Originally published in Dawn Magazine
By Farahnaz Zahidi
The furore of animated debates about polygamy in the institution of marriage were triggered off by the statements of MPA Sameena Khawar Hayat, in 2010, who asked the assembly to pass a bill that encourages polygamy, and said she would be glad if her husband re-married. Surprisingly, Hayat is not the only one pro-polygamy! Read on to discover why there are arguments both for and against it.
Snuggled away in a posh area of the throbbing metropolis called Karachi is a beautiful house that belongs to Asad Ali (name changed to protect privacy). On the surface, it is just another well-off household. Big cars, an army of servants, a lush lawn, and the sound of children playing in the garden. But a visit to this house and you realize this household is anything but ordinary; you will be greeted by not one, not two but three ladies of the house. The house has a total of 11 children in all, born of different mothers but the same father. The rooms of all three wives of Ali have exactly the same décor, save the colour of the curtains. If one of the children gets a pet cockatoo, well, so do all others who are in the same age bracket. Neighbours vouch for the fact that they have never heard any voices raised due to squabbles. The wives seem happy and content, sharing the control, the social status, and the man in their lives. All three women are beautiful, healthy and bore children. This is a real story of polygamy being practiced amicably.
Polygamy has existed since time immemorial. According to Wikipedia, “Polygamy can be defined as any “form of marriage in which a person [has] more than one spouse at the same time. In social anthropology, polygamy is the practice of a person’s making him/herself available for two or more spouses to mate with.”
The commonly understood meaning of the word “Polygamy” in our part of the world is when a man has more than one wife. Islamic Shariah allows a man to have upto four wives, and consequently so does Pakistani law, but with the condition that justice is maintained between the wives.
The Qur’an states, “……marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them), then (marry) only one…. “(Qur’an 4:3). This, the Quran says, is closer to not doing injustice. Polygamy is not mandatory in Islam, but merely permitted. Many utilize this permission, but few follow the example of Prophet Muhammad (saw) who set a precedent of marrying women most of whom were widows with children.
Words of the Quran clearly state that men who choose to have more than one wife have to deal with their wives as fairly as possible, making sure that they spend equal amounts of time and money on each one of them. The social, physical and emotional rights of each of the wives have to be fulfilled. If the husband cannot deal with his wives fairly, he should not have more than one wife. Women, on the other hand, are only allowed one husband, although they are allowed to remarry after a divorce, or widowhood, unlike many other cultures further east. However, no law states that the man needs to provide equal amount of time, devotion, emotional and physical support to all his wives. “The law does not deal with these issues,” says Advocate Summaiya Zaidi.”Such emotional needs do not come within the realm of statutory law, and instead are factors that are taken into account by the court if divorce proceedings or any other cases are brought before it.”
The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance [Ordinance no. VIII of1961], states about Polygamy that, “No man, during the subsistence of an existing marriage, shall except with the previous permission in writing of the Arbitration Council, contract another marriage, nor shall any such marriage contracted without such permission be registered under this Ordinance.” [6(1)]
When asked whether a man is required by Pakistani law to take permission from his first wife for his second marriage, Zaidi says, “Pakistani law is actually a bit confused; parts of it are from our Colonial Heritage, parts are based on Shariat, while some are what we have enacted ourselves. There is sometimes a tussle because as you know Islamic Jurisprudence is a rich and evolving area of religious studies. So while one school may adhere to the fact that a man before marrying another woman needs the consent of his first wife, other religious scholars may believe that this consent is not necessary.” But Zaidi’s personal opinion is that the first wife’s opinion certainly matters as it is she and her children who will be affected the most with the advent of a new family member. “It is crucial in my view that the first wife’s consent is obtained, but also it is imperative that the way the man treats both his families is fair and just. If he is unable to do so there are more who will suffer at his hands, and the families will pay a high price at the expense of his desires.”
Although many Muslim countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygamy, it is something that is considered a social taboo even in Pakistani society. Kashif Ansari, a finance executive, feels that, “solutions to a lot of social problems like infidelity, birth of children out of wedlock, and exploitation of women lie in acceptance of polygamy. But because it is a social taboo, a woman would rather allow her husband to have an affair, but would not like the ‘other woman’ and her children to share the social respect and financial benefits that come with the husband’s name tag.”
Justice Nasira Iqbal says, “The Qur’an gave permission of polygamy for certain reasons, where looking after widows and orphans was the prime purpose after battles, when they lost a lot of men. We are a country in which the men outnumber women! If need be, for example the first wife cannot have children or has an illness, the man can remarry. But only if he can maintain absolute equality between them, which is next to impossible.” Law of the land clearly states that he needs permission of the arbitration council for a second marriage, which will also involve a representative of both the husband’s and the wife’s family.
In a country like Pakistan, where it becomes difficult to make both ends meet with even one wife, only the rich and loaded can afford to feed two or more households, but average people who live hand to mouth can’t. Dr. Tarannum Ahmed, a resident of Saudi Arabia for many years, shares her observation that, “generally, the incidences of more than one marriage have reduced in Saudi Arabia. First wives generally make the husband spend so much, and have so many kids, that he doesn’t even want to think about having a second one! But if they do marry more than once, the Arab women know their rights and culturally all wives get the same rights.” Ahmed feels that, “Allah has given this permission, and there is no denying that, but it is rare that a man can do justice to several wives; it mostly culminates in a mess. In today’s world of cut throat competition, when we want to give the best possible education to our children, this would impose a greater financial burden on a man with many children and wives.”
Polygamy is one of those permissions of Islam that are generally considered patriarchal, and in favour of men. However, many feel that this, in fact, protects the rights of the second wife who otherwise would not enjoy social benefits and inheritance rights if the relationship is to remain an affair and the man does not marry her. MPA Ms. Hayat said, “If there is no bar on them marrying again, all of men’s frustrations would be reduced, while women would be able to salvage their honour and lead secure lives.”
Sadaf Farooqi, a writer, blogger and Islamic teacher and preacher, opines that, “I think that polygamy should be encouraged, since it is a part of Islam and the divinely-revealed religions that preceded it. If a few brave people will revive this trend, others who are inclined towards it will muster up the courage to join the club.” Farooqi, like many others, feels that polygamy is an extremely beneficial remedy for numerous social ills, not the least of which is the prevalence of relationships outside marriage. “Women always outnumber men in society and have longer life spans. Every woman should have a chance at marriage and motherhood, if she wishes; however, this would just not be possible with only monogamy.”