Polygamy: “an allowable choice”

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.

  1. Hassan

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.”

Anub

  1. Omar

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.

Omar

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.

Meezan

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.”

  1. 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!

Ali Tahir

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).

  1. 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.”

third wife

  1. 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.

Shaheen

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.”

My thoughts:

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?

wall

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.

kitchen

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.

Support versus Independence

Scenario 1: March 2003

A young Muslim man, Ahmad, goes on a business trip to Africa, returns home to the US with hemorrhagic fever and dies from complications within a week. He had an MBA in marketing. His wife, Ayesha, hadn’t even finished high school. Her father had died when she was eight years old. Ayesha was looked after by an uncle when her uneducated mother was married off again by her brothers. The uncle had five children of his own so he married Ayesha to Ahmed when she was only 18 years old as Ahmed didn’t demand dowry. They had two children. He was a caring husband and a doting father. But after his death, his parents kept his children under their care and sent Ayesha back to India. She was a burden. Last I heard she was married off by her tired uncle to a man in his late sixties.

Scenario 2: June 2014

A Pakistani couple, Faheem and Fatima, had been married for 13 years. They lived in Dubai with their five children. Faheem had found a reasonably good job in Dubai after job hunting for 15 years. They were taking their newborn home from hospital when Faheem turned to look at his wife, collapsed at the steering wheel and died. He is remembered as the ‘most involved father, and an extremely caring husband.’ Fatima is shattered and finds herself absolutely helpless. She has a high school diploma but has never worked – she didn’t have to; she was Faheem’s queen. She had never gone outside the house without Faheem. Her male family members and Faheem’s arrive in Dubai quickly and take over the ‘important affairs.’ She is told that they will ensure her children get the best possible education back home. She would have to move in with some family member, but they will invest her husband’s savings in a way that she gets some cash every month. Fatima’s mother cries every day that her youngest grandson would never know his father. Faheem’s mother mourns the loss of a great son and that his daughters would get married without their father. Fatima’s worries are different. She’s worried about how she would now survive. She doesn’t even know Faheem’s bank account number.

These are two cases I know; you may know some too. These are not isolated cases. Millions of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, are never raised to become independent. The situation of Muslim women concerns me more because we are always highlighting the “status of women in Islam” and how women are “empowered” while we ignore how women are cripplingly dependent on men in Muslim cultures who assume the role of sole maintainers and providers.

Someone recently posted on the Muslim Feminists Facebook Page that “…all women deserve a good man who will support, protect, nurture … her” and later “real muslim men nurture and support his (sic) wives when she (sic) is weak and use (sic) his strength to protect the women and empower her (sic) to be a greater queen, In Sha Allah.” Few words can be more damaging than this. Women, we are told, are “precious pearls” and “queens” that have to be “nurtured.” We are weak and so men must use their strength, wealth and wisdom to protect us.

The problem is we are not. We are not Disney princesses who have the luxury of lounging on silky cushions and sipping virgin pina colada. Majority of Muslim women are very real and very *human.* We have children, we toil in garment factories and paddy fields, we serve our families, we work protecting, supporting and nurturing, we go through hours of labour (it’s not called ‘labour’ for nothing!). True that women, like men, need support and protection, but the most long-lasting support and protection anyone can offer to a woman is independence. Parents need to understand that marrying off young and immature girls will only trap them further into life-long dependence on their much older husbands who are more like father-figures and will naturally pass on before them. Husbands should realise that by keeping their wives emotionally, socially, financially and physically dependent on them makes women vulnerable to life-long misery when the husband is gone either through divorce or death.

I’m slightly disappointed that feminists within Islam spend a great deal of time and effort ‘proving’ how the Quran made “many changes to the status of women” while little is done to understand the real reason why women are not in conditions we want them to be in Muslim cultures.  Muslim women are not suffering because a thousand years ago patriarchal men interpreted the Quran to give more power to men by giving fewer rights to women. We are suffering because all the laws that are derived from the Quran support women making them dependent “queens” rather than empowering them to become independent regular human beings.

Look at all the Sharia laws regarding women: 1) requiring two women witnesses; 2) unequal inheritance laws; 3) enforced hijab; 4) travel only with a Mahram; 5) inequality in divorce laws; 6) payment of Mahr; 7) lack of requiring consent for sex; 8) polygamy; 9) spousal discipline; 10) custody of children after divorce/death of the man – all of these laws support rather than empower a woman.  Feminists who want equality claim that these laws are there to support women, and that’s exactly what they do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these laws if a woman wants to be treated like a precious pearl, but these laws are not going to make her independent or empowered which is the first step towards equality. I also have trouble accepting the argument that these laws were alright for the 7th Century but not now and were “meant to become obsolete” because this way we are claiming that it was alright to make women dependent and vulnerable to abuse in the 7th Century but not today. This brings me to the question – were women really downtrodden and stripped of all rights before we created Sharia law to elevate their status?

There are over a billion Muslims today who follow a religion that was initially based solely on the belief in the witness of one woman who said “I testify that you are the awaited Prophet in this nation.” She didn’t require another woman to remind her that she wasn’t erring. Muslims have a popular saying that goes something like, “Islam did not rise except through Ali’s sword and Khadijah’s wealth” fully realizing the role she played in investing her wealth to benefit her husband’s mission. She inherited great wealth from her father, and two dead husbands then proposed to a young man much younger than her who was running her business. She kept all her children from her previous marriages making her oldest son a great supporter of the Prophet Muhammad – his step-father. Her third husband, the Prophet, moved in with her as he had “no means to marry.” There was no option of polygamy in the marriage as she was an independent and strong woman who was actually the maintainer, support and nurturer in the marriage. In her honour, the Prophet said, “She believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when others called me a liar; she sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me; and Allah granted me children by her while depriving me of children by other women.” Now imagine if Khadeejah had been made to live under Sharia law that are imposed on many Muslim women – What course would Islam have taken without the support, testimony and belief, wealth, intellect, wisdom, and independence that she was able to offer without Sharia Law?

How do we expect Muslim women to be empowered like Khadeejah when we clip their wings through laws that are arbitrarily imposed upon them in Muslim cultures like polygamy and ban on driving in KSA, child marriages and polygamy in Yemen, enforced temporary marriage and hijab in Iran and KSA, unfair Khula laws in Egypt, hudood law in Pakistan, stripping of citizenship rights if a woman marries a foreigner in the GCC countries etc? How can we gain inspiration from the “fierce independence” of Khadeejah while we are taught that the ten laws I highlighted above are for our support and protection and that we are sinning if we object?

Women like the ones whose examples I offered in the two scenarios in the beginning will survive with support from their families. But is mere survival our goal? If men really want to offer lifelong support and protection to their women they have to accept that it is through financial, social and intellectual independence that is achieved through education and trust in the equal human capabilities of women.