I finished watching the Channel 4 documentary on Muslim Polygamy titled, ‘The Men with Many Wives.’ The approximately 47-minute documentary was shot over a period of 3 months and follows the polygamous lives of five families.
The first and most (in)famous family is that of Hassan Phillips, a 32-year old Jamaican-British man who converted to Islam when he was about 16 years old and lives in Brixton, South London. Hassan works part-time in the Brixton Mosque and owns a small home-run business of Arabic perfume and Islamic clothing. He was married and divorced before he met his first wife Sakina in university. Sakina and her older two children appear in one scene on the documentary, but they do not speak at all and aren’t interviewed. She also does not walk with Hassan or sit next to him. In one scene Hassan reveals that his relationship with his own dad broke down and being raised in a single-parent home he realises “how important it is to have both parents at home”!
Hassan’s second wife is Nabila from Malaysia who is apparently falsely adverstised as a ‘Cambridge graduate.’ Nabila did come to the UK do her PhD at Cambridge but left the programme to marry Hassan. She claims that she would not return to academia. She was a divorcee when she met Hassan.
During the filming of the documentary Hassan marries for the third time. His third wife Anub is from Somalia and has her own house where Hassan spends time with her for three days in a week. Anub is 10 years older than him and is a driving instructor. Hassan claims that he “appreciates maturity” and is only marrying her because he is “looking for companionship” with a mature woman – apparently the other two wives are not companions. Anub has a teenaged son whom Hassan approached to seek permission to marry his mother. Like he did with his first two wives, Hassan commands Anub to don the niqab and accepts that if she had refused “it would have been an issue” as his other two wives wear niqaab for him, and because Hassan believes that like men “cover their valuables” so others don’t desire them, he wants to cover his wives as “a protection for him” – perhaps because he spends very little time with them and they are on their own most of the time.
At the end of the documentary we are informed that Hassan and Anub separate three months after their marriage citing “irreconcilable differences.”
The second family (and my least favourite) is that of Omar, a white British convert, and his Pakistani-British wife Umm Zakariya. The couple met in Leicester on an Islamic course. Omar is 39 and the couple was in a polygamous marriage that broke down. He lives with his wife and “their son” whom he never even looks at in the documentary and oddly enough he is not called ‘Abu Zakariya.’ The boy is seen jumping around the room but is ignored by both parents just as much as the sofa he is jumping on. Both parents are almost aggressive in supporting the idea of a second wife for Omar since the previous one left.
When an agent from a marriage bureau asks Omar why he wants to try and have a second wife again, he replies with some degree of pride and indignation in his tone that, “There’s no reason other than it’s clear in the Quran that this is allowed.” His wife explains that it is Islam that restricted polygyny, and she “want(s) to revive something that’s dying out.” She asserts that she doesn’t need any help and is happy in her marriage. Omar, a Physicist by profession points out, “I want to follow Islam. That’s my opinion. And if they’ve (people who oppose polygamy) got a problem with that and they call themselves Muslim, they’ve got a contradiction within themselves.”
At this the marriage broker, Mizan, rolls his eyes once outside the meeting place, shrugs and comments, “They all come with their own personalities, man!” and notes that it’s hard to find matching personalities.
This couple wants a second wife to live in their house, as “there’s nothing lacking in (their) marriage” and polygyny would be a “bonus.” Umm Zakariya observes that “women worry where their husbands are after dark” but in a polygamous relationship she would know her husband’s whereabouts (especially if they live in one house!). It appears that her mindset is that men will cheat. Perhaps this is why she instantly trusted Omar when he told her right from the beginning that he wants to marry more than one woman. At the end of the documentary the narrator tells us that “Even after months of looking, Omar still has only one wife.”
- Ali Tahir
The third, rather odd, family is that of Ali Tahir’s. Tahir’s wives belong to the disreputable Obedient Wives Club, the club that received severe criticism for promoting group sex in polygamous relationships.
Ali Tahir and two wives live under one roof. Aqila is the first wife whom he married in 1991 in Birmingham. In 2002 he married Suhani, an Australian Malay. According to Tahir, Suhani is a better cook and Aqila “manages better” so they opened a restaurant that will be run by the two obedient wives. Tahir tells us that, “if you can handle a woman, it’s like handling 40 people” thus polygamy helps in “developing your leadership skills in Islam” – a benefit we hardly hear about!
Aqila proudly promotes the Obedient Wives Club’s book – Seks (sex) in Islam and highlights the merits of foreplay, adding that if “you respect your husband” it helps in good sex. Aqila also believes in (the myth?) of female ejaculation and explains that an orgasm “gives a woman youthfulness” and brightens her face. She also explains that in Chapter 8 of the book – how sex becomes an ibadah, it is explained that “if you are obedient to your husband and have sex with him it’s an ibadah” (act of worship).
- Muhammad el Ghannay
Muhammad has three wives and 11 children. He is 42 years old, unemployed for 2 years, and lives off state benefits. Amal is his second wife of 13 years and has four kids with him. She is from Yemen. His first wife is Hana, an Englishwoman, whom he met 20 years ago in Spain. He has four children with her as well. Hana refused to appear on the programme and we are told that their marriage is “suffering” because Muhammad is jobless and won’t stop marrying.
Muhammad claims that he is doing the community a service through “sharing” in polygamy rather than “wanting women.” However, he is surviving on dole.
Third wife Thuraya is 26 and lives in Morocco. She hadn’t seen Muhammad in 9 months before he travels to Morocco.
In one scene, Amal says that she was jealous of Muhammad’s desire to marry for the third time. It is then that Muhammad explains that because she’s the second wife she knows that “it will happen; she has to accept it.” He boasts that “I am a man who knows the feeling of a woman” and knows all three are jealous of each other. He says his wives tell him that they love him and are sad that they have to share him with one or two women, but he explains “this is Islam!”
When the interviewer asks Muhammad’s oldest son if he’d practice polygamy he seems hesitant noting that “it’s hard to provide for a big family.” Near the end of the programme Muhammad sits next to Thuraya in Morocco and shamelessly comments “I feel home; out of all houses here, with a Moroccan wife.”
- Shaheen Qureshi
Shaheen is a Pakistani-British woman who had an arranged marriage to her first cousin at 16. That ended in divorce 10 years ago. She has 8 kids, 2 from second marriage to a man who already had a wife. In 10 years of marriage Shaheen claims she spent about 6 months with her second husband and that forces her to end the marriage as she notes that “this is my life and I don’t have much of it left.” Her daughter who is interviewed playing on a swing feels bad for her mother and says “it’s no fun being a co-wife.” Shaheen laments that “everybody’s husbands come home at the end of the day. I’m the only single parent.” She tried to save her marriage by taking “the blame for everything” but it didn’t work. She has applied to the Sharia court for divorce as she is not a legal wife.
The narrator explains that there are no numbers of how many Muslim polygamous marriages end in divorce (as they are not legal to begin with). He asserts that family pressure and isolation after divorce may keep the numbers down.
The marriage broker, Mizan tells us that “we’ve got a massive oversupply of women in their thirties, forties, divorced.” He claims that all the “women are looking for security… “more so in polygamous marriage”, but “most men, 80%, who do want to do polygamy, for them it’s sexually driven… The guys are looking for one thing: it’s the body”, he says – they want a “body in good proportion – that’s the no. one request from men.”
Two important points from other reviewers:
As Walton notes, “Like all documentaries about Islam, The Men with Many Wives trod carefully. There was, for example, no exploration — or even mention — of the legal and societal implications of having two co-existing and contradictory laws governing family life. Everybody involved was also allowed to make their points entirely unchallenged, with the off-screen voice neither asking Nabilah why she left academia nor putting it to Hasan that most people don’t in fact cover their cars.”
Rachel Stewart explains that, “The truth is that co-wives are extremely vulnerable. Muslim polygamists circumvent UK law using unofficial Islamic ceremonies, or Nikkah, which offer the woman no legal or financial protection in the event of marriage breakdown. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Attempting to legally enter into a polygamous marriage in the UK is a criminal offence which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales. The Government has no intention of changing this position.” There is little support from their religious community either; when Qureshi wrote to the Sharia courts explaining her husband’s neglect, she was shocked at their response: “Ask him to release you with a divorce and, in future, marry a single man.”
I am glad that I watched the programme because it helped me come to terms with some issues. My first thought after viewing it was that I have always been against polygamy, but out of the four men shown on the programme, not one is the type I consider to be an ‘ideal Muslim man.’ Thus, I now feel that if such men want to marry multiple times and if their wives want to lead vulnerable and jealous lives the way they have, then they surely can go ahead – they don’t represent conscientious Muslim husbands. All the men in the documentary appear to be immature, careless and pompous almost like a child who shows off his new toy.
The women on the other hand, at least the first wives, are all (save for Hana) working women and live in bigger, cleaner houses. Sakina works full time and has a brighter and bigger home. Shaheen apparently works as well; she is seen driving around and signing a cheque in one scene when she applies for sharia divorce. We don’t see Hana but see her house which is much bigger and cleaner than Amal’s dilapidated quarters. Ali Tahir’s wives have opened their own restaurant. It appears that these men are able to superficially claim that they can “afford” more wives because their wives are independent and make money. However, none of the men highlight this little detail. When the wives don’t work, the families are seen to survive on state benefits – Muhammad even sends part of the benefit money to Morocco to support the third family. Muhammad tells the interviewer that his second wife can keep all her earnings as well as the money he gives her, but forgets to point out that his wife works for him – designing the website for his business!
What I found disturbing was the fact that these men had several children, and at least Muhammad’s children are being raised by the taxpayers, even though polygamy is illegal in Britain. On the other hand, the financial crisis keeps his houses dirty and poor, and the children desiring a better life. The men are not heard talking about the effect of their behaviour on the children and at least Muhammad blames his wives for not being able to have a big fat happy family. It would have been helpful for other men wanting polygamy if these men had cared to explain their care plans for their many children and multiple wives in the event of their death. For example, what will happen to Muhammad’s children from his second and third wives and Hassan’s children from his second wife in case something happened to them as the women don’t work, are not legal wives in the UK and are not on talking terms with each other?
The other thing I noticed was that although these men boast that their wives live in separate houses, it appears that the wives enter the marriage with their own house (at least that’s the case with Shaheen, and Hassan’s first wife Sakina) making the marriage more like ‘Misyar’ marriage.
None of the children interviewed spoke positively about polygamy. Each one of them seemed uncomfortable with the family’s personal and financial situation and seemed to realise that monogamy may have given them more security.
Another point I noticed is that all men claimed that their behaviour was completely acceptable as “this is Islam!” with Omar going so far as to judge the religiosity of everyone who believes in monogamy. His wife parrots his sentiments and explains that polygamy is not a chance to party as Islam was the first religion to restrict polygamy, which is an excuse used by many polygamous men to justify their desires. This is, by the way, a false assertion as Hindu Law restricted polygamy to four wives at least 700 years before Islam and we don’t see Hindus use that law to claim wanting to be polygamous.
I gathered from this documentary that all women interviewed in the programme have a very low opinion of Muslim men; they firmly believe that men are polygamous by nature; Shaheen even says it in another article. They don’t appreciate monogamy as an evolutionary social step that was necessary for its benefits. They ignore the existence of monogamous men – the vast majority of Muslim monogamous men. They also don’t consider that polyandry is proven to be just as “natural” – Daniel Bergner points out that, “the evidence more and more supports this idea that women are no more naturally, when it comes to sex, made for monogamy than men are.” However, humans have chosen to be monogamous and the argument “whether or not monogamy is natural is less relevant than whether it’s desirable. When considering behavior, naturalness is not the most important issue.” Monogamy seems to be unnatural (for either sex) but desirable “because humans have such big brains, their infants take a long time to nurture and are vulnerable for longer. Therefore human males had a compelling reason to hang around and protect their child-rearing female until breeding was done.”
This delicate reasoning for a better future for the Muslim community and its children is seen missing from the discussions of the men and women interviewed. Hassan claims to realise “how important it is to have both parents at home” but is a part-time husband and a part-time father. Muhammad doesn’t see his Moroccan children for months. Shaheen’s second husband doesn’t see his two daughters from her for years. On the other hand, both Omar and Ali Tahir want second wives for sexual gratification and have no trouble articulating this. The wives of both these men are uncomfortably odd for it is one thing to come to terms with polygyny, even desire it, and completely another wanting to live in the same house.
Out of all the men I liked Hassan the most even though it is clear that he is quite shrewd and diplomatic having learned to say the right things at the right time. Muhammad is almost foolish and enjoys the attention he gets from his jealous wives who literally serve him food on a platter. Ali Tahir is just an oddball living in his own world dictated by the misogyny of the Obedient Wives Club. And one can’t help but see how angry, aggressive and self-righteous Omar is in believing that the Muslim community owes him an apology for not giving him their “daughter, sister, auntie or granny” to become his second wife. His anger and attitude is especially apparent when he says Muslims embrace him as a convert brother but won’t give him their women to marry. Well chap, maybe it’s because you already have a legal wife and child; legal being the operative word here.