“The Polygamist is Political”: Muslim Women and the Issue of Polygamy in the West

A few months ago, while reviewing one of my friend’s profiles on Facebook, I was surprised to see the amount of discussion that Shari’ah rulings regarding marriage provoke in the West.

Malaysian Muslim women protest against polygamy.

Malaysian Muslim women protest against polygamy. Photo via Al-Arabiya (2010).

My friend, an orthodox Sunni Muslim and avid follower of the Hanbali school, had commented in a picture from 2010 that depicted Malaysian women protesting against the legality of polygamy.   The picture, while not shocking for many of us, seemed to bother a number of commentators across the globe. Some people had qualified these women as “ignorant” because of course polygamy is a Muslim man’s default right… while others qualified polygamy as “every Muslim woman’s right.” Not surprisingly for me, the fact that the women depicted in the picture were not Arab seemed (to some of those commenting) to indicate that Southeast Asian Muslim women were somehow misinformed in their challenge to one of the “basic” precepts of Islam.

This story crossed my mind recently as I read an article regarding polygamy that caught my attention. The article, posted in BBC News, discusses polygamy and how Muslim women are “victims” in such an arrangement. The post introduced the topic through Zabina Shahian’s story. Shahian’s marriage has recently become public because of her husband’s political position. UK politician Pervez Choudhry, who never mentioned to Shahian that he already had one wife, has recently been convicted for bigamy. Shahian’s experience is not a happy one by any means. The article mentions the fact that a lot of Muslim women in South Asian communities are victims of polygamy without knowing it. In addition, Shahian explains that there is a deep stigma attached to fighting polygamy in the community or simply saying “no” to it.

Just as the people commenting on the Facebook picture seemed to have very strong opinions, this article presents very strong stands against polygamy, perhaps because it is illegal in the UK, just as it is in other countries such as Canada. Nonetheless, polygamy or plural marriages exists in many forms. For instance, in Canada, polygamy is not only discussed in terms of Islam, but also in terms of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamous communities of Bountiful, BC. In addition, polyamorous relationships are becoming increasingly common in the West. However, in many cases, we, as part of Western societies, do not know how to approach it. While it seems easier to discuss polygamy in religious terms and criticize it for the negative effects that has had on members of particular communities (here and here), it is hard to discuss the polygamy experience as it relates to particular personal experiences (either negative or positive).

Pervez Choudhry & Zabina Shahian

Pervez Choudry and Zabina Shahian. Image via TodayHeadlineNews.

There are a lot of articles out there, for or against polygamy, that aim to treat relationships all in bulk. Similarly, there are some articles where Muslim women themselves seem troubled by polygamy, as I wrote in my personal blog a few months ago. Nonetheless, generalizations can sometimes help to make things more difficult for those who prefer polygamy, polyamory or “less normative” forms of monogamy (i.e. LGTBQ marriage). Speaking in terms of Muslim communities, widespread discussions on anything other than monogamy and polygyny (one man-up to 4 wives) are perhaps still far away. Nonetheless, the reality of things is that just as marriage arrangements change and fiqh rules are challenged, for example by Muslim women who marry non-Muslims, individuals will continue to develop particular marital practices.

In terms of law, such as bans of polygamy in the Western world, it would seem that sometimes such a stands against polygamy are more about protecting other value systems (i.e. secular or religious ones) even when they are presented under the banner of women’s wellbeing.  While it is certainly true that polygamy and polyamory can have excruciating effects on personal relationships and women’s status within a marriage, monogamy has not guaranteed women’s safety or rights either, nor has it eradicated domestic violence or prevented men and women from engaging in extra-marital relationships, as we have seen in centuries of such a practice.

At the end of the day, for me the BBC article made me think of the earlier Facebook discussion in that it reminded me not only of the disconnect between Western media and Muslim discussions on issues such as polygamy; but it also presented an example of the way in which we, as either media or part of Muslim communities, continue to treat polygamist relationships as a “bulk” with little acknowledgement of the context and implications. Although in Shahian’s case she was denied the right to make an informed choice about polygamy, I think it is important for the Western media and our Muslim communities to acknowledge the different ways in which women relate, engage, endorse, resist or reject polygamy contextually.

  • http://www.quranreading.com/quran-education Quran education

    You shared very important issue in order to make discussion which may lead towards effective solution. polygamy is a big question mark for the Muslim men and women. Is a man perfectly keep the justice between their wives on equal basis. Due to this issue women are deprived from their valuable rights given by religion Islam to them.

  • Faith

    ITA with your position. It’s unfortunate that we do not see polygamy in a more nuanced way. I don’t see it as a black and white because as an African American from Philadelphia, I have met a lot of women who are in polygamous marriages. Sometimes it is abused and the wives are treated horribly. I’ve met women whose husbands played a game of musical wives and use polygamy to satisfy their urge to be with whatever woman tickled their fancy at the moment. Yet, there are some women who love it and embrace it. I wrote an article a few years back about polygamy in the black Muslim community. For us, polygamy can provide access to an institution that some black women may want to part of but find it difficult to because of the lack of marriageable men. I will welcome the day when we don’t see polygamy in such black and white moral terms.

  • Rahil

    I don’t personally want to enter into a polygamous relationship myself, but I am not going to say that polygamy is haram either. I have seen polygamy work for some women. Especially poor women in underdeveloped nations who may have no other choice due to the difficulties of unemployment(for men and women), etc. I would hate to see those women resort to prostitution or begging/living on the streets because they have no other means of support and we definitely cannot compare those societies economically to the West. It’s an interesting topic, but I personally feel it’s up to the the individuals who opt for it. I don’t understand how polyamory can be allowed and not polygamy. Good article.

    • beeluci

      Polyamory is not ‘allowed’ as a form of legal marriage. What are you talking about? There is a difference between having one or more lovers and having multiple spouses.

      • Rochelle

        THANK YOU. We are not talking about polygamy, regardless of the word eren chooses to use. We are talking about polygyny, which is multiple wives. How can we even have the “polgyny aint so bad-its a personal choice! yay!” conversation when other forms of relationships – polygamy, same-sex, interracial, interreligious – are criminalized, even punishable by death in the same places where polygyny is legal?

        And what makes you think polygynous relationships can be compared to informal polyamory? Do you have any idea of the legal and institutional differences between marriage and unmarried relationships?

  • beeluci

    Polygamy is wrong because it creates inequality – less of a husband for each plural wife, with all the emotional and other baggage that goes along with it (including income). It is associated with many negatives (links below). It is criminalized in western democracies for a good reason. The Mormon example is a joke. Those communities (at least in the USA) are known for poverty, high use of welfare, oppression of women, and lack of education. They also kick out the young men to prevent them from competing for women.

    Polygamy is compatible with religious law only. And religious law is not compatible with freedom or democracy.


    • Faith

      beeluci, yes, polygamy can be abused and it has been abused. I don’t ever see it as an option for myself. However, to flat out say that it creates inequality is painting a very broad brush over all polygamous marriages. What about polygamous marriages where the wife introduces the idea? What about women who want to be in polygamous marriages for a variety of reasons. When we say that polygamy creates inequality, I think we are ignoring the agency that some women do have in some polygamous marriages. Ultimately, I do think it should be an individual choice. Marriage itself can be oppressive and has been used to oppress women and create inequality. Yet, no one is saying to disallow marriage because it would be ridiculous. There are plenty of equitable and happy monogamous marriages and there are also happy and equitable polygamous marriages.

      • Rochelle

        “When we say that polygamy creates inequality, I think we are ignoring the agency that some women do have in some polygamous marriages.”

        Wow! Thanks! You just lifted this big burden off my shoulders! Here I was wondering about all the institutionalized, codified, and systemic inequality in the world, but I hadn’t realized that by doing so, I was ignoring the agency of the victims! Racism, sexism, slavery, Islamophobia, capitalism, dictators – I no longer have to worry about these things! Because people have agency! They’ll take care of it! Wow, what a relief. I guess it’s almost insulting to talk about racism, for instance, because I’m dismissing all those Black people’s agency, right? Good to know! No more structural hierarchies, yaaaaaaay!

        • Faith

          Your sarcasm isn’t necessary. It would be nice if we could discuss these issues without belittling each other opinions. I never said we can’t talk about racism, sexism or any other form of oppression. I don’t think we would be reading this blog if that were the case. However, it’s pretty obvious that we’re not going to always agree about what is oppressive. That’s why we have discussions. I wasn’t trying to shut down beeluci. I was offering a counter point of view. We should be allowed to do that, right?

          Not everyone views polygamy as being oppressive or a form of institutionalized sexism. If we say that polygamy automatically creates inequality then yes, I believe you are saying that all women who engage in it are actively choosing their oppression. It’s really no different than saying that hijab or niqab is automatically oppressive, even when women want to wear it. Yes, you can and believe that. But I can also say that I think you’re wrong and say why.

          There really are women who have no problem with being in a polygamous marriage and who even find it empowering. There is a book titled Engaged Surrender where the author discusses polygamy among African American Muslim women. Again, there were abuses by some men. However, what was fascinating was that one of the women she interviewed, found polygamy to be the best option for her, even after a really terrible polygamous marriage. Honestly, if this woman had said never again to polygamy, it would have made perfect sense. Yet she chose to be in another polygamy marriage after her first one ended.

          Honestly, I would never choose to be in a polygamous marriage. Honestly, I think it is used by too many men to have as many partners as possible when they get bored or simply want to have their cake and eat it too. Yes, it has created inequality and unfortunately, I have seen too many polygamous marriage where the women were treated like crap and the men were utter anuses. That being said, I don’t think it’s a black and white issue much like engaging in marriage itself isn’t a black and white. Polygamy can be oppressive but there are times when it is not. There are women who want to be in those types of marriages for a variety of reasons. There are co-wives who actually choose each other and love their polygamous families. Should they be denied the right to engage in polygamous marriages because you or me have issues with them? Should we automatically assume that women in polygamous marriages are engaging in their own oppression?

  • http://www.nicolecunningham.ch Nicole

    One problem women who enter into plural marriages in Switzerland face is that they are considered bigamy here and are grounds for deportation for foreigners and for Swiss nationals it can be a ground for losing custody of your children. I think it is hard for families who, for whatever reason want to fulfill this part of the deen, do not realize the particular local complexities that make having such a family structure an irresponsible legal choice that in any situation would normally trump what they think may be legit religious or personal choices.

    Besides deportation, there are also the more classic themes of the legal status of any co-wife in a welfare situation (what the co-wives in burkas in the famous French speeding case got called out for) or who child custody actually belongs to for the children of wife (wives) that isn’t “legally” married (in some countries unmarried baby daddies have to petition for father’s rights), and so on and so on.

    I am all for looking at co-wife marriages in a nuanced way and know personally of two marriages where it appears to work (sadly many more where it doesn’t) but what bothers me is how many of us -speaking as a convert- go into it with these rose-colored glasses, without thinking of the daily consequences to our lives on a purely administrative level. It is a hard road with no easy answers.

  • http://www.qurantutor.com/ quran tutor

    It is real important issue regarding Islam. Islam is a complete code of live which may lead to guide towards righteous path. How a person can get a righteous path when they know what is better for him/ her. So Islam give an equal rights to men and women for the establishment of peace in the society.