About a month ago NPR did a story on polygyny among African American Muslims in Philadelphia. Coming from Philly, this story hit close to home. In fact, one of the women interviewed is a family friend that I have known since I was a child. Polygyny among Black Muslims is rather complex. Some women, like myself, can’t imagine ever being a co-wife and stipulate in their marriage contracts that they wish to remain the only wife. Other women actively pursue second wives for their husbands for a variety of reasons and many women fit in between. This is why I found NPR’s story about African American Muslimahs who engage in polygyny to be refreshing. The women interviewed are not portrayed as oppressed women at the will of their husbands but rather as people who have to deal with a variety of complex issues. There’s no focus on how the women are dressed, no focus on the women as victims.
One of the women interviewed, actively sought a spouse for her husband when she decided to leave the States to study Arabic. Other women saw polygyny as a solution for the lack of marriageable men in inner city African American communities or a way to help widows remarry. Some of the women were happy with the arrangement while others were not. The story wasn’t one-sided.
There are a couple of critiques I have with the story, however. The first is that it didn’t look at the variety of opinions that exist on polygyny. It made polygyny seem like something that can befall any Muslim woman at any moment. As I mentioned earlier, some women stipulate in their marriage contracts that they do not want their husbands to have a co-wife. There is Islamic evidence to back this view. Also, there are Muslims, such as Sisters in Islam, that believe that polygyny is no longer valid. There are a variety of views about polygyny, even among African American women in urban areas.
Also, I think this story overplayed the number of African American Muslims who are in polygynous marriages. At the very least, it made the assertion that this practice is growing, when in actuality there are no real numbers since polygynous marriages are done as religious–not civil–ceremonies. The numbers could be huge, but going off the number of polygynous marriages that occur in the Muslim world as well as personal experience, the practice may not be as widespread as the story would have us believe.
Lastly, this story made marriage seem like it should be the ultimate goal for women. The media does this for all women, not just Muslim women. The assumption that women want to get married and will do whatever it takes to do so appears in the article. As I read the article, I felt that this point was being reinforced with the story of single women and widows who see polygyny as the only viable path to marriage. I cannot deny that many black Muslim women do see marriage as one of their goals, partly because of our lower marriage rates. However, it would be nice if marriage wasn’t always pushed as the only way to fulfill our lives.
All in all, despite some shortcomings, the NPR piece was a positive portrayal of Muslim women and one of the few portrayals of Black American Muslim women.