A medieval institution isn’t as much fun as it looks to be
Written by Mariam Mokhtar/asia sentinel
Nik Aziz, the spiritual leader of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, was quoted on Dec. 11 in Malaysia’s New Straits Times as saying Islamic spiritual leaders should practice polygamy to be better able to counsel their flocks about the practice, which he called suitable to “the era of information and communications technology.”
It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Apostle, to have any option about their decision: if anyone disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong path] (Al-Ahzab: 36)
It is not. It is suited to the Middle Ages. Statistics show that polygamous marriages, like twisters, leave a trail of destruction in the form of neglected women and dysfunctional children in their wake.
Polygamy has been much in the Malaysian news. The New York Times, in a Jan. 5 article about a polygamous family, painted a relatively benign picture of a husband with four wives — a physician, a divorce lawyer and two teachers — and nine children living in apparent harmony inÂ Kuala Lumpur. Other media have given considerable attention to The Ikhwan Polygamy Club, which says it has 1,000 members across Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, theÂ Middle East and Europe.
It is questionable, however, how much harmony there is in most polygamous marriages, which in the period 1995-2004 represented about 1.4 percent of all Muslim marriages according to statistics from the National University of Malaysia. There were 13,500 polygamous marriages during the period although as some men fail to register their marriages, the figure could be as much as 5 percent, according to the university.
To outsiders, the picture of polygamous marriage is of a prosperous politician or businessman who takes a second or third trophy wife. But acording to a new study by Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women’s rights organization: “Many men in both lower and middle economic groups marry second wives so that they will contribute to the economic maintenance of their polygamous families. Women contribute to the nafaqa (the Muslim husband’s responsibility for maintenance) which polygamous husbands tend not to fulfill.”
Thus, in reality, just as a pimp derives his income from his share of the earnings of the women he runs, some polygamous Malaysian men abrogate their responsibilities as breadwinner by choosing wives with high earning potential. The first wife might have had primary schooling, the second could have completed secondary education, the third holding a diploma. Each subsequent wife being better qualified than the last brings in more money. Shrewd men value education.
So what is the hidden message if fathers actively encourage their daughters to get an education before marrying? Successful women in their late 20s or 30s are too ‘old’ for the monogamous marriage market. Their only hope of raising a family is as second wives to older men. The irony is that by being educated to reduce their dependence on men, the women unwittingly succumb to the likelihood of polygamous marriages.
Polygamy is supposedly effective in controlling promiscuity, but does it? Witness the steady stream of men from the fundamentalist northern border states crossing into Thailand, where brothels abound. In the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, the majority of HIV-positive people are drug users. Single polygamous women marry within their small social circle of equally destitute people and become infected with HIV. Housewives now constitute the largest single group of HIV-infected people and it is climbing rapidly. Housewives constituted 19 percent of HIV-positive people in the two states in 2007. That climbed to 27 percent in 2008.
Both religion and education should be powerful tools in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Many people know the routes of sexual infection, such as drug use, heterosexual and homosexual sex. But they are ignorant about HIV testing (premarital testing was introduced in 2006) and falsely believe that Islam bans condom use. IfÂ HIV infection is to be curbed, training the ulama and educating the people in practicing safe sex with spouses and/or sex workers, are critical.
Polygamy is said to reduce prostitution, adultery and divorce rates. Kelantan has 16,500 registered single mothers below the age of 60. This figure excludes those deserted by their husbands. Although abandoned women cannot seek welfare aid or remarry, there is no recourse for legal redress from their husbands. Problems like these fuel women’s rights activists.
Polygamy predates Islam and was once thought to be meant to protect war widows and assist elderly single women. The current urban myth promoting polygamy was the surfeit of women. For one available man, there were supposedly eight women. Wars, conflict zones, female infanticide and fetus-sex selection may generate a gender imbalance in the population. But in present-day Malaysia?
It doesn’t appear likely. Instead of 1:8, in the 15-64 age group in 2007, the ratio of men to women in Malaysia was 1.007:1. In the over-65 bracket, the ratio of men to women was 0.789:1. More women than men may exist in the over-65 group but only because globally women outlive men. Men seldom marry women in their mid-60s.
Is polygamy an excuse to commit injustice? In a 1994 Women’s Aid Organisation study, 58 percent of respondents resorted to physical abuse when wives disobeyed their husbands. Instead of being part of the solution, it is part of the problem, with women and children being treated unfairly, especially in the wake of previous changes in shariah law that have placed women at a disadvantage. Leadership and strong political will to amend the laws are missing.
Malaysia in 1984 pushed through a federal Islamic Family Law requiring Muslim males to fulfill five conditions before taking a second wife: that he had the financial means, could guarantee equal treatment of the wives, that no harm be caused to the existing wife or wives, that the additional marriage was “just and necessary,” and that the proposed marriage not directly or indirectly lower the existing wives and dependants’ standard of living.
In 1996, however, the final condition was deleted altogether, meaning that existing wives and dependants could legally be subjected to falling standards of living. In 2004, the “just and necessary” requirement was amended to “just or necessary,” removing the Koranic requirement of justice and fairness. Many men thus found it easier to obtain permission for a polygamous marriage and to exploit legal loopholes without fear of legal or social rebuke.
The Muslim woman’s nightmare is that she is replaceable. Although polygamy is generally socially unacceptable across Malaysia, women in polygamous marriages largely do not deny their husbands’ right to four wives. It is the degrading treatment of the wife that robs her of her dignity. It is the raw pain of betrayal and humiliation, discovering her husband wishes to remarry. If she refuses permission for her husband to add another wife, insecurity and abandonment for herself and her children only increase her isolation.
While first wives are reluctant to acknowledge their changed marital status, the men themselves are proud to flaunt their latest trophy wives at the first social opportunity. Polygamy simply becomes a statement about the vulnerability of women. It also reflects the apparent difficulty men have in controlling themselves when they see a younger woman.
Characteristically, second wives are termed ‘gold-diggers.’ Savvy women only consent to polygamous marriage with a prenup. Her marriage contract will stipulate terms for procuring a bungalow house, a BMW and a monthly RM5,000 allowance. These are her insurance for a comfortable old age.
Malaysian shariah laws favor men and help to maintain a patriarchal society. Few women are aware of their rights and little attempt has been made to standardize the different state shariah laws nationwide. If the male can’t fulfill any of the five conditions for a polygamous marriage, marriage can be arranged across the border in Thailand. On returning to Malaysia, the marriage can be registered and a nominal fine of RM3,000 is paid. Both the religious department and husband acknowledge that rules were broken. The fine is merely a rap on the knuckles. Ineffective deterrents mean women remain unprotected.
Although women need to challenge the traditionalists, it takes immense courage to stand up to unfair and unequal treatment. Few, if any, would dare to do so because it is a mark of disloyalty against the Malays. More importantly, it would be seen as going against Islam. Being single, divorced or widowed is considered disgraceful on the east coast. This stigma provides impetus to seek respect in polygamous marriages.
Some Islamic punishments for certain crimes are modified for modern Malaysia. There is no stoning for adultery. We don’t lop limbs off for theft. So why not ban polygamy? It removes the sanctity of marriage. It fails both men and women. It turns women into ‘material girls’ who become expendable in a throw-away culture. Young men imagine that marriages have a built-in obsolescence and fail to build happy, lasting and meaningful relationships. Given the statistics cited above, it is flawed and should be outlawed. It has no place in the modern context.
No woman is forced to be a second wife. She has a choice. She can say No. Polygamy is perpetuated by women because there would be no polygamy if no woman agreed to be a polygamous wife.