided to leave the women's shelter in Dushanbe to assuage her parents' fears for her safety, after seeing their interviews with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, according to her father. Mahmadsaid has not yet filed for divorce, Avazov said, although he added that she had no intention of going back to her husband.
While divorces are on the rise in Tajikistan -- official statistics showing more than 7,000 divorces in the first half of this year point to a 12 percent rise against last year's figures -- the stigma surrounding divorce, and especially divorced women returning to their family homes, has not changed.
Tajik Justice Minister Muzaffar Ashuriyon appeared to blame the younger generation for the spike, saying young people 'need to be taught more about their rights and responsibilities in the family.'
But Gulrukhsor, an organization that runs shelters for women in Tajikistan, says that around half the women who seek the group's help have suffered abuse by their in-laws.
Mahmadsaid faces an uncertain future. She is separated from her two sons, who are living with her husband's family. 'She is the most precious treasure in the world, and I will always accept her, regardless of her sins,' her father told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
'Besides, my grandchildren need their mother,' Avazov said. 'They love her very much.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036